by Dan Packel
I’ve seen them for years. On the way from my old home in West Philadelphia to the airport or the stadiums. Changing subway lines underneath City Hall. In front of the Lowe’s on the way to a past job. I’m talking about the well-dressed representatives of the Nation of Islam, who hawk neatly packaged bean pies (along with copies of the nation’s newspaper The Final Call) to commuters passing through these high-traffic locations. But only recently did it occur to me that I should be sampling their offerings as part of my halting, unsystematic inquiry into foodstuffs inexpensively proffered by various religious organizations.
With a little reflection came some reasons. The Nation of Islam is a religious movement that mainly focuses its energies on African-Americans; unsurprisingly, in the past, when whoever happened to be standing between lanes with the pies and papers saw me, a white guy, driving the car, he would reliably keep walking. Now if the hawker had been wielding “dry-aged, grass-fed porterhouse” or “dan-dan noodles,” I’d probably roll down the window and wave my hands wildly anyway, but the words “bean pie” have never prompted me to raise a fuss.
But now I decided to actively demonstrate my interest. Approaching the intersection in Grays Ferry by bike on a late December morning I waved to the seller, a guy in his mid-30s attired in all black with the exception of a red scarf. He told me the pies sold for three dollars, or two for five dollars.
“And they’re made from beans, right?” I inquired.
He said they were small navy beans, ground up very fine. “Appreciate your support,” he told me, before I pedaled away. I was now in possession of one compact parcel, housed in a disposable aluminum pie tin, and tightly encased in plastic wrap. While the pies might have been hot at the beginning of the morning, mine was now the same temperature as this chilly-but-still-warmer-than-average December day.
I didn’t pick up a copy of The Final Call with my purchase, but I did have an alternate Nation of Islam publication on hand: the first volume of Elijah Muhammad’s How to Eat to Live. (The second volume is still being transferred to my local library, but considering the amount of repetition in the first 199 pages, I have a hard time imagining that Muhammad breaks significant new ground in the follow-up.)
Herein, Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam for several decades until his death in 1975, reports the teachings of Allah with regard to diet and nutrition, as delivered to him by Fard Muhammad — in Nation of Islam theology, the earthly manifestation of Allah. Unsurprisingly, pork is a no-no. But Muhammad also puts the kibosh on many other ingredients vital to the African-American culinary tradition, which sprang up in the South and remains vibrant in black-dominated neighborhoods in Northern cities: sweet potatoes, cornbread, peas, collard greens. This, according to Muhammad, is fare for animals, not humans. For example, “sweet potatoes were never good for any human to eat. They are good for hogs, but not for you.” And Allah “considers most peas fit for cattle and herds of animals, but not for the delicate stomachs of human beings.”
Enter the navy beans — their surface toasted to a carmelized orange on my Saran-Wrapped pie. Writes Muhammad: “No beans did He advise, except the small navy — the small size and not the larger one — the little brown pink ones, and the white ones. This bean He valued to be very high in protein, fats and starches, and it is a safe food for prolonging life.”
I read further, to see if followers are then urged to bake the beans into pies. No overt declaration, but Muhammad doesn’t slam the door on the idea either:
“Pastries and cakes — the kind made with crusts of white flour and sweetened with white sugar, so sweet you can taste them the next day — are not good for our stomachs… Use brown sugar and whole wheat flour for your pie and cobbler crusts.”
Repeatedly, Muhammad emphasizes the importance of eating one meal a day. Chapter headings include: “One Meal a Day,” “The Benefits of Eating Once a Day,” and “You Don’t Need Numerous Diets; Just Eat Once Daily,” in addition to “Our Big Problem is Eating Too Much and Too Often.”
Consequently, I deemed it legitimate to evaluate my bean pie for its belly-filling capabilities in addition to its gustatory virtues. Not ready to restrict my entire day’s consumption to the pie, I chose to treat it as my dinner. If the pie, roughly five inches in diameter, would prove satiating, it would pass the first test.
Still, as the afternoon wore on and I grew hungrier and hungrier, I approached my first bite with trepidation. I had no referents for the taste of the pie; as if I was about to step out of the airport into a country I’d never visited, nor even heard of before. More concretely, I had no idea whether the filling was going to be sweet or savory, nor was I sure which would be preferable.
When I removed the saran wrap and held my nose to its surface, the aromas were familiar. Pumpkin pie spices: brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg. I dug into a thick puree underneath the surface, the color the same creamy beige of the last batch of navy beans I cooked at home (these for a decidedly not Nation of Islam-friendly cassoulet.)
I worked my way through the pie, its buttery, crumbly crust yielding to the sweet, almost custardy bean puree. Neither cloying nor austere, this was far better than I’d expected. Furthermore, the portion size was ideal — I felt no need for anything else to supplement the meal. All this for three dollars. Still, considering the low prices of the ingredients, especially when purchased in bulk, I’m not certain whether the Nation of Islam was subsidizing my meal or whether my purchase was contributing to their bottom line. I’m content to call it a wash.
But I’m also left wondering whether Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, or the personable man who sold me the pie would give a damn about any facet of my evaluation. As Muhammad concludes, “if the white man eats poisonous food and eats three or four times a day, that is his business.”