The mom and two boys who have paused in front of Geraldine’s Greatest Chess Pies look a little confused. As soon as the mother speaks, it is evident she grew up in a part of the country where pies have top crusts or meringue or they simply aren’t pies.
Geraldine Bell is ready for them. She reaches back to the table set up behind her and gathers some disposable spoons and two pies that are set aside specifically for the curious, the skeptical, and the southern cuisine challenged. The boys eagerly accept tastes of both her chocolate and original flavors. Even Mom seems won over as she thoughtfully rolls a bite of Bell’s sweet pastry over her tongue.
To those who have never tasted chess pie, sampling Geraldine’s version is a revelation. It should be. Unlike the mass produced approximation of good home food that is the gateway to new avenues to culinary experience that many of us experience first, Geraldine’s pies are the real thing.
“These are the best chess pies in the state of Tennessee.”
It all started with the recipe for her original chess pie as one of many gifts of the heart that was passed down from her grandmother. Eighteen years worth of customers who have followed her would agree. Eighteen years ago, she was a nurse tech and the pies were a cottage industry she operated in her spare time. From there, she took her work to the beauty salons, gas stations and small businesses that greed to sell her pies. The kitchen table enterprise has grown into a business that is part of many Nashvillians’ weekly stops a farmers markets all over the city.
A good chess pie is one of those under appreciated treasures of southern foodways. The recipe has its roots in the older English version, sometimes called an egg or cheese pie. Variations may contain corn meal, vinegar, or cheese curds. The last ingredient has fueled speculation about the origins of the American name of this dish. Is “chess” a regionalized version of cheese or the product of a dropped consonant describing the pie chests where they would have been stored by homemakers in previous generations? While some online sources may claim to have the last word, there is no conclusive evidence to confirm any of them as the one true source of pie wisdom.
For Geraldine Bell, the origins aren’t as important as the inspiration she pulls from her family and her faith. Citing the support she gets from her husband of twenty-seven years and her twenty-four year old son, Bell says they are behind her “110%”. She sees the business as further demonstration of the myriad ways she has been blessed. Life’s work is love made visible and Bell acknowledges that a lot of her own heart and soul goes into her craft.
“I put God first in all things. I do nothing without the Lord and seek Him first. You have to have faith and believe.”
For more information about Geraldine’s Greatest Chess Pies and other menu items you can find her at the East Nashville Farmers Market or reach her by phone at 615-310-8908.
-Article by Jas Faulkner
More: Geraldine makes several varieties of chess pies including chocolate chess, lemon chess, coconut chess, pecan chess, pineapple chess. Additionally she bakes traditional sweet potato pies, pumpkin, chocolate fudge, pecan — you name it. She even makes gluten-free pies, and pies aimed at diabetics. Small pies go for $2 ($4 for gluten-free), and large pies sell for between $12 and $16.