When I was younger in New York City, the Nation of Islam bean pie was something I would often see being peddled by male members of the religious organization, especially when I’d venture into Harlem. You could find bean pies being sold on street corners, in barbershops and hair salons. Some of the local bodegas — corner convenience stores run mainly by Latinos — would have them for sale. Into the late 1980s, there were the Nation Of Islam Muslim bakeries scattered around Manhattan and Brooklyn where you could buy a pie.
I have to admit I consumed plenty of them.
While the bean pies don’t seem as readily available in the Big Apple, the iconic dessert is still around in New York City and nationwide.
The Nation of Islam Supreme Bean Pies, made from cooked, mashed, small navy beans, were beloved by late NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, who led the nation for 41 years. Muhammad had a penchant for navy beans.
“Eat food that Allah (God) has prescribed for us,” he wrote in “How to Eat to Live,” a two-volume dietary guide for followers of the Nation, Chicago Reader reported.
Of the navy bean, Muhammad wrote: “Allah (God) says that the little navy bean will make you live, just eat them…. He said that a diet of navy beans would give us a life span of one hundred and forty years. Yet we cannot live [half] that length of time eating everything that the Christian table has set for us.”
In “How to Eat to Live” Muhammad lists most legumes—lima beans, field peas, black-eyed peas, speckled peas, red peas, and brown peas—as divinely prohibited. The navy bean was the only exception.
These eating rules, he wrote, came directly from NOI founder Wallace Fard Muhammad.
According to NOI archivist and historian Lance Shabazz, the bean pie recipe too came from Fard. Shabazz said Fard gave the first recipe for bean pie to Elijah Muhammad and his wife, Clara, in the 1930s in Detroit.
The sweet potato is one of the most prominent symbols of traditional Black cooking or soul food and was seen by the NOI as a direct relic of the so-called “slave diet,” Taste Cooking reported.
Navy beans were pointed out by Elijah Muhammad as a good substitute for sweet potato, so why not make a pie out of navy beans?
“Built on a whole-wheat crust, with a filling of strained and mashed beans, butter, raw sugar, evaporated milk, eggs, cinnamon, and other baking spices, it develops a mildly sweet, dense, custardy understory, with a browned layer on top that one bean pie maker told me is the result of the butter rising and browning in the heat of the oven,” Chicago Reaper reported.
Not all members approved of selling bean pie in the streets. In Chicago, for example, people would hear an NOI member calling out, “Bean pie, my brother?” But member Lance Shabazz told the Chicago Reader in 2013, he wasn’t a fan of the sales tactic.
“One of my pet peeves is that when Elijah Muhammad was present, we had bakeries all across this country. They baked the bean pie on the premises. We didn’t go on the street, on the corner selling pies, stopping traffic,” he said. “I find it embarrassing because if you want a pie you should go to the bakery and get it. I’m talking about in New York City, where on major streets you may see brothers stopping cars at the light trying to sell a pie. We had the tractor-trailers bringing pies and bringing newspapers up and down the east coast. It seemed to be more professional.”
There are still places you can buy a pie — and even have it shipped to you. Imani Muhammad, known as the reigning bean pie queen of Chicago, owns the still-popular Imani’s Original Bean Pies and Fine Foods.
In 2013, she was putting out about 200 large pies and 350 six-inch pies per week, which were distributed to some 18 grocery and health food stores all over Chicago’s south side (and one on the north side), the Chicago Reader reported.
She also ships them to customers in New York, Indiana, New Jersey, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Pennsylvania.
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The bean pie wasn’t only a dessert. It wasn’t only part of the NOI’s healthier diet plan for Black people. It was also a way that many could earn money.
“Beyond the restaurants, young Muslim men — especially those who could find no other employment — began selling the pie and the group’s newspaper on the streets. Many male members of the Nation have at one point or another sold the pies — almost like a rite of passage. But few have made selling them their sole trade,” The Seattle Times reported.