This week I made the acquaintance of a food I’d never met before – the bean pie. By name alone, I was anticipating a savory southwestern dish, and was surprised to encounter a dessert not unlike sweet potato pie. Bean pies have been popularized by the Nation of Islam as an alternative to the rich foods commonly associated with African American cuisine, and became a fundraising staple of Black Muslims by the 1960s. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation for over 40 years, outlined strict dietary guidelines for followers in his book How to Eat to Live, and promoted the consumption of whole wheat, and raw fruits and vegetables. He warned followers against fried and processed foods and encouraged them to grow and prepare their own food at home and fast regularly. Muhammad advocated against eating some healthy vegetables like peas, collard greens, turnip greens, sweet potatoes and white potatoes as a way to distance African Americans from what he considered “cheaply raised” slave foods, which is what probably led to the replacement of sweet potatoes with navy beans and the birth of the bean pie.
The humble navy bean receives high praise from Elijah Muhammad in How to Eat to Live; in fact it was the only legume sanctioned by the Nation of Islam. “No beans did He (God) advise, except the small navy… This bean He valued to be very high in protein, fats and starches, and it is a safe food for prolonging life. As you will find, most of the Muslims like their bean soup… He said that He could take one of our babies and start him off eating the dry small navy bean soup, and make that child live 240 years. He described no other bean.”
And so navy beans found their way into the many a delicious Nation dish, the most famous of which is the bean pie. I decided to try my hand at making one, and followed the recipe found in Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America. The ingredients were basic and the preparation was easy – blend navy beans, butter, evaporated milk, eggs and spices in a blender, add sugar and vanilla and pour into a pie crust. Simple, right? You would think, but somehow I got distracted during the preparation and neglected to add the beans, which unfortunately I didn’t discover until after the pies were baked. Back to the cutting board. (As an aside, the resulting bean-free bean pies were still pretty tasty.) My second attempt was much more successful, and I found that the navy beans added a depth and texture to the pie that I really enjoyed. It would certainly hold its own against any pumpkin or sweet potato rival.
The Accokeek Foundation is gearing up to host Soul Food Justice next weekend, and the bean pie is an important ingredient in the rich, flavorful and complex recipe that is African American cuisine. We encourage you to join us and share your family food stories, weigh in on a panel discussion and partake of a soul food sampler. We’ll even be serving bean pies – beans included.
Adapted from: Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America
- 2 cups navy beans, cooked
- 1 stick butter
- 1 14-oz. can evaporated milk
- 4 eggs
- 1 tsp. nutmeg
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 2 tbsp. flour
- 1 cups sugar
- 2 tbsp. vanilla
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- In electric blender, blend together beans, butter, milk, eggs, nutmeg, cinnamon, and flour for around two minutes on medium speed.
- Pour mixture in a large mixing bowl and add sugar and vanilla. Stir well.
- Pour into pie shells and bake for around an hour until golden brown.
Yields two 8” pies.
–written by Heather Leach, Agriculture Education Manager