Hanan Shabazz is recovering from eye surgery. Her grandmother, Annie Belle Salters, was blind when she died at the age of 95, Shabazz explained.
The chef was talking from the grocery store where she had stopped to get sugar for the cornbread she was baking for Southside Kitchen. There, she and a team of chefs spend their days cooking for anyone who needs a meal.
“It’s a pleasure, being able to do all the things I do and help all the people I help every day,” Shabazz said, pausing to acknowledge a neighbor.
At 71, she also lends her knowledge to John Fleer’s Benne On Eagle, where Ashleigh Shanti is the executive chef and the menu pays homage to the African American roots of Southern food.
“By feeding people, I’m giving love, sharing all the love I have in my heart to the people who need a little love,” Shabazz said. “Not just through my food, but through my soul.”
Shabazz, who said her grandmother taught her to dole out love wherever she could, needs to keep her vision.
She feels driven to keep nurturing the Southside community, to continue her work sharing the history of Black Appalachian foodways, honoring tradition while sharing practical skills like canning in the name of food sovereignty.
That work has not gone unnoticed. The Southern Foodways Alliance has awarded Shabazz its annual Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award, honoring her as a visionary and a foodways tradition bearer of note.
The Southern Foodways Alliance, based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, documents and explores food cultures of the American South.
Saturday, Shabazz was honored during the SFA’s Fall Symposium with a short film about her life by documentary filmmaker Joe York.
BEAN PIES AND WHITING FISH
An Asheville native, Shabazz moved to New York straight out of high school in 1968.
There, she was embraced by the Muslim community, becoming a lieutenant in the Nation of Islam, an experience she described as “learning how to be a 100 percent, full black woman.”
In the early ’70s Shabazz, with her Nation of Islam brothers and sisters, opened Shabazz Restaurant in the Ritz building at 42 S. Market St., where she cooked beans, pies, whiting fish and traditional Southern food without pork.
The neighborhood where her restaurant was, affectionately known as The Block, has changed immeasurably since the ’70s, when Asheville’s so-called “urban renewal” policies leveled a portion of the city to make way for streets like South Charlotte Street and Asheland Avenue
The project displaced more than 1,400 residents, nearly all African American, leading to a decline in traffic to the Black-owned businesses around Eagle and Market streets.
The area is changing again, with new cafes, apartments and the shiny new Foundry Hotel. On one corner of the hotel is Benne on Eagle, where Shabazz’s recipes keep the spirit of the neighborhood alive even though most of the black-owned barber shops and restaurants are long gone.
‘CULINARY FAIRY GODMOTHER’
Benne chef de cuisine Shanti, whose grandmothers and great-grandmothers are no longer able to bear witness to the food of the past, calls Shabazz her culinary fairy godmother.
“The things you never think will never go away, I wish I’d preserved a lot of those things,” Shanti said. “Hanan has filled that void.”
Shabazz is uniquely position to speak to Asheville’s largely unwritten Black history and shine a light on African American foodways and how they influenced Appalachian food, Shanti said. “Her voice is so important.”
Shanti feels a kinship with Shabazz in that she cooks with community in mind.
“As chefs and people in the industry, we have to see ourselves as community leaders,” Shanti said. “And Hanan has parlayed a skill set such as cooking into an avenue to help the community.”
Shanti said Shabazz’s presence is palpable when she’s in the kitchen at Benne.
“People sense her presence,” Shanti said. “She walks into the dining room and gets pulled from table to table, and ends up in the dining room all night.”
Shabazz never pulls herself away, and as a result ends up in the kitchen, making cornbread until after midnight, well after the rest of the staff have gone home.
“People love her warmth, and her storytelling really grips people,” Shanti said. “It’s captivating, and it shows the value of women like Hanan and their legacy.”
COLLARD GREENS AND CHOW CHOW
Shabazz delights in turning eggplant and tomatoes donated to Southside Kitchen or pulled from the kitchen garden that grows outside into meals that sustain house-bound seniors and, more frequently now, people sick with COVID-19.
Charity is an important pillar of Islam, but even more valued is sadaqa jariyah, or perpetual charity. Christians might call it teaching a man to fish.
Shabazz had big plans to turn Southside Kitchen into not just a feeding kitchen, but also a teaching kitchen where people could learn how to put up their own produce. That’s a particularly important tool in a community like Southside, where grocery stores are not easily accessible.
“Of course, right now the virus has stopped a lot of different things,” Shabazz said. “But there are still people who want to know how to can, and that’s important — learning how to preserve food so you can come back and get it when you need it.”
Coronavirus has made more people interested in the old ways. Now Shabazz’s 15-year-old grandson — he’s one of eight grandchildren, all but one boys — wants to know how to grow collards and cabbage. Now people want Shabazz to teach them how to make chow chow.
Shabazz’s grandson also wants to help package food in the Southside Kitchen. At his grandmother’s elbow, he’ll learn the joys of feeding community.
“Anyone who needs a good meal can get it from Southside Kitchen,” Shabazz said. “People come from all over and enjoy the food we cook every day. It’s been a real blessing.”