And now, for all of you who weren't lucky enough to live in the southern United States for eight years, I will talk about chess pies. This will be my final word on pies for the foreseeable future.
There are pies, and then there are pies. You can eat a whole pumpkin pie in a matter of hours and suffer few ill effects (though it will be a while before you lust after pumpkin pie again). Even cherry or other fruit pies lend themselves to the gluttonous approach, though less so if they have a double crust.
But some pies are meant to be eaten in slivers. Maybe two slivers a day, but no more. Chess pie is one of those. Chess pie has no redeeming nutritional value.
Let's start with the name. No one knows for sure where the term comes from. Some say it's because the pie used to be stored in a "pie chest." That's one of the more stupid etymologies, to my mind. More commonly accepted is that it comes from "cheese pie" and is British in origin. The cheese pie has no cheese in it. A direct descendant of cheese pie is Canada's much-loved butter tart. I know I'm a reductionist, but let's face it: one country's cherished and distinctive special treat is just another country's forgotten familiar fare.
Back to chess pie. Forget the origin of the name. It seems to be a pie made and served only in the Southern U.S. these days. A recent cookbook called simply Southern Pies contains, among many other recipes, half a dozen versions of chess pie. The "classic" chess pie is made with half a pound of melted butter (that's one cup), two cups of white sugar, and three eggs. Perhaps a little vanilla. Now, I ask you to deconstruct this pie. Let's say you'll be sharing it eight ways. Each pie piece will contain two tablespoons of butter (that's 30 grams, not counting the crust), three-eighths of an egg, and four tablespoons of sugar. That's one-quarter cup, or 12 teaspoons, of white sugar in every serving. Are you SURE you want a piece?
Other chess pie recipes add a little lemon juice or vinegar, which I would have thought was the classic version, but not according to the author. It makes no nevermind with respect to nutrition, because the lemon and vinegar versions still have the same proportions of butter and sugar.
If you add raisins, you'll have the Canadian butter-tart. And don't try to pretend that the raisins will pump up the nutritional aspect of the pie enough to counteract that butter and sugar. The same basic recipe plus pecans (and some of the sugar converted to sorghum syrup or—god forbid—corn syrup) will give you pecan pie. And the pecans contribute a nutritional component as strikingly minuscule as the raisins in a butter tart.
These pies, in totality, are sometimes called "transparent pies." Perhaps because it is clear—i.e., transparent--from a cursory reading of the recipe that they offer nothing good for your body. Not even much pleasure, I would say, since the amount of sugar sets your teeth on edge and leaves a terrible taste in your mouth. Actually the term "transparent" refers to their almost-clear, almost-gelatinous texture: sugar suspended in a butter-and-egg mixture that solidifies slightly as it cools.
In fact, this solidifying is the only redeeming thing I can think of. I love to eat my pieces of pie out of hand, and I resent having to eat pie at a table with a fork and a plate. So I relish pies that can be picked up neatly, and the chess pie and its derivatives answer that need. Try to pick up a piece of homemade apple or cherry pie and you'll be out shopping for a new supply of stain remover.
But pumpkin pie? Now there's a pie that fills the bill. It's not only portable (you could even, if necessary, carry a piece in each hand), but also nutritious. All that beta-carotene, vitamin A, lovely fall squash-i-ness, with a little cane molasses, some milk and eggs, and those lovely eastern spices, once rare, now commonplace: ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and a pinch of black pepper. A chess pie might entice by its profligate use of sugar—but a pumpkin pie is a pie you can get your teeth into over and over and over. Never make just one pumpkin pie. It won't suffice.
But maybe I've been talking to myself about pies, which are toward the top of MY list of important subjects, but perhaps less interesting to the world at large. So no more talk of pies.