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Wednesday, April 16, 2008 02:20 pm

Full of beans

Say what you will, but the Nation of Islam gave the world a tasty pie!

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When Buffalo native Peter Engler moved to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood in 1972, he found something strange at the local Jewel: bean pies. Intrigued, he bought one. It was good, the filling a sort of dense custard flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla. The beans contributed more texture than flavor. Engler found bean pies all over the South Side. Bakeries proudly advertised “Best Bean Pies.” They’re sold on street corners and in groceries and restaurants. Engler is a genetics research scientist, but over the years he’s also become an “investigator of South Side culinary oddities.” Bean pies definitely qualified, and Engler began a quest to discover their origins. It’s been an interesting exploration. “Bean pies have deep roots in Chicago,” says Engler. They aren’t found in older collections of Southern desserts. Africans use dried beans extensively but not in desserts; the only place beans are commonly used in sweets besides the South Side is Asia. Bean pies were apparently created by members of a black-separatist political/religious organization, the Nation of Islam, based in Chicago. They’ve been sold to raise funds for the NOI at least since the 1940s; in fact, that’s what the bean pies sold on the street are for. No one is exactly sure why bean pies originated, but Engler believes the most likely reason is the dietary guidelines prescribed by early NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, set forth in two volumes titled How to Eat to Live. His ideas about proper diet are as extreme (dare I say wacky?) as NOI’s political and religious beliefs. 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.”
Engler theorizes that NOI followers substituted the favored navy beans for the forbidden sweet potatoes to imitate a favorite pie, and he may well be right: Bean pie has a flavor and texture very like that of sweet-potato pie.  Distasteful as I find most of the Nation of Islam’s ideas, I have to say, the group created a tasty pie.
BEANPIE 2 cup cooked, drained navy beans* 1/2 cup melted butter 2 tablespoons flour Four eggs 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon cinnamon 2 tablespoons vanilla 2 cups sugar 14-ounce can evaporated milk Two 9-inch pie shells
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a blender or food processor, blend the beans, butter, flour, eggs, spices, vanilla, and sugar until smooth. Put the mixture in a large bowl and stir in the evaporated milk until the ingredients are completely combined. Pour the filling into the pie shells and bake until golden brown, about one hour. Makes two pies
* Drained, canned beans work just fine in this recipe, but you can certainly start with dried beans. If you’re using dried beans, plan ahead to take into account the time the beans need to soak and cook. Dry beans should be soaked in enough water to cover them by 2 inches. They must either be soaked overnight or “quick-soaked,” which is done by placing them in a pan, bringing them to a boil, boiling for one minute, and then removing them from the heat and leaving them to stand for one hour. In either case, the beans should be drained, and then water should be added to cover the beans by 2 inches again. Bring the beans to a boil, then reduce them to a simmer and cook until the beans are completely tender, about one hour. Drain the beans before making the pie filling. You should use at least 1 1/2 cups dried beans to yield 2 cups of cooked beans.
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