Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chess Pie

Yep, that's an outhouse. What an appetizing way to start a post about food!

This particular structure stood out behind my grandmother's house in the little town of Beech Grove, Kentucky (pop. 150 at its peak).

My grandmother, Lemma Mitchell, lived in a house that sat in the center of town, right at the intersection of the two routes into Beech Grove. The prominent location was due to my grandfather being the town's doctor for several years early in the last century. Elmore Flavius Mitchell (nice name, yes?) was a true country doctor. When people weren't coming into town to visit him in his office in the house, he was out making house calls on horseback. In 1920, when my mother was three years old, Elmore's appendix ruptured, he developed peritonitis and died. I suppose it was one of the serious drawbacks of being the only doctor in the county in that if you got sick you were on your own.

Aside from brief substitute teaching stints, Lemma never worked other than raising my mother and serving as a surrogate mother to a cousin. That left her with quite a bit of time on her hands in a town in which there wasn't a whole lot to do. But grandmother came up with a few interesting, and often amusing, ways to spend her time. Mostly they involved screwing with other people. Among her favorite hobbies was eavesdropping on her neighbors' party-line telephone conversations. And she liked to mess with the local teens who used to hang out at the gas station across from her house. The town phone booth was located in the station's parking lot and when the kids became loud and rowdy, she would call the pay phone, wait for one of the kids to answer, then ask, "Is the sheriff there yet?" The result was an effective scattering of troublemakers.

But most of all, she liked to putter around the kitchen. And she could cook. I remember Sundays at her house where the table was crowded with fried chicken, pot roast, green beans, mashed potatoes and more. Then there were the desserts - German Chocolate Cake, cookies, something she called "Old Fashioned Cake", and the Southern specialty, Chess Pie.

Grandmother died at the age of 96 on May 8, 1983. It's easy for me to remember the date precisely because it was both Mother's Day and the day following my wedding, which meant our honeymoon was spent attending the funeral. I guess it was her parting screw job.

When she died, she took her recipes to the grave. However, instructions for making Chess Pie abound. Most feature sugar, eggs, butter, a little flour and vary with additions of vinegar, vanilla, lemon juice, chocolate and other flavorings. The Remarkable Marcy found the following recipe a few years ago in the Columbus Dispatch. It is very similar to the pie I so fondly remember.

Chess Pie

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. cornmeal
2 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup melted butter
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. vinegar
1 unbaked pie shell

Combine sugars, flour and cornmeal. Beat eggs and add to sugar-flour mixture. Add other ingredients, mix, and pour into pie shell. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.

And now, in memory of my grandmother, here's a video of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys singing "Blue Moon of Kentucky."


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