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Pastry judges get taste of down-home tradition

This year, green tomato pie is on the town-fair arbiters' already full plates, and it requires an appetite for adventure.

October 29, 2006|Joann Klimkiewicz | Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, CONN. — Apples pie, pumpkin bread and prune cake are the stuff of autumn baking contests in New England, the treats that -- when done right -- make being a pastry judge a pretty sweet gig.

So what happens when you learn your appointed contest category is the green tomato pie?

Shirley Bielefield squinches her face. "I had never heard of a green tomato pie," she says.

But Bielefield, 73, is a professional. Well, a semi-pro, with five years of judging and a lifetime of baking behind her. So, with poise, grace and a healthy curiosity, she and her two fellow judges accepted their tasting fate at the recent Durham Fair.

They were among 29 volunteers who hunkered down for hours, sampling as many as 100 entries in 15 categories in their hunt for the Blue Ribbon bakers. For their efforts, these judges, culled from the community of bake-sale regulars and church-picnic contributors, got a day's free entry to the event.

It's a lot of food. But the key, they say, is small bites. A morsel is all you need. The other key: The trio of green tomato pie judges kept breakfast light. Cereal or toast, a little coffee or juice.

"And just a piece of pie at home," says Betsey Hall, demonstrating the sliver with a squished thumb and pointer finger. "I made two of them this week. I wasn't going to judge without knowing what it was and how it was made."

Ah, what it is and how it's made. We'll consult Grace White Kelsey, 99, on the subject:

A little sweet, a little savory; it's a gooey concoction of green tomatoes, raisins and spices favored by her husband, whose mother used to make them.

"He liked them so much. So I finally got to making them. And I've been sold on them ever since," says Kelsey, who hasn't missed a Durham Fair since its inception in 1916. Not even the birth of her third daughter, Grace Ann, could keep her away: She stopped by on the way home from the hospital.

The special baking category was added this year in her honor.

The story of the green tomato pie goes that Eliza Kelsey devised the recipe in a pinch. In the midst of baking an apple pie, she realized she was out of the main ingredient. So she substituted some green tomatoes from the garden.

"Yankee ingenuity," explains Grace White Kelsey's daughter, Isabel Wimler, 75.

The family recipe has been both loved and scorned.

"I tried it when I was young, and it tasted like mincemeat," says Kelsey's granddaughter (Wimler's daughter), Jean Soule, 52. And that was that for Soule and the green tomato pie.

But when the Durham Fair decided to feature the pie in honor of the family, Soule worried that no one would enter. As of the week before, she said, only one contestant had signed on. "And the family couldn't let that happen," says Soule, who made her first and probably last green tomato pie for the occasion. Three other family members, including Wimler, entered too.

They needn't have worried; the contest attracted 24 entries.

With Grace White Kelsey presiding as a special consultant, the judges raised their plastic forks and dove into the first green tomato pie.

A few entries in, Bielefield deposited an uncooked bite into a napkin. "It's not done," she said. "Not done at all."

The judges considered the flake and color of the crust, the texture and look of the filling. Crusts were declared too thick or too soggy, insides too sweet or too lemony.

"If any of these pies would be in your kitchen, most of them would be acceptable," said Hall. "But to pick one out of four?" She shrugged.

Out came a golden-crusted pie, its center decorated with a dough-fashioned tomato.

"Isn't that clever," said Hall, 77. "That's a nice appearance, don't you think, Grace?"

"Yes, I think so," said Kelsey, dressed in a neat gray suit, her white hair well-coiffed. "But it all depends on how it tastes."

Another entry compelled Bielefield to chomp on the celery sticks set out with grapes for judges to clear their palates. "Man, that is tart," she said. "Whoa. A lot of lemon."

"Is that the last one?" she asked score recorder Joan Atwell.

"No, we've got two more," Atwell said.

Bielefield sighed.

Henry Coe, a fair organizer, stopped by to say hello. He took a tentative bite of pie.

"Oh, my!" he said. "It's like Grandma's mincemeat pie. Boy, does that bring back a memory. When I heard it, I thought, 'I don't know about green tomato pie.' But this is delicious."

After two hours, they had a winner: Shirley Anne Lee, with a score of 97, took the $25 prize. (Soule's pie scored 89; Wimler's, 78.)

As the winning pies were lined up neatly in a case beside a photo of Kelsey and a jar of her canned green tomatoes, the judges pushed back their plates. Hall popped a grape in her mouth and reached for her pocketbook.

But before she could escape, someone pointed out that she also had been assigned to judge 90 cookies.

"We've got cookies? Ninety cookies?" She looked skyward, as if seeking heaven's help. "I shouldn't have eaten that grape."

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