Mubarakah Ibrahim didn’t expect a cancer scare to lead her to any sweet treats. But when a doctor found a growth on her uterus, she was hit with a thought that pierced her to her very core: What if I never get to eat bean pie again?
Ibrahim survived that scare. Now she is revisiting a culinary history she grew up with, and bringing it to New Haven.
Ibrahim is a well-known local fitness trainer and founder of the women’s health not-for-profit Fit Haven (as well as a radio host). She has now launched Mmm Pies and Gourmet Desserts, a New Haven bean pie bakery and distributor.
Watch out, New Haven. A new treat, with a backstory, has arrived.
Bean Pie Days
On a recent Sunday, Ibrahim was in her kitchen, blending soaked navy beans, milk, eggs and sugar into a smooth, fragrant custard that would puff up in the oven. She crimped the bright edges of pie crust, ran through buttons on a blender, checked the temperature of the oven. She paused to adjust the corners of a headscarf printed with bright flowers and leafy swags.
The ritual, she said, anchors her to a rich history of food, black culture, American diaspora and religious revolution.
Ibrahim is a practicing Sunni Muslim. The bean pie has its roots in the Nation of Islam (NOI), a black Muslim organization founded in the 1930s. In 1967, NOI leader Elijah Muhammad published his book How To Eat To Live, a set of gastronomic guidelines for followers that doubled as a tribute to whole foods — unprocessed foods, as well as particular types of beans, grains, natural sweeteners like honey, and meats and fish that exclude bottom-feeders, scavengers, and pork. Among the most heralded were the navy bean.
Not just heralded, but revered as a culinary staple. Muhammad said he could raise a man “from a baby to 100 years old on the navy bean alone.” He instructed his readers, “Do not eat any bean but the small navy bean—the little brown pink ones, and the white ones.”
Of the bean recipes that emerged from the book, two stuck: a thick, savory navy bean soup, and sweet bean pie. The latter took on a life of its own, baked and distributed in NOI strongholds including Detroit, Chicago, and New York City. Carried onto street corners, small bodegas, and bake shops in these cities, Ibrahim recalls them as accompanied by four magical words, spoken by their vendors: “Bean pie, my brother?” Or in her case, “Bean pie, my sister?”
That’s where Ibrahim found them, and they found her. Spending her “formidable years as a child” in Brooklyn, she and her sisters developed a routine. Midday during the summers, they would head to a neighborhood playground nestled between Alabama and Georgia Avenues. The boys would head to the basketball court to shoot hoops. She and other 8 and 9 year olds would eye a wide expanse of cement, where teenage girls including her older sister were practicing double dutch, precise and mesmerizing as they jumped through the ropes. A few of “the really nice” older girls would offer, without fail, to teach Ibrahim.
When she and her friends took a break, they’d grab cash from their mothers and walk over to a cool basement corner store, where the owner was selling six-inch bean pies. They’d buy a few, and munch on them for the rest of the day, practicing new double dutch moves until the sun went down and it was time to head back inside and eat dinner.
One bite of the sweet, spicy pie meant “friends, family, community, safety,” said Ibrahim.
Then she grew up, moved to a state where there was no plentitude of bean pies, and started the road to fitness trainer. A road that didn’t include a lot of sugar-studded signposts.
From Memory To Mmm
When Ibrahim moved to Connecticut in 1992, she didn’t have bean pie on the brain. Not immediately. Mutual friends introduced her to her now-husband, current Newhallville top cop Shafiq Abdussabur, at Masjid Al-Islam in its old Dixwell Avenue location. She got married and became a mom—four times over—and spent 10 years homeschooling the kids, developing a love for whole foods as she cooked them for her family each day for lunch and dinner. Then 15 years ago, she started to work as a a fitness trainer whose outlook on women’s health took her not only to outposts in the Hill and Newhallville, but also national and international workshops. She was careful about the amount of sugar and fat she consumed, steering clear of desserts herself.
That changed with a cancer scare a few years ago. At a routine appointment, a doctor found a growth in her uterus and ordered a biopsy. Results took around a week to turn around; Ibrahim remembers time slowing down and dragging during those seven days. Among those thoughts and fears that she experienced: Will I ever get to eat bean pie again?
“In the face of not knowing anything, you think of worst case scenario,” she said. “And so at that time, I was like: Do I want to die not having not had the slice of pie? That was literally my thought process. Like—I’ve given up so much ... are you going to enjoy life along the way?”
One week later, she got good news: it wasn’t cancer.“It really was a wake-up call for more moderation, for more enjoyment of life,” she recalled. Enjoyment that included eating bean pies—while still working out five or six days a week and eating lots of greens.
She’d fantasized about them from time to time, almost tasting their sweet, decidedly un-beany texture on the tip of her tongue. Her husband, who had belonged to NOI before converting to Sunni Islam, recalled how he used to sell the pies, and missed them still.
But there wasn’t a distributor in Connecticut. After considering getting in her car and driving over an hour to Brooklyn, Ibrahim decided to try making them herself.
She thought she might find a recipe online. But a Google search returned a result as horrifying as it was side-splittingly funny: a bean pie in a soggy, tired-looking crust, with whole navy beans spilling out from the sides of a slice. That was a non-starter: cooked bean pies aren’t supposed to resemble the humble legume from which they come. They’re golden brown, with a custard filling just a few shades lighter than pumpkin or sweet potato. She put a screenshot of the bean pie on Facebook; friends familiar with the culinary tradition chimed in, suggesting she try her own recipe. She still knew the texture and flavor profile from childhood, she reasoned.
In Abdussabur, she had a willing taste-tester. So she got to work, pulling out kitchen utensils and measuring tools, scrutinizing overnight soaking practices and best dry bean distributors, writing down every amount of every ingredient.
It was slow going, she said. Just when she thought she’d nailed an amount, Abdussabur would say it came close to the bean pies he’d sold and eaten years ago, but didn’t hit the exact mark. She recalled being deeply grateful for her training in science, and aversion to “naked numbers”—measurements without units attached—that a teacher had instilled in her some 20 years prior.
She tried different recipe permutations—blending the milk, then the eggs, then the vanilla, then the beans, then the sugar; the sugar, then the beans, then the eggs, then the milk, then some of her secret ingredients—but the consistency and flavor weren’t quite right. Back to the oven, and several rolled-out pastry shells, she’d go with a pie-scented cotton apron never far from reach.
Then one night, Abdussabur took a piece into his mouth, chewed pensively, and proclaimed the recipe spot-on.
Ibrahim checked the amounts to make sure she’d committed everything to paper. The recipe was typed up and slipped into a pamphlet with “Mmm Pies/SECRET/Recipes” in large black and red typeface on the front.
Before she would allow her daughter to join her in the kitchen, she made her swear not to share the ingredients, amounts, or order with anyone. While she beta-tested batches for friends and family to get their feedback — including one weekend where she made 25 pies in 48 hours — she also moved forward with the business end of things. She secured a commercial kitchen, at Katalina’s on Whitney Avenue, where she can bake two days per week, and got the right licenses to sell food. She learned that ingredients, each painstakingly weighed out, needed to be listed in order of metric weight on each box. Then she took a deep breath, and reached out to local distributors.
Stores Sign On
Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea was the first to say yes — at least for a test run. When its two small coffee shops on York Street and Grove Street were sold out of individual, 3-inch pies within a week, the shop doubled its order. Then she asked herself, “Who [else] would be interested in this unique” type of pie?
Thyme & Season, a Hamden market run by State Rep. John Elliott and his mom, offered to test them out. People started messaging Ibrahim to say they’d tried to get pie and found them out of stock. Edge of The Woods and Shelton’s Common Bond market jumped on next.
Of the two, Edge was of particular significance to Ibrahim—she’s been shopping there for the better part of 25 years. When she dropped pies off there last week, an employee asked how quickly he could buy one from her. It turned out that as a kid in New York, his grandmother used to take him down the street to buy bean pies from NOI practitioners. For her, that was bean pie juju coming full circle.
“I love the fact that every time [I sell bean pie], someone tells me about the memories,” she said. “Those kind of things really touch you. You’re able to bring back that memory of just love and care to people and that’s what food does.”
“No matter what ethnicity or culture that you’re from, there’s some type of food from your childhood that is attached to a memory,” she added. “That is the commonality between us all—that we have these memories that are attached to very tangible things that we taste, things that we smell, things that we touch. We have these memories that are attached to them. So food is kind of the common denominator.”
She also sees it as a way to bridge cultural gaps, and talk about the cultural and culinary history of foodways and mores in the African-American community. “Particularly in this climate, I find ... I enjoy really having that discussion with people about the history of food in the African-American community and where bean pies lie in that history.
And she has a new maxim for her trainees. Life is short. Eat a piece of pie.
Click on or listen to the audio above to hear a discussion with Ibrahim about her bean pie business on WNHH radio’s “Kitchen Sync,” or check out “Kitchen Sync” on iTunes or any podcatcher.