Chess Pie: A Vanishing Southern Tradition

By Rosalie E. Leposky

A common Southern tradition that seems to be disappearing is chess pie, a favorite dessert of mine, but increasingly hard to find.

"For the past 40 or 50 years," said John Egerton, a Nashville-based food writer and social critic," chess pie has appeared throughout the South and hardly anywhere else, except some border cities, including Baltimore, Louisville, St. Louis, and Washington, DC. It is now so thoroughly identified with Southern cookery that most people assume it has been here forever.

"All chess pie recipes are pretty much the same. Chess pie is a butter, egg, and sugar confection with modifying ingredients such as corn meal and vinegar."

In tracing the roots of chess pie, Egerton has uncovered three similar American pies -- jelly pie, Jefferson Davis Pie, and transparent pie -- and a distant cousin, cheese pie, made in Britain.

Egerton's own chess pie recipe appears in his book, Southern Food (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987):

Beat three eggs with a wire whisk. Add 1 1/2 cups of sugar, three tablespoons of melted butter, a tablespoon of plain white cornmeal, 1/2 cup of buttermilk, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract. Mix the ingredients well and pour into an unbaked nine-inch pie shell. Bake in a preheated 375-degree F. oven on the bottom rack for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and bake 20 minutes.

For over 30 years, chess pie was a house specialty of the art museum restaurant in St. Louis, my home town. On a recent trip back there, I found that a New York-based food service had taken over the restaurant, installed a yuppified California-style concept, and dropped chess pie from the menu. In 1964, before this infamous chess pie purge took place, the recipe appeared in the Friends of the St. Louis Symphony's cookbook, The New St. Louis Symphony of Cooking.

Museum Chess Pie

1 unbaked 9-inch pastry crust 3 eggs
1/2 cup butter 5 tablespoons milk
1 1/2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon vinegar
1 tablespoon corn meal 1 teaspoon vanilla

While mixing pie, melt butter in oven. Beat sugar, corn meal, and eggs. Stir in milk, vinegar, and vanilla. Stir in melted butter. Pour into crust. Bake at 400 degrees F. for 35 to 40 minutes, or until firm.

Note: Watch pie carefully. The top of the pie burns easily.

Note: If you prefer to use honey, substitute 3/4 cup, and add an extra teaspoon of vinegar (or adjust vinegar to taste).

In the fall of 1992, I found two versions of chess pie offered at restaurants in Arkansas.

The first was made by Arkansas hotelier Jim V. Berry, another chess pie aficianado When we spoke, he was the general manager of the Red Apple Inn and Country Club in Greer Ferry Lake, along the Little Red River near Heber Spring.

Berry makes his grandmother Zina Berry's version of chess pie, but he calls it buttermilk lemon pie.

Zina Berry's Buttermilk Lemon Pie

3 eggs 1 tablespoon flour
1 1/2 cups sugar 2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup buttermilk 1 teaspoon lemon extract
3 tablespoons melted margarine or butter 1 unbaked pie shell

Beat eggs. Add next six ingredients and mix well. Pour into pastry shell. Bake at 425 degrees F. for ten minutes. Place foil over edge of crust and bake five to ten minutes longer. Let cool on wire rack. (If pie is frozen, cook at 425 degrees F. for 25 minutes. No need to cover crust with foil).

Suzy Cotham of Scott, Arkansas, served chess pie in her restaurant in Cotham's General Store. Scott, the home town of actress Florence Henderson, is on Arkansas Highway 161, 14 miles south of Little Rock on a horseshoe lake that once was part of the Arkansas River. In 1917, Cotham's bachelor uncle, Walter Blann, opened the store, which still sells hardware and groceries off its shelves

Steven Lopata, a childhood friend who now lives in Little Rock, recently reported that "Cotham's is still at the end of the road beyond the Plantation Museum. They don't advertise chess pie but will make it for regulars who give them a couple of days' notice."

Suzy Cotham's Chess Pie

1 cup of melted butter 2 tablespoons water
6 eggs 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup flour 1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup sugar

While mixing pie, melt butter. Beat sugar, flower, and eggs. Add milk, water, and lemon juice. Add butter last.

Note: Cotham says you can add butter first and then everything else.

Pour into crust. Bake in a pre-heated 400-degree F. oven until pie is firm and golden brown. Recipe makes enough pie batter for a ten-inch pie or two nine-inch pies.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

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