A Southern Transplant's Quest for Chess Pie

One bite and the rest was history.

Chess Pie
Photo: Southern Living

I first tasted a slice of chess pie while sitting on the side of the road in middle Tennessee. Well, almost the side of the road. A fellow Californian friend and I made the trek to Leiper's Fork to see what the hullabaloo was about Puckett's Grocery.

It was an overwhelming experience of the senses. Country music poured out the windows and shook the floors. The meat-and-three hot bar had more options than a college course catalogue. There were people everywhere eating, drinking, singing along, and participating in the general revelry. The sign outside declared this to be the place for "beer, BBQ, and Jesus."

After stumbling through the menu and the kind waitress's thick Southern accent (the first time in my life I have heard the word "cain't"), I was ready to wrap up my order when the slice caught my eye. It sat in a no-frills plastic to-go container. I remembered seeing it several times in Southern Living, so I hastily asked for one too.

Weaving our way through the throngs of patrons, we pushed ourselves outside to the terrace and sat down at the table on the side of the road. I popped open the box as a huge motorcycle pulled up to the curb.

With a little trepidation, I put a forkful of pie in my mouth—but not before giving it a skeptical sniff. It smelled almost too sweet. And the taste? Well, I have been dreaming about it ever since. The chess pie was at once gooey but also full of texture thanks to the crust—a buttery, crumbly concoction of its own.

When I say I've thought of this pie at least once a week since then, I'm not exaggerating. The only reason it took me so long to actually try a recipe was the fact that pie scares me a little. If the butter temperature isn't just right, the crust is a goner. There's only so much stress I can handle.

I finally did work up the courage to try Southern Living's Classic Chess Pie and ended up making two. It was so much pie—but the results of the experiment proved telling.

This particular recipe calls for store-bought pie crust, which I am totally for. However, I did learn the unfortunate consequence of not allowing it to come to room temperature. (Let's just say I had to do a little surgical work to patch up all the tears.) I also played hooky with the pie weights, another no-no. My crust, while blind-baking, puffed up enormously, and again I was called to do damage control the best I could with only a fork.

While I normally like to do my own spin on recipes, I have learned that baking is never as flexible as cooking. Here's where my two-pie experiment came in handy.

For the first pie, I eyeballed the two tablespoons of cornmeal. With the second pie, I actually used a proper tablespoon to measure. The results are definitely something to talk about.

I'm not a food scientist, but something about the extra cornmeal in pie number one made it a lot more custardy and less gooey. It was also a little more gritty—not in a bad way, but also a given. Pie number two, with the proper amount of cornmeal, was gooier, but neither pie matched the loose gooey-ness of the pie in Leiper's Fork.

All in all, it was a solid attempt. In my impatience, I ate a warm slice, but I found that allowing it to cool completely resulted in a much tastier slice.

You may not be able to go eat chess pie on the side of the road in Tennessee, but you can definitely try your hand at this recipe. And if you're anything like me, you might end up eating the whole thing.

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