On a recent Friday afternoon, I went looking for an elusive bean pie, starting at a mosque adjacent to a supermarket.
Muslims practice a weekly Friday afternoon prayer service called Jummah. After service at Durham mosques and community centers, people congregate outside for conversation and snacks. Among them are bean pies introduced as an African-American Muslim food tradition in the 1960s.
As incongruous as it seems, white navy beans create an impressive dessert when whipped into custard. Many attribute the original recipe to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who wrote the cookbook How to Eat to Live, which prescribed a clean diet for African-American Muslims in the 1960s. But in the online documentary, Bean Pie, My Brother, Muhammad's son Jabir says today's bean pie evolved from a recipe by Lana Shabazz, personal chef to Muhammad Ali.
Outside Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman on Fayetteville Street, dozens of crimson and magenta pomegranates radiate from a cardboard box. A man shakes a sizzling trout filet from a boiling pan of oil, while a line of people form beside him. They move past a row of tables, plucking falafel rounds and sticky baklava from multiple trays. My requests for the bean pie prove futile.
A man named Omar tells me that his friend, Naim, "makes a mean bean pie, the best this side of Texas. He's just not here today." I could never find him, so a few calls later, I'm directed to Kasib Abdullah. Although his restaurant, New Visions of Africa, 1306 Fayetteville St., remains closed after a year of renovations, the door is still open to Abdullah's nonprofit, Believers United For Progress. The organization runs several programs, including a summer community kitchen feeding school-age children.
Abdullah started making bean pies five months ago. In the 1950s, a teenage Abdullah joined the Nation of Islam. "We as African-Americans were dependent of people. This was a movement that showed us how to be independent people. It was an important time in our history," he says.
When he decided to respectfully leave the Nation of Islam, he continued as a Muslim in a way that "maintained the process of self-motivation, and directing the mind to positive things."
"The restaurant, these pies, they're a vehicle to reach out to the community," he says.
When New Visions of Africa reopens, he'll continue with soul food favorites such as curried chicken and sweet potatoes alongside a number of bean pies. Abdullah refuses to share his bean pie recipe. "Just tell them to Google it," he laughs. He does reveal that he boils navy beans for hours before making a puréed custard with eggs, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla. Its consistency hits the happy medium between sweet potato and pumpkin pies, with a stronger cinnamon note than both. They are available as three 4-inch mini-pies for $11 or $13 for regular size.
The best version in my Google search comes from Jennifer Saleem, a blogger for Multicultural Familia, an online magazine.
Makes 2 pies
2 cups cooked navy beans
14-ounce can evaporated milk
1 stick butter
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbsp. unbleached flour
2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp. vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
Soak the dry beans overnight in water. Drain, then add 3 cups of water for each cup of beans. Bring the beans to a boil, then simmer, partially covering the pot. Navy beans take 60-90 minutes to cook.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In an electric blender, blend beans, butter, milk, eggs, nutmeg, cinnamon and flour about 2 minutes on medium speed. Pour mixture into a large mixing bowl. Add sugar and vanilla. Mix well and pour into pie shells. Bake about one hour until golden brown.
Tip: 5 minutes after removing pies from oven, cover with plastic wrap that clings.
BEAN PIE CRUST
Makes 2 crusts
2 cups unbleached or finely ground whole wheat flour
1 tsp. salt
5 Tbsp. cold water
3/4 cup shortening or 3/4 cup butter
Mix flour and salt in bowl. Cut in shortening or butter using pastry blender or two knives, until all flour is just blended to form pea-sized chunks. Sprinkle water, one tablespoon at a time.
Toss lightly with fork until dough forms a ball. Divide dough into two parts. Press between hands to form two 5- to 6-inch patties.
Set aside one patty. With rolling pin, roll out the crust patty between two pieces of unfloured plastic wrap into a circle the size of an upside-down pie pan.
Remove top piece of plastic wrap. Use bottom piece of plastic wrap to lift the crust and turn it into the pie pan. While plastic wrap is still covering crust, gently press crust to fit the pan.
Remove plastic wrap from the other pie. Roll out the other pie crust patty the same way.