The Bean Pie – It’s More Than Just a Sweet Treat

The bean pie carries with it such grand history despite its basic ingredients. One would be hard pressed to consider navy beans, whole-wheat crust, eggs, sugar, milk, and some spices could be the culinary icon for both the revolution of black power and the Nation of Islam.

What many don’t know is that this ordinary looking pie was a vital part of the civil rights movement. It was found on street corners just the same as high-end restaurants. It was everywhere; Will Smith and the cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had it on their show, rap music and television shows referenced it. Even Boxer Muhammad Ali faulted this favorite pie as a reason behind his losing a famous fight.

The Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam was the 1930s founded Black Nationalist and social reform movement. What made them stand out is that the public figures were running it based on controversial beliefs. Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad were all for self-reliance and black supremacy. That was different from what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pushed for, which was all about collaborative social-reform strategies.

The Nation of Islam was all about rejecting anything birthed in the white society, surnames, clothing, and religion included. It was all about the creation of a black identity free from the ties of slavery. It was why those in the movement chose to abandon Christianity for Islam and even refute their surnames given to them by slave owners and use an X instead.

‘How To Eat To Live’

The other part that sets the course of bean pie is the moving away from the “slave diet” as Elijah Muhammad put it. In this two-book series ‘How to Eat to live’ published in 1967, he emphasized that soul food was a means for the whites to both control and destroy the black population. The effects where high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hypertension and obesity, all brought about by the sugar, salt and fat content is soul food.

Instead, as the leader of the Nation of Islam between 1934 and 1975, Elijah advocated for traditional foods indigenous to the blacks. Followers of the Nation had to adhere to a strict new diet that was considered in line with the movement’s identity. The emphasis was on vegetarianism and limiting sugar and processed foods. Traditional soul food ingredients such as pork, collard greens, corn, and sweet potatoes were off the menu. The former by itself was prohibited under Islamic Law. Alcohol and tobacco were equally banned.

Instead, the transition ushered in the era of tofu, tahini, smoked turkey and brown rice. The navy bean found its place in a culinary sphere where all other beans were divinely not allowed. Elijah Muhammad even referenced Allah (God) in his book stating that it would add their lifespan to one hundred and forty years. Should they eat other beans in the Christian table, their lives would be less than half of what they are expected to live.

The Navy Bean

Navy Beans

The navy bean thus began to feature in Muslim recipes both in pamphlets and cookbooks. The bean pie is however what rose up to be the star recipe. The origins still a mystery as it is not in How to Eat to Live. Though full of beans, this desert rose in prominence in the Black Muslim community. The starchy mashed navy beans made for a custard-like filling that with added spices was sweet. Nutmeg and cinnamon are what turned this savory dish sweet.

Nation members owning restaurants and bakeries became the go-to places for the bean pie. It was such a hit that Muhammad Ali, according to Lana Shabazz, his chef is said to have blamed it on his loss to Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title fight in 1971. It was because unable to resist slices when he was training.

The Bean Pie

The bean pie still has its ties to the refusal of the slave diet and is also now part of the African-American culture. It is part of the Islamic diet in black communities and also sold in street corners and Muslim bakeries. For some, the bean pie is more American than apple pie, which was an invention of England.

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