In 19th-century Alabama, as one of many tales goes, a freed slave made a living selling pies to her neighbors. During a time when pecans and other nuts were hard to come by, she made a sugar pie, combining eggs, sugar, flour or cornmeal, butter, and spices or citrus to cut the sweetness. Asked what kind of pie she had made, the woman replied, “Oh it’s jes’ pie.” And so, supposedly, the name “Chess Pie” was coined.
Rewind to England, hundreds of years earlier, where cooks and housemaids combined ingredients prone to spoilage with sugar, a thing that helps suffocate those thirsty microbes that make milk and unsalted butter go bad. The heavy custard consisted of the usual suspects: eggs, butter, cream, so much sugar, flour, whatever spices you could find. The pie could be kept unrefrigerated in a “chest” for however long it lasted, and the longer it sat there, the better the flavor was said to become. And so, supposedly, the name “Chess Pie” was coined.
Chess pie and its many Southern variations — including vinegar pie, transparent pie and Tyler pie (a favorite of Edna Lewis’s, putatively named for President John Tyler and perfected by the women of Miss Lewis’s hometown of Freetown, Va.) — is my favorite pie. All these pies are made from “not having” — using vinegar when citrus was hard to come by, cornmeal for flour, buttermilk in place of fresh milk. All with the same result: a sweet custard that can withstand the weather, using whatever you have on hand, whatever the larder or season.
Yet I never got behind the stories about its name. There was merit to them all, but the pastry chef in me wanted more. I felt as if there was still something we did not know.
Then, in 2015, I was asked, along with two other Nashville cooks, to help prepare an honorary dinner for a Very Important Dame of Southern Cooking, Phila Hach. Phila’s résumé, just to give you an idea, includes practically inventing airline food, cooking for presidents and Princess Diana, and hosting the first cooking show on PBS, on which she also featured her dear friend and brilliant cook Martha Morman, who thus became one of the first black people on American television. In the 1950s. It was an honor for the three of us to spend several weeks cultivating a menu befitting Phila and the crowd of more than 300 celebrated food writers, chefs, farmers and more that would convene to celebrate her.
I dove into Phila’s 17 cookbooks, deciding that one of my most important connections with her was the redoubtable chess pie. We had discussed it many times and had even made a few together. My thinking was that I would take my own buttermilk chess pie and her likewise notable version and hopefully create something new.
I found Phila’s recipe: usual ingredients, usual instructions. Then, casually thrown in at the end, there it was — a footnote that was the pragmatic answer to all my chess pie origin-story curiosity: “Chess pie gets its name from chestnut meal which was used in olden days in place of cornmeal.”
That explanation was music to my methodological pastry-chef ears. It made perfect sense to me, a cook who needed a real reason, not just a word misheard time and again throughout history.
I immediately called Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills. We talked about how popular chestnut meal had been with bakers before the great American chestnut tree caught a blight and we ended up with not a single one left. He sent me some good chestnut flour, and I messed with the recipe and made that fancy hybrid of my pie and Phila’s, with toasted chestnut flour as the binder.
What happened? Well. I made the chess pie of my life. I’ve never tasted anything quite so perfect baked in a pie shell. And when I presented those pies at the fancy dinner with all the people whose professional opinion I so respect, I told them the story with tears in my eyes. I don’t know why it meant so much to me. It just did. Baking is something I’m made of, as most bakers will tell you.
After dinner, I made my way to the table of a mentor I was most excited to discuss this with. She , a renowned black scholar, is a collector of old cookbooks and has spent equal time reading about our past food stories, written and oral. I was sad to find her reception cold. She said: “It’s a fine story, LisaDear [that’s my whole sweet name when it comes out of her mouth], but we’ll simply have to talk about how, in nearly one fell swoop, you’ve erased 200 years of Southern black history and attributed it to one white woman’s account.”
My ears started ringing, my face burning. I felt stunned and embarrassed at my ignorance. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Please tell me so I know what I have missed.”
That evening was not the night to discuss it, we agreed. Yet she never really wanted to revisit the topic. Meanwhile, I spent three years really reflecting on it — not chess pie, but how we talk about food. I thought about it when traveling abroad, watching the ease with which international chefs share their stories and are simply amused at the differences among them. I listened to New York chefs speak, in a mostly academic way, about their food stories and how race, religion and identity intertwine in their cooking.
I decided that the South was probably the only place where I could have the conversation I was looking for. The South operates on a different wavelength. Take Phila and Martha making their moves in the segregated 1950s. Many of us are subversive punks. A breed of truth-seekers with their hands in the dirt, digging until we find what is real. That is the South you may not know. But you should. I decided I was going home to find answers in my own soil. When we look for these small answers, these seeds, what we are really looking for is the big picture, the way to talk about who we are to and for each other. It’s never “just pie,” you see.
But when I asked Southern chef friends what they knew about these specific origin stories, I was met with a strange resistance for the first time. My black chef friends, harboring complicated pain and resentment for their stories being taken from them time and again, were justifiably guarded. My white chef friends were unsure of where the boundaries lay, not wanting to disrespect or talk over someone who might know more. Both admirable. But both leaving me with a big bag of nothing. No better understanding.
I’m no academic, and I’m certain I’m making blunders as I try to navigate this. But I value stories, and I’m curious about how people think and feel. This always, for me, centers on food. I know that race or religion or other identifiers that separate us do not wash away simply because food arrives. But it seems that our lives and history are made up of stories, and the stories I am most attuned to are food stories, nourishment stories. The power of our oral histories and the words that are said from one person to the next bind us and make connections between us. What will be lost if we stop making those connections? How do we find the tools to keep sharing these stories and sustain a progressive cultural evolution?
What is the truth when your hands are in the flour? Isn’t it that this is simply a deeply human movement that leads us toward others? Perhaps it is that, no matter the origin story, or who claims the name, eating and food and cooking are truly an elemental thing, basic and pure. That no story that exists within the context of it is untrue.
I called the mentor who had called me out three years ago. I wanted to know why, as time went by, we had not talked more about the chess pie. Instead, she talked about folklore and how infrequently any food story is single-origin. She talked about how oral histories are for intimate communities of people rather than for the world at large. A record of community, as it were. It was almost as if she had forgotten about our earlier exchange, and I decided not to bring it up. We talked instead like the old friends that we are. We wove our way around the conversation until she said, distractedly, “Oh also, LisaDear! I am glad to talk to you because I wanted to ask if you would make me some cookies for the holidays.” I said that of course I could, and that I would make her some from my family’s shortbread recipe.
“Oh?” she said. “Do tell me about them, LisaDear, do tell me. . . .”
Donovan is a pastry chef and James Beard Award-winning food writer in Nashville.
24 servings (makes two 9-inch pies)
This recipe makes two pies, pastry chef Lisa Donovan says, because you should always make more than one pie when going to any kind of effort to make pie at all. Plus, then you get to give one away, which seems to be the best and most important reason to make a pie in this life.
Chestnut flour, which may be the reason behind chess pie’s name, is available at Whole Foods Markets, health food stores and online.
MAKE AHEAD: The pies can be held at room temperature for up to 24 hours, then refrigerate for up to 3 days.
From Donovan, pastry chef and food writer in Nashville.
¼ cup chestnut flour (see headnote)
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, melted
½ teaspoon vanilla paste or the scrapings from ½ vanilla bean
2¼ cups pure cane sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons full-fat buttermilk
6 large eggs
Finely grated lemon zest of ½ lemon
Two single-crust 9-inch pie shells, frozen
Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; preheat to 425 degrees.
Toast the chestnut flour in a small skillet over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until its aroma starts to release and the flour becomes a light-tan color. Go slow here, so as not to burn your flour; you are just looking to warm the flavor up. Pour the toasted flour into a mixing bowl, then return the pan to medium-low heat.
Add the butter to the pan; once it has melted, remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla bean paste or vanilla bean scrapings. Cool slightly.
Whisk together the sugar, all-purpose flour and salt into the toasted chestnut flour. Whisk together the buttermilk, eggs and lemon zest in a separate bowl or large liquid measuring cup, stir in the butter-vanilla mixture.
Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture, stirring until well incorporated. There is no such thing as “overmixing” here, but be sure not to incorporate too much air. This is your pie filling.
Take the pie shells out of freezer and place each one on a baking sheet. Divide the filling evenly, pouring into each pie shell; the level of filling should be below the rim of the pies; do not overfill.
Transfer the pies to the oven (upper and lower racks); as soon as you close the oven door, reduce the temperature to 350 degrees. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back after the first 30 minutes. When the pies are done, their filling should have only a slight wiggle at the center, but be mostly set.
Once they have cooled to room temperature, cover loosely and refrigerate for a few hours to chill thoroughly. Serve cold or at room temperature.
More from Food: