Mike Sula wrote on the bean pie
for The Reader.
Another terrific article from Sula based on Engler's gumshoe work. It's great to get more of the story about this pie from the people within the Nation of Islam tradition!
This is a topic that has fascinated me for some time. Finding the navy bean pie recipe in the New England Yankee Cookbook, I thought that using beans in pie may have been a Depression Era way of "making do" when ingredients were hard to come by. However, it seems possible that within New England, the bean pie came via the Portuguese islanders who came to work in the mills during the late 19th century. In towns like Fall River and New Bedford, MA, bean flans and pies are common today (see upthread for a pic of the flan-type). Perhaps ReneG will post some of his pics of the bean pies from a bakery in Fall River, Mass, where he, tatterdemalion and I found some bean pies made dark by caramelizing the sugar prior to inclusion in the pie. Poking around in the Chaves Market (a Portuguese food superstore in Fall River), I also found white bean flour in a box that offered a dessert recipe. Here is a link to Leonor De Sousa Bastos' recipe for her grandmother's bean tarts
, which include almonds (a Moorish influence?).
Since there is nothing new under the sun, I was wondering whether there might be some connection at the roots of both the Portuguese bean pie and the bean pie tradition within the Nation of Islam. Sometime back, I looked into this a bit further. It turns out that sweet bean dishes are common across the lands of the African and Portuguese diasporas. While it seems likely that the piecrust format emerged later (along with the Portuguese custard tart that turned up in Asia?), there appears to be a culinary bridge to Africa by way of the Canary Islands (located only 60 miles from the coast of Morocco).
Just a theory I'll spin out, but the culinary missing link may be gofio
, a porridge or paste of grains or legumes that was the staple food of the indigenous Guanches
, early Canary Islanders of Berber origin. Here
is a llnk in Portuguese that describes gofio, which remains a heritage food in the islands. According to the previous link and other sources, gofio preparations may be either savory or sweet; it is sometimes combined with eggs and oil and sweetened. Other preparations reveal a Moorish-Islamic heritage with their inclusion of almonds and spices. The Canary Islands were a "melting pot" and sugar cane producer during the era of European conquests and the associated trade in human beings, sugar, and rum. Gofio was a durable, portable food for a long sea journey, and likely made its way to the Carribean, along with other Canarian traditions that linger in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and South America. According to this Acadian-Cajun geneaology
, Spain encouraged voluntary Canarian emigration to the New World beginning in the late 1600's and recruited 2,373 Canarians to defend and populate Louisiana in 1777-79. Could it be that the Canarian-Acadians in Louisiana have a sweet bean tradition? I'm still running that down, but all in all, there seems to be a story about the bean pie's origins in the African diaspora that ultimately leads back to Africa, which I think perhaps, Elijah Muhammad might have appreciated. I hope so, anyway.
Man : I can't understand how a poet like you can eat that stuff.
T. S. Eliot: Ah, but you're not a poet.