clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Past as Possibility in the Appalachian South

How chef and Eater Young Gun Ashleigh Shanti centers African-American voices through her cooking

About a year ago, Ashleigh Shanti was trying to imagine her future in the culinary industry. A search was necessary. Shanti planned a meandering road trip hoping to feel a natural draw to the next thing. She was ready to leave eastern North Carolina, where she spent 18 months as culinary assistant to chef and TV host Vivian Howard. Maybe Shanti would head way north to Maine. Maybe in Maine she could brew kombucha. Was it the vision? Uncertain. But it was a vision and it seemed fine enough.

A cook, herbal enthusiast, and food event producer from Virginia Beach, Virginia, Shanti had been reflecting on her life’s resume. Before attending Hampton University, she spent a gap year in Nairobi, Kenya. After graduating from college, she continued on to culinary school in Baltimore. She worked at Cindy Wolf’s restaurants Cinghiale and Charleston. She bartended for a while, then later became a certified sommelier. She catered for the El Paso Supper Club in West Texas. All this training had served her well. Still, she was struggling. “Being in this industry, a woman, an African American among a sea of faces that are typically white and male, it can be easy to feel like you don’t have a place,” she says. She carved out time and space to consider what 2019 could bring.

Shanti couldn’t know then that the perfect place would be waiting for her, nestled in the mountainous region she was trying to leave. Shanti couldn’t know that she’d soon lead the kitchen at a new restaurant in the Block, a historically African-American neighborhood in the heart of Asheville, North Carolina. In that place, she’d eventually find her way to crispy akara fritters, pork ribs rubbed in ogbono seasoning, onion-braised rabbit, and those savory bursts of umami so integral to West African and Appalachian cuisines.

Just six months after Shanti hit the road, she landed as chef de cuisine of Benne on Eagle, a refreshing Appalachian restaurant that declares a celebratory and exploratory focus on black regional foodways. Since beginning at Benne on Eagle last fall, Shanti’s menu, rich with spices, memory, and a remix of tradition, has attracted regular diners and popular industry figures alike, all enamored with her dexterity. Her cooking brings forward a part of Appalachia that many haven’t heard about, or have forgotten. Her work has earned her recognition as an Eater Young Gun for the class of 2019.

The Past as Possibility

During five months of near-constant travel, Shanti took her time. She staged in restaurants when she could — from upstate New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., to Austin, Nashville, and Richmond, Virginia. She helped a friend open a restaurant in Pensacola, Florida. In August, she attended the MAD6 symposium in Copenhagen where Danish-Trinidadian artist Jeannette Ehlers spoke about the erasure and reclamation of African history, particularly poignant in a country that has often thought of itself as being untouched by the slave trade. In Savannah, Georgia, Shanti dined at the Grey, where she delighted in chef Mashama Bailey’s personal and emotive port-city Southern food, served in a former Jim Crow-era Greyhound bus station that once relegated black customers to segregated waiting rooms and bus seating. “I cried,” she says simply, of the experience.

By early October 2018, Shanti and her partner were nearing western North Carolina; the end of the trip was near. Around that time, John Fleer, chef and owner of Asheville’s Rhubarb reached out at the urging of Derek Herre, chef de cuisine of Rhubarb who knew Shanti from his work at Vivian Howard’s Chef and the Farmer.

Fleer, a five-time finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast and past executive chef of Blackberry Farm, wasn’t looking for a new project when investors approached him. But the notion of developing a restaurant for the Foundry Hotel, part of Hilton’s upscale historic brand, piqued his interest. The hotel was located in the Block, a prosperous hub for African Americans following the Civil War that had lost vitality in recent years as businesses closed. Fleer, who is white, saw that new real estate development would further ongoing gentrification in the area.

“I thought we could open a restaurant that pays homage to the neighborhood and the food that was part of this neighborhood for decades and decades,” Fleer says. “These African-American neighborhoods were centers of creativity, they are critical to the story of Asheville. I said, ‘If I can tell this story, I’m happy to do this restaurant.’”

By the time Shanti showed up for their meeting, she’d spent months thinking not just about where she’d settle, but about how her identity appeared in her food. She wanted a culinary home that could speak to her skills as much as her heart. She had been remembering her great-grandmother who was also from Virginia. As a kid, Shanti would snap beans and help “hang britches” on the clothesline. She remembered how her mother, who aimed for quick dinnertime meals during the week, seemed to transform into an all-day home cook on Sundays. She remembered slow-stewing pots, put-up preserves, fresh leaves, and all sorts of pickled things.

Walking around the space that would become Benne on Eagle, Fleer pointed out four portraits of African-American women who’d once owned restaurants or bakeries in the Block. Shanti saw in their faces a sense of herself. This place — this Asheville neighborhood, this idea for a restaurant — it held pieces of her cultural history. That future Shanti had imagined was taking a more defined shape.

“I think we instantly hit it off,” Fleer says.

They talked about the idea of Sankofa, from the Akan language in Ghana, which embodies a way of living that shows deference to history. Sankofa means that one must reclaim the past in order to move forward. The concept echoed elements of Ehler’s symposium talk that had resonated deeply with Shanti, about taking what belonged to her personally and historically. Go back and get it.

Of course, Fleer offered her the job. Of course, she took it.

“African-American people existed here,” she says. “I made it a goal to make sure those voices were heard.”

Honoring History, Telling New Stories

Here is where the akara appears. Ubiquitous to households throughout the African diaspora, the fritter is made of peeled then blended black-eyed peas. Here also is the ogbono seed, ground and massaged into the pork rib rub. “It adds a fruity, floral element to the dish,” Shanti says. The onion-braised rabbit is a salute to Edna Lewis, whose Freetown, Virginia, recipes are an inspiration.

In true Sankofa style, Shanti and Fleer sought deep local knowledge. Hanan Shabazz, an Asheville native and chef-owner of a 1960s-era soul food restaurant, serves as culinary advisor. “She’s the grandma of the kitchen,” Shanti says with deference. Benne on Eagle’s fish cakes are named for Shabazz, who also makes the cornbread and offers considerable regional expertise.

Louisville-based chef and Buttermilk Graffiti author Edward Lee ate his way through several of Shanti’s dishes, but one left a deep impression. “The thing that floored me the most was the oxtail. I grew up eating that food in a Korean inflection. I know how difficult it is to take home cooking and elevate it into a restaurant without it seeming forced, without losing the essence of the dish,” Lee says. “How she did that with the oxtail is a true testament to her skill.”

Ronni Lundy has documented the Appalachian South as a journalist and cookbook author for decades — her Victuals: An Appalachian Journey of the South received the 2017 Cookbook of the Year honor from the James Beard Foundation. “I haven’t been as excited about someone’s food in a long time as when I went to Benne on Eagle,” Lundy says.

A Kentucky native and on-again-off-again resident of west North Carolina, Lundy describes Asheville as an extraordinary place to understand the diversity of Appalachia “as opposed to a monoculture as its been portrayed.” Such cursory interpretations incorrectly view the region as uniformly white, hetero, working-class coal miner country, with its food represented by white, male chefs. Part of the past that goes untold — especially when it comes to chef-driven restaurants serving Appalachian-inspired dishes from sour corn to sauerkraut to greasy beans (heirloom varieties that are more shiny than oily) — is African Americans’ instrumental role in the area’s development.

Lundy cites the antebellum Drover’s Road, a historic roadway that stretched from southeastern Kentucky into South Carolina that was navigated by enslaved black men and boys with livestock in tow. “One of the things people have to get,” Lundy says, “is plantation owners in the deeper south didn’t want to turn their profitable sugar, rice, cotton, and indigo land over to grazing animals. Cows, turkeys, and geese and pigs were raised up here and driven down the Drover’s Road through the Highlands and into South Carolina, then purchased and redistributed into the plantation south.”

The road and the slave-based labor system it supported is a primary piece of the narrative around Appalachia and its Civil War-era divisions. Plantations might not have been present in the mountainous region, but enslaved people were there. Free blacks were there. “Foodways can show you different aspects of this entanglement,” Lundy says. Feedlots dotted the trail every few miles where the young black men, often called “cow boys,” and the animals in their stead could rest. Some feedlots had inns, which helped further develop local economies. Asheville became a summer getaway for wealthy industrialists in the north and plantation owners in the south. African Americans staffed the accommodations these travelers frequented in all manner of domestic service. In the center of Asheville, the Zebulon Vance monument stands, a troubling tribute to a white supremacist Civil War-era governor. The structure is surrounded by bronze animals — pigs, turkeys. “They represent the Drover’s Road,” Lundy says. “The presence of African Americans is visible to anyone who wants to look at Appalachia.”

Shanti hopes that customers connect the dots. “It’s cool to watch our guests as they realize they’re not having a run-of-the-mill dining experience,” she says. “You can see the change in them. Our staff is so well-informed and trained — people start to realize we’re doing more than cooking, we’re honoring history.”

Shanti brings the flavors together — the layers of the American South, the history and resources of West African cultures. The conversation she wants to have is not always an easy one, but her food is a magnet for the region. Southern food, even in the mountains, isn’t just about preservation. It’s also about creation, and recognizing parts of the narrative that were historically disregarded. “When I look at Appalachian cookbooks I see soul food,” Shanti says. The road to Eagle Street has been a winding one. For now, anyway, she’s home.

Osayi Endolyn is a James Beard Award-winning writer whose work often focuses on food, culture, place, and identity.


Six Questions Restaurant Workers Should Ask Their Employers Before Returning to Work

Young Guns

For an NYC Chef Who’s Still Working, Home Cooking Is More Vital Than Ever


A Line Cook Wonders If He’ll Have a Job Post Coronavirus

View all stories in Young Guns