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About the author:

Roben Mounger develops relationships with area farmers and cooks year round with the bounty of CSAs and farmers' markets.She writes in celebration of food and people on her blog, Ms. Cook's Table.

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F eature Story

The Verve of Geraldine Bell

Chess pie artist bakes greatest in Tennessee

By Roben Mounger

"I have a people personality, a good product, and a giving heart," says Geraldine Bell, cradling a coconut chess pie while lighting up the space around her. Geraldine brings a legacy of culinary caring, as women in her family have been serious cooks for generations. It was her grandmother who presented her with the ticket to charm farmers' market customers in the Middle Tennessee area.

Photo "She was a wonderful cook, but the only recipe that I asked for was her chess pie..."

"She was a wonderful cook, but the only recipe that I asked for was her chess pie," says Geraldine. Years after her grandmother's passing, Geraldine discovered the directions, and then, "giving it all to God," she mastered the pie in all of its incarnations. Proclaiming her distinction in the world of chess pies, Geraldine will refute any suggestion that a fruit pie might be introduced, saying, "I'm a chess pie girl and by dreaming big, I've had a vision to move in a focused direction." As a result, she flatly affirms that she bakes the greatest chess pies in Tennessee. [For those who may not know, chess pie is a Southern specialty, similar to custard pie, but usually sweeter and richer.]

One of six children, Geraldine was born in Columbia, Tennessee. She remembers preparing meals for her family as a child, and says that her mother taught her the skills to be a great cook. She still prepares a large meal for her husband and son each Sunday. Recently, after services at her beloved Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church, she presented her husband, son, and a few friends with a soulful meal of meat loaf, mac and cheese, okra, pinto beans, sweet potatoes, cornbread, and of course, her trademark chess pie. Then, as she is prone to do, Geraldine cleaned up the remnants of the Sunday spread and began to bake her pies. "I put on some gospel music and go to work," she laughs, noting that she and God are claiming love for all those who devour a creamy forkful. Baking is a relaxing activity for this exuberant woman who radiates an otherworldly patience and persistence in the kitchen and at the market.

Geraldine worked with assisted living residents for some fourteen years as a nurse technician. Years ago, they were the original recipients of her pie prowess. "I would test the recipe and they would offer advice on particular ingredients. 'Say, the vanilla and sugar custard might require another hit of vinegar,'" she reminisces. During that time, she realized that not all "her guys and girls" could indulge in the sweet offering, and she sought a solution to honor them. The result was her now-famous diabetic pies, which contain fructose, a natural sweetening ingredient that she is able to use effectively in small quantities. Geraldine offers many of her regular chess flavors in a diabetic version, delighting the once-deprived.

Over time, she has perfected her method of pie production, boasting a constant kitchen score of 100 percent, issued by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. Touting her home kitchen, she raves about the hand mixer that provides the consistency so important to the proper texture, and discusses a trial that delivered the perfect crust. Geraldine holds to the methodology of baking many small batches throughout the week. As a result, she draws the customer base that has come to depend on the resulting freshly baked flavors, which include chocolate fudge, coconut, lemon, pineapple, chocolate pecan, sweet potato, and pumpkin.

Having trained at Tennessee State University's Small Business Development Center, Geraldine started out with a work plan that included selling at flea markets, providing door-to-door special deliveries, and even launching a small storefront at one point in time. Ultimately, she found the farmers' market venue to be a style that best suited her schedule, with booths at the Woodbine Farmers' Market on Tuesday evenings, the East Nashville Farmers' Market on Wednesday evenings, the Nashville Farmers' Market on Fridays, and the Franklin Farmer's Market on Saturdays.

Geraldine says that she feels blessed. She maintains that a biblical promise in Proverbs has cleared her mind for future successes and eagerly recites, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight." She is strong in her heritage and buoyantly expectant to see what comes next.

A vision of vibrant colors, Geraldine neatly presents herself and her wares at market. Customers repeatedly seek her, not only for her specialty goods, but also for the healing embrace contained in her welcome. With a musical, "Hallo My Dahlings, how are my sweeties today?"--Geraldine has spoken. Somehow you know that the pie itself may be the least of the blessing that she has to extend.

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