The radical story behind the sea bean cake at Abu’s Bakery

  • Navy bean cake originally originated from the controversial Nation of Islam, a black nationalist and social reform movement.
  • The cake was a favorite of boxer Muhammad Ali.
  • Small bakeries like Abu’s in Brooklyn have brought bean cake to the larger black Muslim community.

When Muhammad Ali lost The Fight of the Century to Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, he blamed his loss not on skill or luck, but on bean pie.

Ali hadn’t been able to resist slices of the cream pie, thickened with white beans and mixed with cinnamon and vanilla, during her training, her personal chef, Lana Shabazz, wrote in her cookbook, “Cooking for the Champion.”

Bean pie rose to prominence with the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist and social reform movement founded in the 1930s that has generated controversy for its anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ positions. (Ali initially joined the group before rejecting it and turning to Sunni Islam.) But since then, the dish has been embraced by the broader black Muslim community in America.

In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, around the corner from the Masjid At-Taqwa mosque, is Abu’s, an unassuming bakery with a maroon sign and crimson door. Abu’s, the sign says, is the “bean cake company.”

Idris Conry, a Sunni Muslim and Brooklyn native with an entrepreneurial zeal, started Abu’s in 2000 after selling popcorn and cotton candy at local fairs and basketball games. He named the bakery after the Arabic word for “father.” Conry’s sons, Idris and Muhammed, have helped out at the store from a young age, washing “a thousand pans” as kids, Muhammed told Insider.

Pastries at Abu's Bakery in Brooklyn

Abu’s sells a variety of pies, but is best known for its bean pie.

Erika Ramirez/Insider

Conry learned the bean cake recipe from a Muslim sister who used to be a follower of the Nation of Islam. Conry turned the cake, rich in a history of self-determinism for African-Americans, into something available to the general population.

White beans were prescribed as a form of black sovereignty.

Founded on the beliefs of black nationalism and separatism, the Nation of Islam represented a profound departure from the more collaborative civil rights philosophies of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. The Nation, led by controversial figures like Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, advocated instead for a new black identity free from the legacies of slavery.

In addition to practices like replacing surnames given by slaveholders with “X,” the Nation sought to forge a food culture and identity that was distinct from foods associated with slavery, such as sweet potatoes, according to historian and educator Zaheer Ali. .

“In the 1960s, pastries, and white beans as a staple food, were part of a larger effort by the Nation of Islam to achieve food sovereignty for black America,” Ali said.

Muhammad Ali and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam

Boxer Muhammad Ali, right, talks with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Bettmann/fake images

Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation from 1934 until his death in 1975, outlined his dietary recipes in his two-book series, “How to Eat to Live.” Muhammad emphasized vegetarianism and limited sugar, processed grains, and traditional soul food ingredients like corn, kale, and pork. In his books, Muhammad writes that Allah especially valued small white beans, “the small pinkish-brown ones and the white ones,” as “very rich in protein, fat, and starch, and is a safe food to prolong life.” . to 240 years.

The Nation’s religious dietary laws were not only divinely recommended, but also “expressions of cultural self-determination and a means to generate economic activity,” Ali told Insider.

“The bean cake was introduced as a change from what was considered a diet that originated in slavery, and it proved to be a popular product for businesses and fundraisers,” Ali said.

Bean Pie as Uniquely American

The Masjid At-Taqwa Mosque, the mosque just steps from Abu’s, was founded by former members of the Nation who left to practice a more traditional form of Islam. Conry attended the mosque, and fellow congregation adherents flock to Abu’s for his bean pie.

Abu's Bakery in Brooklyn sells bean cakes

A customer wearing a religious kufi hat outside Abu’s in Brooklyn.

Erika Ramirez/Insider

“The bakery has the atmosphere of people coming from everywhere, talking about music, talking about politics, talking about this and that,” said Muhammed Conry. “It’s the community gathering place, the gathering place.”

Bean pie wasn’t usually sold in stores, but family-run bakeries like Abu’s have tried to popularize it with a broader community.

“We say it’s as American as apple pie. It’s created by an African-American community in America, so where else could its origins lie?” Muhammad said.

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