When Hanan Shabazz accepted Chef John Fleer’s invitation to host a Sunday supper at Rhubarb restaurant in Asheville four and a half years ago, neither suspected it would be the start of a beautiful friendship and the foundation for a brand-new restaurant, Benne on Eagle, that has the culinary world abuzz. What Shabazz knew — and what she shared with Fleer, his crew, and his guests at that supper to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — was the history of The Block, a small downtown neighborhood that was once the epicenter of Asheville’s African-American community. That commercial and residential area in the city’s downtown is where Shabazz, now 70, grew up and learned the ritual of her own Sunday suppers in her grandmother’s kitchen and in the restaurants that once filled The Block with the enticing aromas of food for the soul.
“It’s been pretty much a love affair since we met,” Fleer says. “Hanan has been teaching me so much about the life of this community.”
But The Block, like much of Asheville’s downtown, is no longer what it was, having been gentrified into a commercial area geared more toward tourists and shadowed by the construction of new hotels. The partners behind The Foundry Hotel, situated at Eagle and Main streets, once the nexus of The Block, approached Fleer about opening a flagship restaurant in their new property. He hesitated at first, but then realized it was an opportunity to shine a light on a historic area and the largely unknown concept of African-American Appalachian food.
“If I was going to do this restaurant,” he explains, “there were certain things that had to be in place. I had to be able to employ people from the community. I had to have Hanan on board, and I needed to find an African-American chef to manifest that vision.”
Ashleigh Shanti, 29, is that chef, and now the restaurant’s vision — an umami-rich combination of Appalachian, West African, and totally original flavors — appears on the tables like this: Ogbono-rubbed pork ribs drenched in a citrusy pepper-vinegar sauce and served with buttermilk britches — a crunchier, tangier take on traditional Appalachian leather britches (dried green beans) — and fragrant, crumbly cracked-corn spoon bread to sop up the juices. A couple each of akara fritters (hush puppies made from black-eyed peas) with seasoned yogurt and sorghum mustard. A meal-size cabbage pancake, whose pedestrian name doesn’t begin to describe these skillet-crisped discs spiked with sausage, radicchio, shiitakes, sprouted field peas, and a creamy slather of something heavenly called mayo chowchow.
Benne’s menu, and its concept — as a restaurant rooted in a specific place and culture — has turned a spotlight on Asheville’s culinary scene, past and future. Right before Benne opened in late 2018, cookbook author and food celebrity Carla Hall of The Chew and Bravo’s Top Chef dined in and then shouted out, on Open Table, that Benne was now in her top 10 of fantastic American restaurants. Food magazine profiles followed. The food website Eater lauded the restaurant for putting a “focus on black regional foodways … a part of Appalachia that many haven’t heard about, or have forgotten.”
“Ah,” Chef Shanti says, grinning and giving Shabazz an affectionate nudge. “I couldn’t do this without her.”
The two are sitting side by side in one of Benne’s roomy booths, trading compliments and good-natured gibes like old friends — or family. Capped in her trademark white kufi, Shabazz’s face is creased with determination and wisdom, but also plenty of laughter. Shanti wears a patterned black kerchief to hold back her crest of locks. She’s decades younger than Shabazz, but she shares the same confidence and strength. The two laugh easily, and it’s no surprise when Shanti says that Shabazz is “like my grandmother.”
“But you — you’ve been my teacher,” Shabazz counters. “I have learned so much from you — about spices from Africa, and about Appalachia from you and Fleer. We’ve all been learning here.”
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The southern Appalachian region has a complex history and a tenacious mythology. Some of those myths are celebratory and some are derogatory. Some are based in local fact, and others are, as we like to say in these parts, fotched–on. One of the most persistent and least accurate is the story that African-Americans have had little to no presence in the region. Contemporary studies of the antebellum period, such as John Inscoe’s Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina or Wilma Dunaway’s Slavery in the American Mountain South, effectively dispute that history. A look at foodways in the region confirms the deep influence of black culture in the area.
The southern Appalachian region has a complex history and a tenacious mythology.
The oldest known published cookbook by an African-American in Southern Appalachia was written by Malinda Russell, a free black woman born around 1819 just over the Blue Ridge in Washington County, Tennessee. She was a private cook for wealthier families in the mountains early on, married, and then became a widow. As a single mother, she ran a successful bakery and boardinghouse on Chuckey Mountain, until marauders during the Civil War forced her to flee to the North.
Or consider the Drovers Road, a dusty turnpike of hogs, cattle, ducks, and turkeys transported to the plantations of South Carolina for sale. It coursed through the hills of Kentucky, Tennessee, and western North Carolina, right down what is now Broadway Street in Asheville. Many drovers for these herds were young enslaved black men. The animals needed food, water, and rest about every 10 miles, as did their minders, so feed lots and simple inns grew up along the route. Enslaved and free African-Americans cooked and performed many of the hospitality duties in these rough hotels, and also in the finer inns in the region that provided summer getaways for wealthy plantation families and Northern industrialists.
Asheville was a hub for both commerce and tourism, and when the Civil War ended the possibility of work in both, factories, like the one from which The Foundry Hotel takes its name and location, offered opportunities for the newly emancipated. Black workers were able to build homes and build up a business district on Eagle and adjacent Market Street, the area that eventually became known as The Block.
Like the city itself, The Block had periods of prosperity as well as lean times. During the Jim Crow era, it was a place where black patrons, barred from white restaurants and businesses, could work, shop, and gather to eat. But the destruction and construction of 1970s urban renewal accelerated the area’s decline. By the start of this century, few businesses operated on The Block, and many Asheville residents knew little of the area or its history.
“I got to see the power in telling stories with food, in sharing your identity on the plate.”
In 2012, the publication of a dissertation about Asheville’s black community from 1793 to 1900, written by local history professor Darin Waters, sparked new awareness of the neighborhood. At the urging of Waters and others, art exhibits were mounted, and organizations and individuals began creating events to highlight The Block’s neglected history. Local media featured stories not only from the past, but also from Asheville’s contemporary black community. One of those clarion voices belongs to Shabazz.
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In Benne’s mottled stoneware bowls and plates, made by local potter Jim McDowell, the African-American history of this corner of Appalachia is tangible, with flavors and textures telling a story. That story is told on a wall of the restaurant, too, on which hang four portraits — painted by Asheville (by way of New Orleans) artist Joseph Pearson — of women who are regarded as legends of The Block.
Shabazz, in her white kufi cap, is the one with the eagle-eyed gaze. In the late 1960s, when she briefly lived in New York City, her life intersected with leaders who were shaping the civil rights movement — Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis, as well as Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. She met Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom. “And anytime I had the chance, I’d feed the ones I met,” she says.
The lessons she learned from her mother and in her grandmother’s Asheville kitchen — how to wash greens, then simmer them low and slow; how to stretch a piece of meat to feed a family; how to make cornbread — she took to the New York kitchens that she helped run, which fed anyone in the black community who was hungry. There, she learned new dishes, new techniques. “I bet I learned 100 different ways to cook whitefish,” she says, “and all kinds of things to make with leftovers. And that’s also where I learned to make my bean pie.”
Filled with a spiced puree of cooked navy beans and tasting similar to but more delicate than sweet potato pie, bean pies became Shabazz’s specialty when she returned to Asheville. She served them at Shabazz Soul Food, which she and her husband and brothers owned and operated on The Block in the early 1970s, and at the bakery where she worked after that. Her signature apple fritters were legendary in town, too. Shabazz was known to set up a kitchen to feed people just about anywhere — for a meeting or an event, or, she says, “just set up in a park or my front yard. Everybody knew, ‘That’s Hanan’s. Hanan’s feeding us.’”
In 2011, she became a teacher in Asheville’s Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready Program. The program gives students hands-on training in culinary skills while providing free lunches for people in the community. It was while she was working there that Shabazz met Fleer, who had recently opened Rhubarb. Fleer wanted Rhubarb’s menu to be based on Appalachian foodways, but also to reflect the distinct culture of Asheville — including the story of its black community. He reached out to Shabazz to create a one-time family-style Sunday supper at Rhubarb that would serve as a fund-raiser for Green Opportunities and a tribute to The Block. After that, Sunday Supper became a Rhubarb staple.
• • •
Rhubarb is also where Shanti met Fleer. The two were connected by Derek Herre, chef de cuisine at Rhubarb. He knew Shanti from their time working together for Kinston chef and PBS star Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer. Herre convinced Shanti to come to Asheville for three days and talk with Fleer about a new restaurant he wanted to open. Shanti says, “That was like the magical end to my journey.”
“I didn’t even think about being Appalachian until we started this.”
The journey began with her first restaurant gig at age 16 in Virginia Beach. “My parents’ rule was you had to get a summer job when you turned 16. I didn’t want a job, so I got one in this grueling, dirty, frantic, hard-on-the-body restaurant kitchen that I thought would for sure get my parents to let me off the hook, and I could spend my summer at the beach.” Instead, she discovered that she liked the work and stayed on through the school year. Even after she completed a graduate degree in business marketing, she kept returning to the restaurant kitchen.
Later, as a culinary assistant at Chef & the Farmer, Shanti says, “I got to see the power in telling stories with food, in sharing your identity on the plate. But I knew I was not cooking from my heart, my story. And I realized I needed to go on a journey just to find out what my story even was.”
She and her partner, a metalworker, set out to look for a place where both could find meaningful work. A trip of several months took them to Pensacola, Florida, New Orleans, and even Copenhagen. On that adventure, Shanti began to create her dream menu, one reflecting her story: It had spices from West Africa, where her ancestors came from, alongside fresh snapped beans and flavors that echoed the seasonal produce her grandmother would cook and can at her home on the Dan River. It had her love of the mountains, and of the beach.
When she met Fleer, “I showed him my menu, and he brought out the one he’d been working on for Benne, and they had so many connections,” she says. “It was a monumental moment. Like everything had been leading up to it, even the fact that I had a dog named Roux” — pronounced like Rhu, Fleer’s restaurant — “and that I’ve longed to name my firstborn Benne.”
The ultimate affirmation, though, has been Shabazz and her stories, her life experiences. “She provides confirmation that we are indeed doing the work here in the right way,” Shanti says.
Shabazz jumps in to add that it’s not a one-way street: “She knows about the food of Appalachia — the drying of the beans, the fermenting. I didn’t even think about being Appalachian until we started doing this. And she brings all these spices I never heard of, but they’re from Africa, so they make sense with what I bring. I bring the soul.”
The result of this collaboration can be tasted in Benne’s fish cakes, simple and crisp as only Shabazz knows how to make them, but served with a curried tartar sauce and on a bed of kale (one of the traditional greens of the mountain South) spiked with ginger chili. And in the traditionally back-of-the-stove braised rabbit, smothered in onions and served with Shabazz’s apple fritter, which is a little more savory now than her original sweet treat.
Theirs is the kind of collaboration that springs from a family table: the echo of tradition in the old recipes, the reinvention of favorite dishes. “I call her my grandmother,” Shanti says, “because she is, spiritually and in the kitchen.”
Benne on Eagle
35 Eagle Street,
Asheville, NC 28801