Chess pie has been widely served throughout the South since about the time of the Civil War. The place of origin is a mystery. It is sometimes claimed that this was originally called “cheese pie,” or that “chess pie” is from the words “jes’ pie” (just pie), but the origin of the name is a mystery as well.
“Chess cake” is cited in print in 1861 and 1864, and contains similar ingredients of eggs, butter, sugar and flour. The chess cakes were made in patty pans; perhaps the “chess” name derives from the image of a chessboard.
Texas is famous for its pecan pie, and chess pie has been called “pecan pie without the pecans.”
Texas Monthly: Liberty Bar (San Antonio)
San Antonio’s Liberty Bar is a landmark for many reasons: it has been in continuous operation since 1890 and the building has been owned by the same family for just as long. But also the Liberty Bar has a certain status as one of the world’s “leaning” landmarks, perhaps eclipsed only by the Tower of Pisa. Thanks to a flood in the 1920s, the Liberty (then the Liberty Schooner Saloon) took on a westward tilt that it maintains to this day. Occasionally a concerned patron of the restaurant will report the tilt to the city’s building inspection squad, says Liberty Bar owner Dwight Hobart, but each inspection arrives at the same verdict: the building is in fine shape.
The food at the Liberty is also in fine shape. A precocious mix of Southern cooking, interior Mexican dishes, New American cuisine, and comfort food, the offerings at the Liberty can be both surprising and soothing at the same time. When you’re looking for just plain comfort, there’s the Liberty Bar’s buttermilk pie—a wondrous tribute to the chess pie, which is what the buttermilk pie really is. (Don’t ask what a chess pie is, because its origin is unclear—but the name may be a corruption of “Oh, it’s jes’ pie…”).
Featured in the November 1998 issue of Texas Monthly
Buttermilk Chess Pie With Southern Comfort Raspberry Sauce
Inspired by Shirley Rooney, a local woman who was the baker at the Gage Hotel in Marathon when Grady Spears cooked there from 1992 to 1994.
2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons butter (1 stick), divided into several pieces
1/3 cup shortening, divided into several pieces
1/4 cup ice water
In a food processor combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the butter and shortening. Process (or pulse) until the mixture is coarse. Add the water slowly, being careful not to overprocess. Remove the dough, roll out on a floured surface, and place in a 9-inch pie pan. (You will have dough left over; sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon, then bake it for a snack.)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon grated nutmeg (fresh-grated makes all the difference)
8 tablespoons butter (1 stick), melted
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl mix all of the ingredients except the butter, then whisk it in. Pour into the prepared crust and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick or knife blade inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve with Southern Comfort raspberry sauce (recipe below).
Southern Comfort Raspberry Sauce
12 ounces fresh or frozen raspberries (or your favorite berry)
4 tablespoons Southern Comfort
3 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons water
Place all of the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes or until the berries are soft. Transfer the mixture to a blender and purèe. Pass the purèe through a fine strainer, such as a chinois, pressing with the back of a spoon to extract all of the liquid.
Journeys and explorations in the cotton kingdom.
A traveller’s observations on cotton and slavery in the American slave states. Based upon three former volumes of journeys and investigations.
By Frederick Law Olmsted
London: S. Low, Son & Co.
(Menu of a Northern Mississippi hotel—ed.)
The Practical Cook Book
By Helen M Robinson
New York, NY: Abbey & Barrett
Line patty pans with puff-paste, lay in a few pieces of sliced citron. Rub together half a pound of white sugar and a quarter of a pound of butter, add the yolks of four well-beaten eggs. Put half a tablespoonful in each patty, and bake quickly a light brown.
October 1866, American Agriculturist, pg. 365, col. 3:
Chess Pie.—For two pies common size, take 4 eggs, 3 cups sugar, 1 cup cream, 1/2 cup butter, 1 tablespoonful flour, and flavor with nutmeg. Cover the baking plates with crust, pour in the mixture, and grate nutmeg over it. There is no upper crust. When a pretty brown, try with a spoon as for custard. This is the best pie we ever ate.—Mrs. Samuel P. May, Grimes County, Texas.
12 October 1866, Coshocton (Ohio) Age, pg. 4, col. 1:
CHESS PIE.—For two pies common size, take 4 eggs, 3 cups sugar, 1 cup cream, 1/2 cup butter, 1 tablespoonful flour, and flavor with nutmeg. Cover the baking plates with crust, pour in the mixture, and grate nutmeg over it.
There is no upper crust. When a pretty brown, try with a spoon as for custard. This is the best pie we ever ate.
by Estelle Woods WIlcox
Minneapolis, MN: Buckeye Publishing Company
Three eggs, two-thirds cup sugar, half cup butter (half cup milk may be added if not wanted so rich); beat butter to a cream, then add yolks and sugar beaten to a froth with the flavoring; stir all together rapidly, and bake in a nice crust. When done, spread with the beaten whites, and three table-spoons sugar and a little flavoring. Return to oven and brown slightly. This makes one pie, which should be served immediately.—Miss J. Carson, Glendale.
Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving.
by Mary Newton Foote Henderson
New York: Harper & Brothers
A gentleman friend spoke to me so often about a wonderfully delicious pie that a lady friend in the country made, that it is not surprising that a person of my culinary tastes should have been very curious. “I will send for the receipt,” said I. “But what will not benefit you,” he replied, “for I have given the receipt to several of my friends, and they never succeed. Instead of the light production three or four inches high of my country friend, the others are heavy, waxy affairs, very different.” I actually took a little journey to see the lady, to get any side explanations from her own lips. I was repaid, as you will see by trying the pie.
Ingredients: For two pies, five eggs, three quarters of a cupful of butter, one cupful of sugar, and necessary flavoring.
Beat the yolks and sugar together until they are a perfect froth. beat the butter until it is a creamy froth also. Now quickly add them together, flavoring with a little extract of vanilla. Bake it in a crust; it will rise very light. As soon as done, have ready the whites of the eggs beaten to a stiff froth, sweetened with a little sugar, and flavored with a few (Pg. 241) drops of the extract. Spread this over the tops of the pies, which return to the oven, to receive a delicate coloring.
The lady says the secret of the pies not becoming heavy is in cutting them, and distributing them on the plates, as soon as they are cooked, and still hot; that if they are allowed to cool without cutting them, they will fall. This is rather strange; nevertheless, it seems to be true.
12 March 1882, New York Daily Tribune, pg. 4, col. 5:
CHESS PIE.—For two pies take five eggs, three-quarters of a cupful of butter, one cupful of powdered sugar, and such flavoring as you prefer. Beat the yolks and sugar together until it is a creamy froth. Now quickly add them together, flavoring with a little extract of vanilla. Bake it in a crust; it will rise very light. As soon as done have ready the whites of eggs beaten to a stiff froth, sweetened with a little sugar and flavored with a few drops of the extract. Spread this over the tops of the pies, which return to the oven to receive a delicate coloring. While hot, cut the pies and distribute them on the plates, otherwise, if they are allowed to cool without cutting them, they will fall. This is strange but true.