Eyes on the Pies

This past December, Mubarakah Ibrahim had a craving. It was sudden, as cravings tend to be, but this one nagged at her for months: she desperately wanted a bean pie. But there was a problem: bean pies—a black Muslim specialty made from navy beans, the favorite food of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad—are not available in New Haven. Ibrahim, a Black, Orthodox Sunni business owner in New Haven, lived two hours away from New York City and the nearest bean pies. She was tempted to make the trek, but knew there had to be a better way. “I can bake,” Ibrahim thought to herself. “I can figure this out.”
Ibrahim got to work. Nine different recipes and countless family taste-tests led to a product and a custom label: a cartoon version of herself, wearing a pastel pink hijab and a magenta apron, smiling and holding a bean pie in each hand, with the business’ name, “MmmPies,” hanging overhead. Leveraging a wide network of personal connections (including a few state representatives) accrued from almost two decades of living and working in New Haven, she quickly obtained all the necessary food vending licenses.

This is how it tends to go with Ibrahim. Within weeks, whims become sustainable business ventures. MmmPies is just the latest notch in Ibrahim’s professional belt, one that has made her something of a New Haven celebrity. She is at once a serial entrepreneur, a community leader, a fitness expert who opened Balance Fitness, New Haven’s first all women’s fitness studio, a radio show host, a motivational speaker, a business consultant, an Oprah alum, (her appearance helped her gain an audience of 276,000 on social media), and a mother of four.

MmmPies, however, represents a departure for Ibrahim. In some ways, her baking business seems at odds with her previous career as a fitness expert, but she views MmmPies, like her fitness practice, as part of a larger project to help Muslim women and make Muslim identities more visible in the New Haven community. But with MmmPies, she is trying a new tactic. Instead of relying on her charismatic presence to connect with her customers in person, she is making her pies and releasing them into the world, where they will land on the tables of people she may never meet.

In the back room of Katalina’s, a local bakery on Whitney Avenue, I watch as Ibrahim pours Tupperware after Tupperware of slippery navy beans into a massive silver mixing bowl. She rents the mid-sized commercial kitchen every Tuesday to bake for MmmPies. The kitchen is modest—a central metal table, baking equipment cluttered on a single shelf—and her operation is as simple as her recipe: boxes of frozen pie crusts, containers of beans, a crate of eggs, sugar. She is wearing a royal blue, floral-patterned hijab with a matching long-sleeved shirt, and she only stops chatting when she senses that the blender is drowning out her laugh.

Ibrahim grew up in a large family, the fifth of six children in a Black Muslim household in Senoia, a small town in Georgia. She tells people that her birth happened like a country song. “I was born in a house that my parents built by hand, at sunset, by the lights of a car,” she tells me, anticipating my incredulity with her laughter. “Cause it was getting dark, and they didn’t have electricity, so somebody literally drove their car to the window and shined the headlights in the room so my mother could give birth to me.”

As Ibrahim pours the beige batter into the empty crusts, she narrates her past number by number. Her pregnancy weight gain? Eighty-three pounds. Her post-pregnancy weight loss? Down from 198 pounds in February to 120 pounds by June 27. The date she opened Balance Fitness? March 14, 2007. The night a producer from Oprah called to have her on the show? Thursday, September 13, 2007. The length of the segment? Ten minutes, twenty-nine seconds. Complementing Ibrahim’s entrepreneurial tenacity is a keen awareness of her own brand, including all its specific details.

When she gained a substantial amount of weight during her first pregnancy due to complications from a separated pelvic bone, she was determined to avoid the history of diabetes that runs in her family. After constructing an intense personal fitness regimen for herself, Ibrahim caught the attention of women in her mosque for whom exercise had never felt accessible. She explained to me that a lot of Muslim women don’t exercise, “especially Muslim women who are more devout.” Within a year, at the age of twenty, Ibrahim had clients. Ten years later in 2007, she transformed that informal project into Balance Fitness. By the end of that year, she had appeared on Oprah to talk about how an Orthodox Sunni woman could be a personal trainer. As we spoke in the kitchen, she used a line I later realized came directly from her appearance on the show: “No matter where you choose to worship,” she said, “every woman wants to know how you get rid of cellulite.”

Ten years after that appearance, Ibrahim still sees clients, but she has since sold her fitness studio, pouring her energy into MmmPies. Whatever her current focus, though, she’s still known around New Haven for her entrepreneurial reflex. “I look at her and I think, ‘I’m capable, why don’t I do that,’” Celeste Valencia, one of Ibrahim’s personal training clients, told me. “I don’t know what it is, the entrepreneur gene. She’ll come upon challenges and say ‘today I learned this, and I didn’t know that before!’”

Back in the Katalina’s kitchen, I help Ibrahim unwrap around a hundred frozen pie crusts which are made local, since making them herself would be financially and logistically impossible. She fills each with batter. The pies are destined for coffee shops and supermarkets around Connecticut and Massachusetts—Edge of the Woods, Willoughby’s, Kevin’s Seafood—as well as for shipment across the country. In recent weeks, Ibrahim has shipped pies as far as California and Texas.
MmmPies is a small company, but there’s already evidence that others share Ibrahim’s craving. A review on MmmPies’s Facebook page from Yasmeen Abdur-Rahman reads: “These bean pies remind me of The Nation of Islam and my father! I plan to order again, really soon!” But while Ibrahim wants to make bean pies accessible to Black Muslims who, like her, remember them from their childhoods, she also hopes to elevate bean pies to a place in the American culinary cultural pantheon. “I want the bean pie to have a place at the table next to the pumpkin pie and the sweet potato pie,” she says. And she wants to be the one to do it.

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