Wednesday, November 9, 2011


The Setting: A super-grey morning in South Bend.

The Soundtrack: Full House. That's right, I'll own it.

On the Stove-top: Chicken stock.

The Scenario: Searching for a slice of my childhood.

The funniest stories about me as a kid all seem to revolve around food.

My grandfather bribed me with ice-cream to take my first steps.

My mother had to dangle a Snickers® bar behind her back for me to toddle down the aisle in my first appearance as a flower girl.

And one time at my grandparents' house, no one could figure out what had me running 'round the rooms like a Tasmanian devil till an empty pie plate was discovered where a chess pie should have been.

At future holidays and gatherings, the chess pies had to be hidden from yours truly till it was time for dessert.

Now that I am old enough to put my nutritive needs in my own hands, I have determined it's always time for dessert--and about time I mastered my childhood favorite, chess pie.

A Southern staple, chess pie tastes to me like family reunions at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park; like every holiday, any time of the year; like sneaking an extra piece and getting a knowing wink from my grandmother 'cause she was sneaking one, too.

Unfortunately...the older I got...the more I began contributing to the holiday spread...the more health-conscious and then technique-driven and exotic my cooking endeavors became...the fewer appearances the simple, sugary chess pie made at the buffet line.

Every so often I am panged with an intense and lusty craving for its uniquely gooey texture and almost-over-the-top sweetness, but I resign myself to the sad truth that I never really learned to make it.

Though you may never have heard of chess pie if you're not from the South, recipes for this sweet treat are pretty easy to come by.

The thing about chess pies, like with so many Southern delights, is that you could fill a church with all the different takes, opinions, and recipes for the "real thing."

In attempting to track down my grandmother's recipe, I found a cookbook compiled by episcopal ladies of yesteryear with six different versions.

Some recipes contain buttermilk, but others maintain that "buttermilk pie" is its own thing, and the same goes for the recipes that contain vinegar.

Some contain a touch of cornmeal, some a touch of flour, some both, some neither.

Some contain milk, some a mixture of sugars; some are pre-cooked on the stovetop, and some are simply whisked together and poured into the buttery crust.

All chess pies contain sugar, butter, and eggs. Maybe a pinch of salt. Maybe a splash of vanilla.

The first recipe I tried, from a venerable Southern publication, was a tad gritty from the cornmeal and tasted a little too eggy.

The follow-up, from the episcopal gals, was cornmeal-free and a lot closer to the pie of my memories.

Still, the perfect pie evades me.

Soon, my daughter will be starring in her own funny food stories.

Who knows? Maybe I'll have the recipe perfected in time to elicit her first steps.

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