The Language of Pie

In the summer of 1979, I went on tour with the Youth Symphony of the United States. It was the summer between my junior and senior years at the Eastman School of Music; I had hair, I was thin, I was young.

It was a great trip, even though it entailed spending three weeks in hot, humid Houston, Texas, to prepare our repertoire. Then, for the next 8 weeks, we toured by bus from Texas to the north and east..

In Houston, we stayed at Rice University, and ate our meals in their cafeteria. I was unaccustomed to any accents other than those of my native Philadelphia, least of all those from the deep south. It was like learning a new language.

"Mep you?" the woman behind the sneeze guard asked. I looked confused. Eventually i learned that translated to, "May I help you?" After choosing my main course, she asked, "Inwa ess?" (And what else?) I thought I would be fine when we got to desserts but then she asked of I wanted a slice of "lem'n chess pah." What the heck was lemon cheese pie? Was it a cheesecake?

So I asked her what kind of cheese was in the pie, and she just laughed. "Honey, ain't no chiz in the pah, 'tall!" "Well, okay," I said, "I'll try a piece..."

It wasn't until 2008 that I mentioned this to my coworkers, sisters Beverly and Karen, who are originally from Texas. Their grandfather made lemon chess pie and they gave me the recipe. It is flawless.

According to James Beard, this is a pie that originated in England and was found both in the northern and southern United States but, for some reason, is now associated only with Southern cuisine.

As with most folk recipes, there are as many variants as there are cooks - some with cornmeal, some with vinegar, some with butter, some with Crisco, and some with no lemon at all. They are just "chess pies."

Beverly's grandfather's version took me straight back to the day I first had lemon chess pie on a hot, humid day in Texas. All at once I was young again, had hair, and a waistline. Aren't memories wonderful?

~ David

Lemon Chess Pie

1 9-inch or 10-inch pie crust, unbaked (recipe follows)
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons melted butter or shortening
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Roll out crust and line pie plate. Crimp the edges and place in the refrigerator while you make the filling.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Beat eggs well, but not until they are frothy. Frothy eggs cause the pie to bubble.

Add the sugar, flour and vanilla, and beat well with a whisk. Beat in the melted butter then, starting slowly so as not to have it fly out of the bowl, beat in lemon juice.

Pour filling into the pie shell and bake for 45 minutes, until top is nicely browned.

Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Serves 8.

Food Processor Butter Pie Crust

1 1/3 cups flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup ice water

Place flour in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add butter in 16 pieces. Pulse 10 times. Sprinkle ice water on top of the butter and flour, and then pulse until dough forms a ball.


  1. Looks Delicious!!! Nothing like a great pie with a nice buttery crust!!!

  2. You know, I have never tasted nor made lemon pie in my life. It's a must try! It looks so tempting David!

  3. Thanks, Mr. & Mrs. P! I love butter crust pies, but also a good lard crust or even one with Crisco! I think you get the idea - I like pie!

    Magda - I have to say I am truly surprised! You really do need to try tis pie, and if up I like really tart lemon flavors, you cam reduce the sugar a bit.

  4. I LOVE pie! And fruit pies are my favorite!! I've been trying to perfect my crust and still struggle with it going in the dish as beautifully as you've pictured here. We should bake together sometime! My latest attempt was a blackberry blueberry ginger pie and it was amazing!

  5. Jennifer - it would be so much fun to bake together! So nice to hear from you - I miss seeing you!

  6. Oh, and the blackberry blueberry ginger pie sounds like absolute perfection!

  7. This one really is as easy as pie! There´s so much buzz around chess pie, and it´s so simple really. What great memories, it made me laugh David! Citrus season is in early winter here, and I can´t wait to bring a truckload from a cousin´s house who has fruit trees. Btw, I made lemoncello with a vanilla bean too, from your recipe. Very interesting.

  8. Paula - I am so happy you are coming into your citrus season - it is the one thing that makes winter wonderful, isn't it? Hmmmm... lemoncello with vanilla! How cool. Do you like it?

  9. The finished pie looks so simple and YUMMY!!! Will definitely have to try this. Thanks, David!

    PS Be sure to let me know if you ever try anything with limequats....

  10. Looks delicious - I love citrus desserts. And the language lesson made me chuckle, love it!

  11. Kirsten - I imagine you could make a limequat chess pie. In fact, I bet it would be amazing!

    Ahu - I think my most difficult time understanding someone speaking English was in England. No matter where I went I had this expectation that I would understand, but spent more time asking people to repeat what they said (slower) than I did eating fish and chips and sipping ale!

  12. Ah! I got to try this when I was in The South last year - only I think that it was the waitress who had trouble understanding my accent! This looks lovely, especially the burnished top, I cannot wait for lemon season here!!

  13. Anna - isn't it funny that it has become such a southern specialty? How did YOU do with the southern accents?

  14. How can something with flour, butter sugar and lemon ever be anything but wonderful? First sampled chess pie in Richmond on a recent visit to a dear friend and have been meaning to find the recipe. Thanks David!

  15. Karin - hope you like it! As you say, how can one go wrong with the ingredients!!

  16. Yahoo! Something I can make here in rural Mexico where I can actually get the ingredients listed and it sounds so refreshing for the hotter days to come.
    Gracias David!

  17. ¡De nada, Holly! I hope someday to come down there and make it with you!

  18. Colette - it is a wonderful cmbination with the tangy insides!


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