For decades in the mid-20th century, men in bow ties sold bean pies from the street corners of Brooklyn. They were members of the Nation of Islam, an African-American Muslim group. Their pies were made of navy beans, and the delicately sweet, custardy, crisp-crusted pies were their answer to the sweet potato pie. It was part of the Nation of Islam’s broader attempt to forge an African-American identity, and cuisine, that was not primarily attached to the foods of the American South, and thus, by extension, the legacy of American slavery. Regarded as one of the only American-born Muslim foods, the bean pie is no longer found on the sidewalks of New York. But if you step into the warm, welcoming storefront of Abu’s Homestyle Bakery in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, you too can sample a slice.
Idris Conry, the self-described Abu, or “father,” of the bakery, is there most afternoons. Except for a three-year stint as a professional baker in the United Arab Emirates, he’s lived his whole life in Brooklyn. He was born in a house on Greene Street, just walking distance from the bakery; he taught at local public schools; he worshipped at the mosque next door; and he now continues to preside over the neighborhood and its classic sweet treat. Conry started baking as a teenager, when he stumbled upon a cookbook that included a recipe for Muhammad Ali’s favorite apple cake. He looked up to the champion fighter, and decided to try the recipe at home. Soon, his self-taught baking was in such high demand among his friends, family, and eventually his fellow teachers that Conry started regularly showing up to work with armfuls of baked goods.
Conry has been a member of the local mosque community, just next door to his shop, for decades. In the 1980s, when the neighborhood’s crack epidemic was at its height, he and fellow believers from the mosque organized as a community to chase drug dealers out of the neighborhood and keep one another safe. He received the famous bean pie recipe from a community member at the mosque, as well. He’s been making and selling the pies out of his Bed-Stuy storefront since the early 2000s. And while he’s now officially passed the ownership of the bakery down to his son, you’ll still find him sitting in his family’s shop in the afternoon, greeting well-loved neighbors who stop by for sweets and coffee, and selling a sweet piece of this Muslim-American community’s history.
Know Before You Go
Bean pies come in three sizes: four-inch, six-inch, and nine-inch. You may think the four-inch is enough, but you will want more. For those who aren't into navy beans, the glass counter offers a selection of other treats, including the bean pie's rival, sweet potato pie.