I had the good fortune of growing up in a pie shop in Virginia, so I’ve always known the buttery, delicious pleasure of the classic southern treat that is chess pie. Before boutique pie shops started popping up in New York City, though, chess pies weren’t much of a thing around here. Still, that hasn’t stopped New Yorkers from appreciating them. From the start, people would walk into Petee’s, order a chess pie, then ask what chess pie is. It’s such a popular question that one of the first things we teach new employees is how to answer it. They’ll usually say something along the lines of: “Chess pie is a southern-style custard pie made with butter, buttermilk, and cornmeal.”
Which is true, except for when it’s not. Chess pie can be found in big swaths of the South, but also in Appalachia and parts of the Midwest. Chess pie always contains butter, but some people will forgo buttermilk and use evaporated milk or cream instead. Some people see no place for cornmeal in a chess pie, but they might use a little flour. Others may use a mix of both. It all depends on the regional foodways and family traditions that a baker is immersed in.