Anthony Umrani is a CNN Senior Photojournalist based in Washington, D.C. He previously wrote about the menu at the National Museum of the American Indian.
February is Black History Month. February is also National Pie Month. What could one possibly have to do with the other, you might ask? Meet the bean pie - a sweet, delectable dessert made from navy beans.
The bean pie is a creation born out of the strict dietary code of the Nation of Islam, a religious black nationalist and social reform movement formed in the 1930s, led by Elijah Muhammad. In his book, "How To Eat To Live," Muhammad outlined a rather detailed and sometimes peculiar set of guidelines for eating, presumably designed to improve health and prolong life.
In accordance with Islamic law, pork was prohibited, but there was a list of other banned foods that could not be explained by any Islamic jurisprudence. Foods such as spinach, sweet potatoes and lima beans, which many nutritionists would agree are good healthy foods, were not allowed.
It should be noted that "God," according to the doctrines of the Nation of Islam, operated through the personage of its founder, Fard Muhammad, also known as Master Fard and W.D. Fard.
By the 1970s, followers of Elijah Muhammad or Black Muslims, as they had come to be known, could be found in most major U.S. cities, especially along the East coast. It was a common site in African American communities to see men clad in suits and bow ties canvassing neighborhoods selling two items - the organization's newspaper, "Muhammad Speaks" and the bean pie.
Jamal Abdus Salaam, a longtime vendor and self-proclaimed bean pie connoisseur, describes the pie as "a uniquely delicious, healthful dessert." Abdus Salaam admits that when he first heard about the bean pie forty-five years ago, he thought, "A pie with beans in it did not sound like anything I’d want to eat."
That apprehension quickly faded after the first bite and now Abdus Salaam heads Akbar Distributors, which sells and distributes the pies from his home base in Washington, D.C.
For others who have been brave enough to overcome the seemingly two incongruous elements, "bean" and "pie," there is often an instant love affair with the dessert. The consistency of the pie is similar to sweet potato or pumpkin pie, and some have suggested the flavor is also comparable. The pie, often made with butter, eggs, sugar and evaporated milk, may have created as a substitute for the beloved sweet potato pie, commonly found in many African American homes during Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Part of the anticipation of biting into a slice of bean pie, is that it's almost impossible to know know exactly how it will taste. They aren’t typically mass-produced and there's no standardized recipe beyond some core ingredients.
Many self-made home bakers add flavors for a personal touch. The bean pie can be found in a variety of forms: apple bean, cherry bean, banana bean, lemon bean and a common favorite, custard bean. As with sweet potato pie, the bean pie can be eaten cold, warm or room temperature depending on one's preference.
Most mosques predominantly attended by African Americans will likely sell bean pies, or can advise where to get them. The price of the pies generally ranges from $2.50 to $3.50 a piece for the six inch variety, and about $9 for the larger nine inch version.
If one ever has the opportunity to taste a bean pie, it's worth making a connection to acquire another one in the future. There’s nothing more frustrating than needing a bean pie fix, and having no supplier.
During one afternoon after Friday prayers, two customers approached Abdus Salaam’s vending table outside Masjid Muhammad, a local mosque in Washington, DC, to purchase some pies. Hasan Jackson and wife Zainab eyeballed the many choices spread across the six-foot-long table. He grew up eating the pies and remembers his challenge as a kid was to not eat the entire thing.
Zainab, who was born in Sudan and raised in Saudi Arabia, had been waiting for a bean pie "expert" to introduce her to the pie. Jackson was the man for that job. He gave her a quick lesson and strongly recommended that she try the traditional bean pie, with no added flavors.
Jackson's parents told him about the significance of the bean pie to the African American Muslim community. “It’s part of who you are," they said.
He laughs as he recalls those days. "For me, it just meant dig in."
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