This is one of those times when the name of a dish is directly associated with its' origination.
One of my favorite name 'justifications' is that it all began with the fact that these pies were kept in a chest, or pie safe, in the early years, hence the alteration of chest to chess. Although this makes the most sense and I love the idea of it, this is quickly discounted because ALL pies and pastries were kept in either a pie chest, safe, buttery, shelf or where-ever there was room to set it.
The other, rather simplistic and comical, explanation is that when someone was asked what kind of pie was being made or eaten, the retort was a short "jes' pie", or Chess Pie over time. As we all know, names are changed for any number of reasons through the generations, but this is an all too easy of an answer when there is no obvious answer.
So that leaves us with one remaining name, Cheese Pie. To preface what I am about to explain, let me just say that I adore Southern cooking and all the pomp that goes with any dish that originates there. I have frequently denoted dishes that are said to have started in New England, but have since been proven to be truly Southern. Chess Pie is just not one of those dishes, although we can thoroughly thank them for popularizing it.
Back in the Puritan era of New England, the 'rich' households often made cheesecakes, although far different than what we are accustomed to today. A Robert May, and English chef, printed a cookbook in England called The Accomplisht Cook, 1665. In it, he gives a cheesecake recipe using the same ingredients and preparation method housewives of New England used in the 17th century. And bearing in mind that most of the original settlers in New England were English, it goes without saying this dessert followed. Cakes of all types were commonly made as soon as the Puritans arrived on these shores, including cheesecakes.
It wasn't until the mid-1700s that Chess Pies are even mentioned down South in any printed material, journal or otherwise.
There is one misunderstood theory as well. There was no cheese in a cheesecake prepared during this time. Lemon cheesecakes, and thusly Lemon Chess Pies, were identical in all aspects, including the omission of cheese, which didn't come until the mid-1700s. So why were they called Cheese Cakes? That is for another article.
Now to play devils advocate. Most of the Southern colonies weren't populated until after the New England colonies, so this should be taken into consideration as well. But be that as it may, cheese cakes were made before Chess Pies, although both recipes were identical in preparation from the beginning.
To make a long story short, Chess Pie was so named because cheese cake was baked in a pie tin(or coffyn as originally named) with a single pasty crust. Over time, the name cheese became chess(be it through misspelling or mispronunciation), which is quite easily understood. And going from the designation cake to pie is understood just as easily. After all, one look at a cheesecake and you may even think it should be called a pie.
One thing I have found peculiar, with no explanation at all, is the must-have addition of cornmeal to all chess pies. Since the very beginning, cornmeal, in any amount, is a staple in these pies. Many recipes through the years only put a token amount while others overdo it. Sure, it may have helped to thicken it many generations ago when ingredients were a little different, but today it really isn't needed. But I do add cornmeal to keep this dessert classic. I do, however, change it up a little in the Chocolate Chess Pie, as you have noticed. I use it as a base for the crust instead of the filling.
New England is the birthplace of both cheesecakes AND chess pies, but(as mentioned)the South truly deserves recognition for making the pie famous.
Either way, check out my recipes for Chess Pies that I am sure will win you over, regardless of what side of the Mason-Dixon line you reside.
Here is May's recipe for Lumber Pie
" Take some grated bread, and beef-suet cut into bits like great dice, and some cloves and mace, then some veal or capon minced small with beef suet, sweet herbs, fair sugar, the yolks of six eggs boil'd hard and cut in quarters, put them to the other ingredients, with some barberries, some yolks of raw eggs, and a little cream, work up all together and put it in the caul of veal like little sausages; then bake them in a dish, and being half baked have a pie made and dried in the oven ; put these puddings into it with some butter, verjuyce sugar, some dates on them, large mace, grapes, or barberries, and marrow– being baked, serve it with a cut cover on it, and scrape sugar on it."
Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, 1665.