Background on Bean Pie: Oh, What A Tangled Web You Weave!

I talked about how I came to know bean pie in my “Why Bean Pie?” section, but here’s a little more background on the pie itself.

Bean pie is a custard-based pie made from cooked beans, eggs, milk, sugar, and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg blended together until smooth and baked in a standard pie crust.  Bean pie, a dessert or snacking pie, has a consistency similar to pumpkin or sweet potato pie but with a milder flavor profile.

Bean pies have roots in the American South, but you have to do a little digging to find them — well, not anymore you don’t since the internet brings everything to your fingertips, but back 20 years ago when I originally started trying to figure out how to recreate the bean pie I had growing up (see Why Bean Pie?), I searched through many a cookbook and found nary a recipe for a sweet, white bean pie. I would find recipes for savory bean tarts and bean loafs (bleh), but nothing on the sweet side. Today if you search for bean pie the world is your oyster but you still have to dig a bit to find the bean pie I am talking about. More on that in a sec.

Before we get to that, let me say that my searches this time led me to lots of recipes for bean pies that involved pinto beans. Yes. It seems pies made with pinto beans were used as an inexpensive alternative to pecan pies. This Mock Pecan Pie supposedly (I haven’t made it yet) has a texture similar to pecan pie, with a certain “nuttiness” to it from the flavor of the pinto beans. This means that pinto bean pies fall into the category of the kind of eats one might make when one is practicing food economy, i.e, you’re broke.  Or when, as Ray Charles so eloquently describes, you’re busted.

Perhaps Johnny Cash is more your jam?

In any case, bean pies seem to be related to other humble custard-style pies made from a basic combination of eggs, sugar, and milk, such as Chess Pie or Buttermilk Pie.

Now, here’s where things get squirelly: the bean pie recipe I’m talking ’bout might have roots in the South, but it’s also got some strong political legs (is that a mixed metaphor? Should I have said branches?). Bean pies made specifically from navy beans have a long association with the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam, a religious group led in the 1930’s by Elijah Muhammad, designed navy bean pie to conform to its strict dietary code, which prohibited common ingredients such as white flour, sweet potatoes, various kinds of peas, pork, and many other common foods. Beans in general were not allowed to be eaten; an exception was the small, white navy bean.Why prohibit something as seemingly innocuous and undeniably nutritious as sweet potatoes? It’s hard to say without rooting through a bunch of dense material about the ins and outs of Nation of Islam-ism, but I have heard it discussed that it’s because the Nation of Islam took exception to many of the foods that would actually have been accessible to black people; things like collard greens, sweet potatoes, peas, etc. that could be socially construed as “poor people food.” Or, in the case of the Nation of Islam, black people food — the kind of food an oppressed people would eat. Wanting to throw off oppression means giving the old heave-ho to these foods. Here’s an article I found from the Houston Press (Dec. 29, 2010, “Eating to Live in the Third Ward“) that seems to support this interpretation.

The Nation of Islam’s dietary code is quite particular. Here’s another description of the prohibited foods from an article by Julianne Glatz discussing bean pie in Chicago: “Followers are exhorted to only eat once a day. Once every two or three days is even better, with nothing — not even water — between meals. Meat’s frowned on (and, of course, pork is forbidden), but a bewildering list of vegetables is prohibited, too: No peas, nuts, white or sweet potatoes, collard or turnip greens, or kale. Cabbage is OK — but only the white leaves, not the green. A little spinach is permissible. Wheat bread’s fine, but only if it’s thoroughly dried or toasted; in fact, ‘there’s no such thing as too stale.’ Cornbread and pancakes are no-nos. Muhammad was big on dried beans as long as they were little — for instance, navy beans. Large beans such as limas, he said, are bad, soybeans ‘too rich.’ ” (Illinois Times, Wednesday, April 16,2008).

My encounter with bean pie is of the Black Muslim variety; all the bean pies I had were from the “Your Black Muslim Bakery” on San Pablo Ave. in Oakland, CA. Some say Black Muslims are an off-shoot of the Nation of Islam and it is (was? not sure how active it is since a high-profile murder blew the lid wide open on its obscenely corrupt recent past) unequivocally a black nationalist organization. Tracing the history of the Nation of Islam in relation to Black Muslims is more nuanced than I care to get since I’m really just interested in bean pie because it tastes good, but I did at least pick up that one of the sons of the honorable Elijah Muhammad split off into more traditional Muslim-ism while other followers remained black nationalists. If you want to delve into it further you can start trying to untangle it by looking up Malcom X and Louis Farrakhan.

In Oakland, CA, the Black Muslims were led by Yusef Bey and what began as a business proposition meant to empower the black community eventually devolved into serious corruption, abuse and homicide. The situation finally exploded with the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. Bailey, who had been investigating corruption at the bakery and its impending bankruptcy, was gunned down in broad daylight pretty much across the street from where a friend of mine lived at the time. The Black Muslim Bakery, still in the hands of the Bey family, members of which were now under investigation for the murder of Bailey, was closed by the county board of health and eventually one of the Bey’s, Yusuf Bey IV, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison (details here, at wikipedia.org).

So, my beloved bean pie fell into disrepute in my hometown by way of the many negative associations of its promulgators, but fortunately that hasn’t been the fate of bean pie everywhere.  Bean pies can still be found for sale by street vendors in urban areas such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. They are also made, lovingly, by yours truly, and they are starting to pop up as good eats here and there — I heard a rumor about bean pie turning up in a cafe in downtown L.A., so keep your eyes peeled — Trees On San Pedro St. Project can tell you more about that, as well as all the other local activism concerning revitalization going on in Skid Row.

So, bean pie, I love you in spite of your checkered past and I, and perhaps some members of the Severna Park/Millersville/Annapolis, MD area will be enjoying you this holiday season by way of Happy Owl Baking.

One response

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s