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So my grandmother comes to town -- this is a big event, an Illinois to Tennessee migration via Greyhound. I'm summoned home from school for the weekend, and all of a sudden meals include dessert. Mother makes a joking show, telling how she slaved over the stove for the pies we all know came from the market. Then comes the question: "What, exactly, is this chess pie? And why is it 'chess'?" Show's over, three generations of not-quite-southerners come up blank. I know it only as the stuff sometimes served in the school cafeteria... it tastes like their pecan pie, only without the pecans. And so starts the after-dinner rush to the Internet, the compulsion to know everything there is to know about chess pie.

Chess pie is a dessert that, so far as anyone can tell, has absolutely nothing to do with the game chess. It's traditionally associated with the southern United States. The basic recipe for the filling looks something like this (chosen because it seems to have the most in common with the most recipes I could find):
  • 1/4 pound butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal

  • Melt butter and sugars, add eggs and other ingredients and stir until mixed. Do not beat. Bake in unbaked pie shell for one hour at 350°.
    (found at http://southernfood.about.com/library/rec00/bl00510c.htm)

    No one's really sure why it's called "chess pie," but there are plenty of rumors. Maybe the early versions were made with cheese, and it's a variation on the pronunciation. Maybe they were originally "chest pies" because they held up well when stored in the "pie chest" (a piece of furniture once common in Southern households; also known as a pie safe). Perhaps the recipe was originally handed down from someone in Chester, England. Or maybe, just maybe, the favorite story is true in some variation: a creative Southern housewife running low on fruit or other likely dessert ingredients happened throw together the winning combination. Her husband, mightily impressed with the taste, demanded to know what one called this wonderful dessert. Her reply? "I dunno, it's ches' pie." (translated into standard English as "just pie")

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