Though the Nation of Islam is a vestige of the influential body it was, the bean pie has transcended the religion.
LOS ANGELES — As the light turned red at the intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson, Brian Muhammad raised two pink pie boxes in his right hand and strolled up the sidewalk: “Bean pie! Bean pie!”
A yellow school bus with only a few children onboard pulled up to the curb as the driver swung open the door: “Just a regular.”
Muhammad, dressed in a slightly rumpled black suit and a navy bow tie, bounded up the bus steps and handed him a pie.
“My credit good?” the driver said, somewhere between a question and a statement.
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“Yeah,” Muhammad said as he waved him off.
If you sell enough bean pies, you learn a little about life in South Los Angeles — like how to size up a man if he’s good for a $7 pie.
On this northwest corner, peddlers — hawking incense, hot dogs or salvation — run the pavement. Few, however, have lasted as long as Brian Muhammad, 42.
He’s been selling bean pies for 11 years here at one of the busiest and most sought-after intersections for those with something to market. Before him there was Louis Muhammad, who had sold bean pies for years before he was run over by a driver who had suffered a heart attack.
Muhammad has had a few close scrapes himself — to be expected when his job entails dashing between idling vehicles. He’s learned to always keep an eye out for oncoming traffic, even as he watches for drivers in old vehicles.
Beat-up cars mean good customers. “Because they got no car notes, the car is paid off,” Muhammad said. “The ones in the shiny new cars, they’re sweating because they have the car notes, they got no extra money. It’s economics, man.”
Muhammad is part of a Nation of Islam tradition that dates back decades. On any given day, on street corners in cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York, members — clean-cut and dressed in suits and bow ties — can be found selling bean pies and the group’s newspaper, the Final Call.
Here in Los Angeles, selling the pies fits in especially well with a transportation culture where motorists can buy virtually anything that can fit through their driver’s side window.
Though the Nation of Islam is a vestige of the influential body it was in the 1950s and ’60s, the bean pie has long transcended the religion.
“In the black community they know when they see the pink box, they associate it with bean pie, like the golden arch with McDonald’s and the crown with Burger King,” Muhammad said.
The pie dates to the 1930s, when the founder of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, told his followers to eschew pork and unhealthy starches like cornbread and adhere to a healthful diet, with a particular focus on the navy bean. Muslims created the bean pie in part as a healthier substitute for the sweet potato pie.
When Nation members began opening restaurants, bean pies became a menu staple.
Beyond the restaurants, young Muslim men — especially those who could find no other employment — began selling the pie and the group’s newspaper on the streets. Many male members of the Nation have at one point or another sold the pies — almost like a rite of passage. But few have made selling them their sole trade.
Each morning, at around 3 o’clock, Muhammad is in a rented commercial kitchen making dozens of pies for the day’s street sales and his many wholesale orders. When he’s done, he drives back to his South Los Angeles home to get his five children — three boys and two girls, custody of whom he shares with his ex-wife — ready for school. He’s on his corner by late morning or early afternoon.
Muhammad’s corner is an intersection of relentless traffic — both vehicular and pedestrian. As he paces the sidewalk, his eyes, squinting slightly, never leave the four-lane street for long.
The location is notorious for people selling everything from shea butter to Lakers T-shirts to knock-off purses. Vendors come and go. One week, a man is selling hot dogs and nachos from a cart, bragging that he will make this corner his own. The next week he is gone.
Nation members, Muhammad stressed, don’t really sell the pies; they accept donations. He makes about $35,000 from the donations, not including the weekly wholesale orders he gets.
Above the sound of traffic, the incense men can be heard hustling drivers waiting for the light to change.
Muhammad remains mostly silent. On the street, he said, there is no point in being a pushy salesman.
In this part of Los Angeles, people already know what a man in a suit and bow tie is selling. Those who want a pie will let him know — with a honk or a slight raise of the hand — sending him dashing into the traffic lanes. Over the years he has gotten to know his regulars slowly; chats last for only the length of a red light.
In the beginning, Muhammad bought pies wholesale from another Nation member. It was several years before he was trusted enough to be given the recipe.
Now he makes between 200 and 300 pies a week, in addition to smaller individual pies. He uses butter, eggs, whole milk and brown sugar — an unhealthful deviation from the original recipe that used honey and little butter. There are many bean pie recipes with slight variations — some more custard-like, others heavier with the bean. Muhammad’s pies taste not unlike pumpkin pie, with a similar smooth texture.
He rarely eats them himself. “It’ll swell you up,” he said.