Nearly fifty years ago I tasted my first piece of Chess Pie. It was really special. Jerri and I were on our honeymoon for a week at Roaring River State Park in southwest Missouri. The Ozark mountains offer some beautiful vistas, and the cold clear water of the Roaring River reminds me of the streams where I first learned to fish for trout. It was a beautiful place for our first days together.
Like many of the parks throughout the United States, Roaring River State Park was built by young men enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was the most popular of the New Deal programs. In addition to their work at state and national parks, CCC men planted the bare lands of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota with pines that grew into the forests we enjoy today and constructed scenic highways like the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.
The log cabin we rented was built by men who were probably younger that I was, but they were led by experienced foremen, so it was snug and private, perfect for the two of us. There was a restaurant in a larger log building where we ate most of our meals. It was rustic and spotless and staffed by cheerful waitresses. Obviously there were some talented people in the kitchen. Believe me, I would remember any bad meals.
We did take a couple of day trips to nearby places. The park is about fifty miles from Branson, Missouri and Table Rock Lake where friends of Jerri’s parents, Paul and Shirley, had a campsite where they spent much of the summer. They took us water skiing on the lake and we had lunch in Branson, at that time a small town catering to tourists that reminded me of Hayward, where I grew up.
Nine years later we spent a night at Roaring River State Park with our children. The restaurant was gone from the log building which now housed a gift shop filled with souvenirs. The only room we could get was in a new brick building which also housed the restaurant. When I tried to order Chess Pie, the young waitress did not know what it was.
That summer I had been reading William Butler Yeats in preparation for teaching a Sophomore Literature Survey course. The transformation of the park made me think of the opening lines from “September 1913”:
“What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone…. “
We did not visit Branson on our way back to Kentucky. My mother enjoyed her visit there many years later and my oldest sister thinks that Branson is wonderful. There are now fifty theaters and lots of neon signs, so visitors are not distracted by trees and night skies.
Since that magic week in August of 1967, I have been sampling Chess Pie from time to time. It is not as popular as it once was, but I occasionally find it in local restaurants from southern Illinois to the Gulf Coast. Most versions have been good and all have been edible, but none match my memory of Roaring River Chess Pie. I am still looking for a recipe that will produce the same delightful flavor I remember.
This one comes very close. Maybe the only thing missing is a dash of honeymoon happiness.
9 “ pie shell
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 T cornmeal
5 large eggs
1/3 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup butter
1 T cider vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Line a nine-inch pie plate with a crust. You can buy crusts in your local market, but once you have made a few, you will find that homemade pie crusts are inexpensive and easy to make.
Bring the eggs to room temperature or put them in warm water for a few minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400º and melt the butter.
Blend the granulated sugar, brown sugar and cornmeal in a mixing bowl. Beat in the eggs one a time. Add the whipping cream, butter, vinegar and vanilla extract. Beat everything into a smooth batter.
Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake on the center rack for ten minutes. Reduce the heat to 325º and bake for about forty-five minutes more. The pie will be done when a table knife inserted near the center of the pie comes out clean. If necessary, bake another three minutes and test again.
Note: The photo is courtesy of my brother-in-law Patrick and my sister Patsy, who baked the pie.