Ode to Bean Pies

By Melisa Gerecci

No history needed, it tastes that good

I saw a bean pie before I knew what it was. A golden-brown disk, about the size of the palm of your hand. Its warm fragrance of cinnamon and vanilla floated over the scented soaps and cut oils for sale downtown. When I picked one up, it had heft—about the weight of a casserole. Finally, I read the label: bean pie. I grew up in Houston, so I have an eye for pie. Still, this was my first encounter with a pie of the bean variety. 

So I got to work. Bean pies taste sweet and just a bit tangy, like buttermilk pie, but also earthy and spicy, like pumpkin pie. There were notes of nutmeg in each bite and a pleasing grit, like a cousin to chess pie. The first ingredient—navy beans—explains the density and the creaminess. The beans are ground fine, which makes the texture consistent and almost silky, more like refried beans than rice pudding. Chilled pies pair perfectly with hot coffee. Freshly baked, a bean pie would be good company with ice cream.   

I did some light Internet digging to find out more. Bean pies originated with the Nation of Islam in the 1930s, when leader Elijah Muhammad told his followers to drop pork, sweet potatoes, and other unhealthy foods and switch to navy beans. They have pride of place in historic spots like Imani’s Original Bean Pie in Chicago and Abu’s Homestyle in Brooklyn. Indeed, bean pies appear anywhere the Nation has an established presence, including Newark.

Bean pie is simple, but also comes in nearly-unlimited variety. Newark-based Grandma’s Halal Pies, for example, bakes banana-bean, apple-bean, and blueberry-bean. Bloomfield-based Pure Love Pies offers butternut squash and classic navy bean. Bakers have even moved beyond the pies’ political and religious roots to create combo sweet potato-navy bean blends. The Yard in Military Park offers bean pies that replace sugar with sea moss, from Montana’s Sweet Moss Pies. I found Bronx-based Mr. B’s at Stop & Shop and the Hillside-based Bean Pie Café brand at Whole Foods in Newark, West Orange, and Vauxhall. Hassan Simmons runs Bean Pie Café. His motivating motto: “Inspiring Bean Pie believers, one person at a time.” 

Words sometimes get in the way. We eat what’s around us, what we see others eating, and what tastes delicious. I didn’t have to know that these pies had beans in them to enjoy them. So set aside the idea of protein, fiber-filled, and maybe even bland beans. Sink your fork into bean pie’s creamy goodness and ENJOY. 

Melisa Gerecci is an illustrator and artist in residence at Index Art Center.

Featured photo by Melisa Gerecci