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Food + Cooking

The South’s Storied Chess Pie

Published in Gourmet Live 03.14.12
Jean Anderson shares a slice of history—and her recipe for this sweet and simple dessert

Jean Anderson’s lemon chess pie

Does every Southerner have a sweet tooth? An insatiable one, I’d say, and I wonder if our chess pies (a.k.a. sugar pies) are to blame. Unique to the South, these pies—all butter, sugar, and eggs—have claimed pride of place on our dessert tables for nearly 200 years. And I think I know why.

From Colonial days onward, sugar was grown and refined in the Deep South, which meant that sugar was more affordable and widely available than elsewhere in young America. Moreover, savvy Southern cooks soon discovered that most things achingly sweet didn’t spoil when kept in pie safes at room temperature, so these “chest”—or “keeping”—pies became “chess” pies in Southern-speak, thanks to our habit of dropping final t’s.

But that’s only one explanation for the chess pie’s unusual name. The consensus among food historians is that chess is simply a corruption of the English lemon cheese (lemon curd), a supremely popular chess pie filling. As culinary sleuth Karen Hess writes in her historical notes accompanying the facsimile edition of Mary Randolph’s original 1824 Virginia House-wife, “Since the archaic spelling of cheese often had but one ‘e’ we have the answer to the riddle of the name of that southern favorite ‘Chess Pie’.” Strangely, however, there is no chess pie by that name in The Virginia House-wife, this country’s first Southern cookbook. Damon Lee Fowler, arguably the South’s foremost food historian today, explained it thus to me: “Mary Randolph had no recipe for chess pie by name, nor even for the curd pie/cheesecake in crust that was its ancestor. She does have a lemon pudding that is basically lemon chess pie…and included a transparent pudding (again a custard pie in crust) in the 1825 edition that is for all intents and purposes chess pie.”

Mary Randolph’s Transparent Pudding

Beat eight eggs very light, add half a pound of pounded sugar, the same of fresh butter melted, and half a nutmeg grated; sit it on a stove, and keep stirring till it is as thick as buttered eggs—put a puff paste in a shallow dish, pour in the ingredients, and bake it half an hour in a moderate oven; sift sugar over it, and serve it up hot.

Fowler adds that the first recipe he has found actually called chess pie turned up in Southern Cooking (1928) by Mrs. S. R. Dull, though “there are surely older ones,” he contends. “Her chess pie is butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla…essentially the same as the Transparent Puddings found in everyone from the 1825 edition of The Virginia House-wife forward.”

Today there are many different chess pies, including latter-day versions of Transparent Pudding, with fillings that now often contain both vinegar for edge and stone-ground cornmeal for a slightly thicker consistency. Then there’s the ambrosial brown sugar pie (sort of a pecan pie sans pecans), which I first tasted at the age of 5 in the cafeteria of my Raleigh grammar school and adore to this day. The list goes on with the profoundly sensuous Jefferson Davis Pie (a cream-rich chess named in honor of the president of the Confederacy) and sweet-sour lemon chess pie—not to mention pecan pie and chocolate chess pie, either plain or spiked with Kentucky’s best. And these, praise be, are just the beginning, thanks to the innovative young Southern pastry chefs now dreaming up new spins on the South’s beloved sugar pies—lemongrass, blood orange, pomegranate, and other variations only slightly less sinful than the original chess pie.

But the classic chess pie, the mainstay of family reunions, church picnics, and potluck suppers all across the South, is the one that follows.


This recipe comes from my good friend Bob Holmes’ cousin Pauline Beasley, who lives on a farm near Dunn, North Carolina. Now 93, Pauline still bakes this pie “whenever the spirit moves her.” To temper the pie’s legendary sweetness, she adds a little white vinegar and thickens the filling with both eggs and stone-ground cornmeal—always the white, never the yellow, which Pauline dismisses as “chicken feed.”

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Active time: 10 min
Total time: 1 hr


1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon stone-ground white cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1/3 cup milk or evaporated milk
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell (see Cooks’ Notes)
Light sprinkling freshly grated nutmeg (See Cooks’ Notes)



  • Heat oven to 400°F.


  • Whisk sugar, cornmeal, salt, and eggs together in a large mixing bowl until smooth.
  • Add milk and again whisk until smooth.
  • Whisking gently, drizzle in melted butter and continue whisking until smooth.
  • Add vinegar and vanilla and once again whisk until smooth.
  • Center pie shell on a sturdy baking sheet and pour in filling.
  • Finely grate about half of a nutmeg, preferably using a Microplane, evenly over filling.


  • Slide pie on baking sheet onto middle oven shelf and bake uncovered 10 minutes.
  • Reduce oven temperature to 325°F. and bake about 40 minutes longer until filling is golden brown and softly set. It should jiggle slightly when you nudge pie pan.


  • Remove pie from oven and from baking sheet and set on wire rack.
  • Cool at least 1 hour before cutting (chess pie should be served barely warm or at room temperature).
  • Cut pie into slim wedges—it’s rich as all get-out.


  • If you use a frozen pie shell, choose a deep-dish one so the filling doesn’t boil over in the oven, thaw as directed, and re-crimp the crust into a high fluted edge. For added support, set unfilled pie shell—still in its flimsy tin—in a standard 9-inch pie pan. Then pour in filling.
  • Although you can buy pre-ground nutmeg, it doesn’t begin to have the wonderful flavor of freshly grated, and it’s incredibly easy to grate at home.
  • Like all chess pies, this one puffs dramatically as it bakes, then falls somewhat on cooling.
  • Resist the temptation to top with whipped cream or ice cream “to cut the richness.” Southerners revel in the richness of chess pie and always eat it “straight up.”
  • No need to refrigerate pie leftovers—if there are any. Sugar is a preservative and no chess pie ever lacks for sugar.

The recipe in this story has not been tested in the Gourmet kitchens.

An award-winning food and travel writer and a member of the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame, Jean Anderson has authored more than 20 cookbooks. Her latest, Falling off the Bone, spotlights favorite dishes and slow-cooking methods that bring out the best in budget-friendly meats. Anderson last wrote for Gourmet Live about North Carolina’s Saxapahaw General Store.