January 7, 2010
posted by Jimmy Higgins
I first learned of the theological importance of bean pies at NYU in late 1968, Jerry 10X, a basketball player and a leader of Katara, the Black student organization at NYU’s then-Uptown Campus in the Bronx, had recently converted to the Nation of Islam but was still willing hang with the SDS crew as we had supported Katara in a building seizure earlier in the semester. Jerry instructed me as to the central role that the bean pie (sort of a Platonic ideal of a bean pie) played in keeping the cosmos balanced. I wish I could remember the details--it was a doozy of a piece of religious reasoning.
No mention of bean pies occurs in NOI patriarch Elijah Muhammed’s How To Eat To Live, but the book passionately advocates for small navy beans as an ideal food for NOI members (and strenuously warns against the large white beans). By the 1950s bean pies were being made and sold by members of the faith in cities across the country, and became a kind of signifier of Black nationalism, even among non-Muslims.
This recipe though is dedicated to the New York-based Panther 21. The Black Panther Party formed a New York section in the summer of 68 and grew rapidly. An early recruit was Lumumba Shakur, a follower of Islam and Malcolm X, and the son of a Muslim family. In a whirlwind of activity frantic even for those revolutionary times, Lumumba headed and built the Harlem branch, coordinated with the heads of other NYC branches, oversaw mass campaigns demanding community control of hospitals, spoke publicly for the new organization public, recruited, trained and drilled new members—and met, proposed to and married a young woman named Alice Faye Williams, who became Afeni Shakur.
Afeni recalls, "Lumumba introduced me to hot bean pie. We would buy them on the corner of One Twenty-sixth and Lenox. Bring them home. Heat them in the oven. Slice them up and eat the whole thing. Delicious. Sweet. We’d eat the whole thing…Just happy…"
Less than a year later in April, 1969 the NYC police rounded up Lumumba, Afeni and a dozen and a half other members of the BPP on various conspiracy charges, signaling the start of an all-out nation-wide assault on the growing and influential revolutionary organization.
The Panther 21 faced two years of grueling court battles before all those still facing charges were exonerated by juries of their peers. Meanwhile, splits between the East and West Coast Panthers and divisions within the ranks of the 21 defendants themselves sent Lumumba and Afeni and the others spinning on very different trajectories, to more struggle, to burnout, to death, to life in prison, to crime, to addiction, to a quiet everyday life…to Afeni’s loss of her son Tupac Shakur in the hip-hop wars of the ‘90s.
But this recipe is for those days when the Panthers were playing a vanguard role in this country, the struggle was ripping, the people’s movements were erupting and every day held the possibility of "Just happy"…and more.
Damn Good Bean Pie
This recipe is for the filling, enough for two pies. Use your own personal favorite piecrust recipe—one of the best bean pies I ever et had a Graham cracker crust. Or in a pinch, a good commercial piecrust, the kind you unfold or unroll into your own pan, like Pillsbury, will do fine.
2 cups dry small Navy beans
Check ‘em over for stones, rinse ‘em well in a colander and let ‘em soak in 5 cups of water overnight. Drain and rinse, add fresh water to cover by 1.5" and bring to a boil. Then just simmer for about 90 minutes, skimming and adding water if necessary.
Preheat oven to 350.
Beat into beans for about 3 minutes:
1 stick butter
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
1 standard can evaporated milk (not condensed!)
Finally mix in:
2 cups sugar
2 tbsp real vanilla
Now pour the glop into your crust and pop it in the oven for an hour. It should be golden brown on top and smell fabulous.
(I like to add a half tsp mace, but if you don’t have any, it’s completely optional.)