Nobody knows where the name chess pie comes from, but most cooks and cookbook writers agree on the confection's genesis. It's the pie you make when you're craving something sweet but have no special ingredients like fruit, nuts or chocolate. Like beans and rice, it's the dish you make with the ingredients at hand. You can use brown sugar or white; butter or margarine; if you have buttermilk in the refrigerator, you can add a little of that instead of the water and vinegar. For texture, many recipes call for a sprinkling of plain white cornmeal across the top before baking.
It's the plainest, simplest of pies, and it's the sweetest.
Our homely little chess pie was lost this year amid a mountain of other more complex and beautiful desserts, some made by us, some brought by guests, only a fraction of them consumed at the end of the day. Our Thanksgiving meal was lavish. Our dining room was crowded with three tables and 19 guests, with wine glasses and tablecloths and pinecone turkey centerpieces made by my children in first grade. The nouveau Beaujolais sparkled, plates were piled with fragrant mounds of dressing, sweet potatoes, turkey and ham and were drizzled with rich gravy. The conversation was loud and lively.
But richest and most complex of all was the makeup of the crowd.
There was the hostess' ex-husband and his wife, her sister, brother and nephew -- the entire extended stepfamily with their strawberry blond heads and fair, freckled faces. There was the 24-year-old daughter, smart and elegant with her new black hair. There was the friend from work, recently divorced, her daughter all gussied up in velvet and lace, her son and the man who recently re-entered her life, adoring their every move. There were the three hulking teenage boys, hovering over the pies they cooked the night before, playing cool music on the stereo. There was the single friend, estranged from his family, visiting from Seattle. There were the husband and wife who invited themselves because they don't do such events with their own families but make a tradition of testing the traditional celebrations of others. There were the two college students from Nepal, thousands of miles away from their families but comforable and familiar in this place. There was the exhausted hostess, proud and pleased as punch to have brought together such a group.
The hostess and the ex-husband's wife didn't pretend to get along this year as they had a few years back. They reveled in the same glory -- the spectacle of this wild, mixed-up beautiful family, and in sharing that, shared a difficult but genuine affection for each other. The ex-husband looked on quietly. The sons and daughter welcomed their aunt, uncle and cousin to their "other" life, and were relieved to be so fully loved and known.
The friends looked on with wry curiosity. The cynic in the crowd commented that it was hard for him to believe this family actually liked each other as much as it appeared. The family laughed, knowing all together and at the same time that things had not always been so, that sometimes they still were not, but that today the feelings permeating the room were real and right.
The day stretched forward in overstuffed comfort and dying winter light. The guests left, a few at a time. The hostess, her daughter and sons went to the movies in the early evening as their full Thanksgiving tradition demands.
And when they came home to the quiet house where the scent of sage still lingered and the cats licked their paws after devouring a plate of leftovers, they sat down for a piece of chess pie.
It was sweeter than they had remembered.
Mama Bettye's Chess Pie
1 cup sugar
1 stick butter
3 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon vinegar
Mix sugar, flour and salt. Beat one whole egg and two yolks with melted butter, water and vinegar. Add to sugar mixture, mix well. Bake in 350-degree oven in unbaked pie crust for 30 minutes or until done.