What Exactly Is Chess Pie?

published Sep 8, 2022
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When it comes to ingredients and process, chess pie is an undeniably simple pie (it also happens to be undeniably delicious). But if you stop to consider its origins and how it got its name, chess pie quickly gets complicated. 

One of the more popular origin stories is that the name “chess pie” evolved from “just pie.” While some attribute the name to a waitress or cook who was responding to a curious customer, others believe it was a freed enslaved person who was making her living selling pies.

Chess pie pairs a basic pastry shell with a filling made of sugar, eggs, and butter, as well as a thickening agent — usually flour, cornstarch, or cornmeal — and something acidic like vinegar or citrus juice, plus vanilla for flavor. What it doesn’t include — no fruit, no nuts, no chocolate — is perhaps more significant than what it does include and makes “just pie” seem like a very appropriate name. It’s not a fruit pie. It’s not a chocolate pie. It’s just pie.

How Did Chess Pie Get Its Name?

The “just pie” story is usually associated with the South, with references to Southern accents turning “just” into “chess,” but there is also a theory that chess pie derived from the cheese pies the English and American colonists made with cheese curds, sugar, and eggs. Another story that points to chess pie’s English roots says that English cooks combined spoil-prone ingredients like butter and eggs with sugar to keep them from going bad and used that to create a pie that could be kept unrefrigerated in a chest. “Chest” became “chess,” and the rest is pie history. Unless, of course, you consider the idea that “chess” comes from “chest,” but “chest” refers to the pantry, because chess pie is the kind of pie you can make with whatever you have on hand. 

Returning to the South, there is also a theory, attributed to the late Southern chef, restaurant owner, and cookbook author Phila Hach, that the name came from the chestnut meal that was once used in place of cornmeal. As pastry chef Lisa Donovan reported in The Washington Post, chestnut flour may indeed make an excellent chess pie, but this particular origin story is not without controversy, as it makes a white woman the authority on a pie closely tied to the Southern Black community. 

How Is Chess Pie Made?

Whether you use flour, cornmeal, cornstarch, or even chestnut flour, chess pie requires something to thicken all the sugar, eggs, and butter that create its rich, custard-like filling and crispy, sweet top reminiscent of crème brûlée.

Recipes typically call for either a splash of vinegar or lemon juice, which helps balance all the sweetness. While lemon juice will impart its bright, citrus flavor, vinegar is a pantry staple and speaks to the idea that chess pie doesn’t require a trip to the market. Some recipes, particularly ones from the South, swap the butter and vinegar for buttermilk, which cuts the sweetness and gives chess pie a tangier flavor profile. 

With so few ingredients, each one has the power to make or break your results, so it’s essential to use top-quality products when making chess pie. Using lemon juice? Always go for fresh-squeezed. Stick to pure vanilla extract or consider splurging on vanilla bean paste or even whole vanilla beans. And use the best eggs, butter, and sugar you can get your hands on. It will make a difference. 

Chess Pie Recipe Variations

Vanilla may be the only flavoring agent in basic chess pie, but we promise this pie is anything but basic and encourage you to try the simple version.

However, there are many ways to play with the recipe, including adding chocolate or using blood orange in place of vinegar or lemon juice. You can also think of pecan pie as an extension of chess pie, with brown sugar and corn syrup taking the place of granulated sugar and pecans adding nuttiness and crunch.

And then there is Kentucky bourbon and walnut pie (aka Derby pie), which adds Bourbon, chocolate, and walnuts to the chess pie formula.