Social justice through food: The legacy of Hanan Shabazz

SOUL OF A CHEF: Hanan Shabazz, previously an instructor in the Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready culinary training program, has a lifetime of experience in cooking soul food, feeding people and fighting for equality. Photo by Cindy Kunst
KITCHEN CABINET: Chef Hanan Shabazz mobilized a crew of local chefs to make meals in the Southside Community Kitchen for elderly and housebound residents of Asheville Housing Authority developments. Photo by Cindy Kunst Photo by Cindy Kunst

For most chefs, every day looks a lot like the last one, with the same menu and the same kitchen crew. But Hanan Shabazz’s restaurant has neither of those. And as a teacher in Green Opportunities’ Kitchen Ready program, she sees a continual three-month rotation of students creating free lunches for the community.

Launched in 2011 and based out of  what was originally the African-American Livingston Street School in Asheville’s Southside community, the Kitchen Ready program offers free classes to community members facing employment barriers. Shabazz’s connection to the neighborhood stretches back half a century, to a time when she wielded picket signs rather than a chef’s knife.

“I hope you don’t mind if I work while we talk,” she says as she whips up the filling for a rack of deviled eggs. “I always have to be doing something if I’m here.”

Born in 1949 and raised in a family of 10 in Asheville’s Burton Street community, Shabazz had poor health and moved in with her grandmother. “I learned to do a lot of things from her,” she says. “All my life, I loved to be in the kitchen.” She moved back in with her parents around the time the city schools began to integrate.

“We came to school one day, and somebody had written on the steps, ‘All niggers, go back to Africa,’” Shabazz recalls. “And it freaked me out. It wasn’t about color to us: We were just trying to get an education. They said they wanted us away from the school, so we walked out, and there was a riot. It turned violent.”

That was the first of two riots at Lee Edwards (now Asheville High), and it triggered a six-month, citywide curfew. But those events also stirred up something in Shabazz, and when she graduated in 1968, she made her way to New York City. “My friend had a pet monkey named Tiger,” she explains. “The train station was down on Depot Street, and people loved to see the monkey, so we put a little cup down. He’d be jumping around, and I’d just be singing, but we got me enough money to go to New York.”

Once there, her passion for activism and equality kicked into high gear. Studying at Mosque No. 7, the famed home base of Minister Louis Farrakhan, Shabazz became closely connected with movers and shakers in the civil rights movement. “I met Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom. Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Huey Newton. … I’ve been involved with a lot of good people. It was the ‘burn, baby, burn’ era, and I even got to sit down with Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey at one point.”

But it wasn’t all marches and picketing: Shabazz began merging her activism with her skill in the kitchen. “They taught me how to do a hundred things with whiting fish and how to make bean pies. I was doing food for all the community events and feeding the families.”

In 1970, Shabazz returned home to help with her ailing father, but she stayed involved with activism. “We would go to Raleigh, to Durham and to Washington with a busload of people,” she recalls. “Sometimes I even had the pleasure of speaking. For me, it’s always been about trying to keep the peace. We were saying that black people are people, too, and they deserve to have just as many rights and opportunities as anybody else.”

In Asheville, she and her husband ran a restaurant on The Block, the center of the local African-American community. “Shabazz Soul Food was a coalition of brothers. In the Nation of Islam, I learned how to eat to live, not live to eat. I learned how to fix things that were healthier, how to make new things from leftovers.”

Eventually, Shabazz moved on, working at Matt’s Pastry Shop (where the Double Decker Bus now sits). In time, gentrification came to The Block, and many of the old places closed. “Had I known then what I know today, I would have stuck even closer to those little old ladies that had all the secrets,” Shabazz says. “They put things together and made it work, and they taught me to keep that tradition going.”

A lack of bricks and mortar never slowed Shabazz. “I love just cooking on the street,” she says. “I would go to the parks, projects, just even in my front yard.” But when chef Liam Luttrell-Rowland begged Shabazz to teach at the Kitchen Ready program, a collaboration with A-B Tech and other local organizations, she was happy to sign on.

These days, Shabazz focuses on what she calls “social justice through food: Help somebody, feed somebody, share your knowledge, share your understanding.”

The Kitchen Ready program serves lunch Monday through Friday from noon to 1 p.m. downstairs in the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center (133 Livingston St. in Asheville). Meals are free for community members and available to others for a donation. Tips go directly to the students.

For details or to apply for courses, visit


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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of Follow me @jonathanammons

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