Episode 1 December 18, 2018

Kentucky Dawgs with Ashley C. Smith

Ashley C. Smith is reconnecting African Americans in Kentucky with their legacy and contributions in agriculture. She lives in Lexington, a city where the local farmers market is held at a former slave auction block. She says conversations about race and reparations make some people angry, but it’s important to confront the truth and reexamine history.

In this episode, she cooks a veggie stir fry with shrimp and Kentucky Hemp Dawgs. While we eat, she explains why these these hot dogs made with hemp taste so good. (Hint: there’s a dash of criminal justice reform mixed in.) We also talk about her childhood garden and how her grandmother Caroline inspired her outspokenness.

Black Soil: Our Better Nature, co-founded by Ashley C. Smith and Trevor Claiborn, is a Lexington, Kentucky-based organization that offers farm tours, farm-to-table dinners, and workshops with the goal of reconnecting black Kentuckians to their legacy and heritage in agriculture.


Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:01] This is Skillet, the podcast where we cook together and listen to each other.

[00:00:07] [cooking sounds]

[00:00:07] I’m Jen Nathan Orris.

Cass Herrington: [00:00:08] And I’m Cass Herrington.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:10] Picture this. It’s one of the first cold days of the year. The kind of day where the electric heater roars to life and all you want is something warm in your belly.

Cass Herrington: [00:00:20] So we bundle up and head over to Ashley Smith’s house in Lexington, Kentucky.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:00:25] Do you want some tea? We can have peppermint or ginger…

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:29] Ashley shares this home with Trevor Claiborn, her partner in love and work. Symbols of their relationship are all over the house, so we start by asking Ashley to describe what’s on the refrigerator they share.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:00:41] That one’s really fun because it was our second date and we were really just getting to know each other. Then we see one of our first ultrasounds. I about passed out when my gyno said, “There’s two in there!” I think I dropped at least three f-bombs.

Cass Herrington: [00:01:02] I love that your refrigerator kind of tells a story about past, present, and future.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:01:10] You also see bills. Those are always present.

Group: [00:01:17] [laugh]

Ashley C. Smith: [00:01:17] I’m always like, dang, didn’t I just pay this bill?

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:20] When she’s not working her 9-5 job… or balancing her pregnancy cravings for Oreo ice cream… Ashley sits around this table talking about Black Soil, the project she and Trevor founded together.

Cass Herrington:: When we asked Ashley what she wanted to cook today, she picked a veggie stir fry with shrimp and Kentucky Hemp Dawgs.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:20] Those are beef hot dogs with hemp oil mixed in. The meat is local and the hemp has a nice, nutty flavor. It’s a simple meal that Ashley and Trevor share all the time… one that fuels their mission to reconnect black Kentuckians with farming.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:55] As we cooked, we talked about Ashley’s childhood garden and the strength of her grandmother Caroline.

Cass Herrington:: We get into a conversation about the lasting effects of slavery in the South, and how Ashley is reclaiming the narrative through food.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:55] We also talk about how she cares for herself. Because this work is tough, especially in a town like Lexington, where the farmers market is held at a former slave auction block.


Cass Herrington:: But before we get to all that, it’s time to get to know each other and start cooking.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:53] We’ll let Ashley take it from here.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:01:54] I am Ashley Smith – Ashley C. Smith – and today we’re going to make a Kentucky Hemp Dawg and shrimp stir fry.

[00:02:02] [Hemp Dawg package crinkle]

Ashley C. Smith: [00:02:02] So I’ve taken one Kentucky dawg with hemp out of its package. Four come in a pack. Looking at the amount of shrimp that I have I’m going to go with one and a half dawgs and I’ll eat the other half for breakfast tomorrow. I eye a lot of things, so if we need to add more, we can use all of them. Let’s use some extra virgin olive oil…

Ashley C. Smith: [00:02:28] I grew up here in Lexington, Kentucky in a neighborhood where my parents—their house is the third one built on the street, and up until I was in third grade, my backyard was a huge cow pasture. Then development started to move in, so luxury apartments, townhouses, retail moved in and life changed.

[00:02:57] [water sounds]

Ashley C. Smith: [00:02:57] I’m gonna wash my hands before we get started.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:03:02] Where we grew up, we were the only black family until third grade, so I was competing with white peers at a very young age. They didn’t like me because, like, how dare this black girl be smarter than me? So I didn’t come from affluence or anything like that, my parents just so happened to move to that area when they came here and it was a newer place to be developed. For me, that had the abilities for mental refinement.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:03:57] So what I’m gonna do is just cook all the shrimp and the hemp dawgs together. Leave that last one on the plate; it looks so awkward and lonely.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:04:16] What did we grow up eating? It’s so interesting because we never went without food, but I can never recall recipes or things that we would frequently prepare. We had kind of that traditional Southern diet like meat, a starch, a vegetable. But mashed potatoes, I used to love mashed potatoes. Really loved squash and zucchini. So we had a garden in the backyard so we would go out pick swiss chard. I feel like we grew cantaloupe. We would make homemade ice cream.

Cass Herrington: [00:04:57] You grew up as a child being familiar with growing your own food?

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:05:01] Was that unique in this area?

Ashley C. Smith: [00:05:05] No, folks have gardens. People do pride themselves in their yards here. Definitely.

[00:05:12] [crinkle of bag]

Ashley C. Smith: [00:05:12] I’m going to open up our frozen veggies. They’re Birdseye, kind of a common brand. I like it because they give you a nice array what folks traditionally expect out of a stir fry. If I had more time on my hands and we had some more veggies in season, we’d be working with our farm vendors to get some of this stuff. I never knew how to open the bag. Ha. There we go. So we got the bag open…

Ashley C. Smith: [00:05:47] On my mom’s side, her family is from rural western Kentucky. They always had gardens in their yards. My maternal grandmother was a home economics teacher. I would sit under her like all day and ask her questions. She was incredible.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:06:24] What was her name?

Ashley C. Smith: [00:06:24] Caroline. She changed her name to Carolyn when she was in 12th grade. She is a 1946 graduate of Kentucky State University. She’s from Madisonville and it’s like how did this black woman from rural western Kentucky go to college? Then she was the only black teacher who worked in segregated Christian County. So I think a lot of outspokenness—the you can’t scare me, I want to look you right in the face and we’re going to handle this— that comes from her. Definitely. You had to be fearless. She was a very thin-boned, frail, thin woman, but she had very strong prayers and people highly respected her. So yeah I think my time spent with my grandmother was such a turning point. She taught me how to sew, she really built a lot into me. So on both sides the family had these very strong, resilient, outspoken women.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:07:37] I’m bringing the burner up to medium and watching it very closely.

[00:07:42] [blowing sound].

Ashley C. Smith: [00:07:42] That’s me blowing the smoke coming up out of that burner. You know, that’s me bless the food extra.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:07:50] My father comes from a bigger family and I remember him telling me they didn’t have segregated schools. But on the flipside my mother did. And so growing up in a household with one parent who really went through the trauma of segregation and desegregation and Jim Crow on a daily basis, and then having another parent who didn’t. So it’s just very interesting being raised by parents who had those varying views, having a mother who more strongly had that experience, it’s almost like being a refugee. Like your you have to learn a different language of how social interactions work, and when people use these words to you, this is what this means kind of deal. So all of those experiences and familial relationships really have designed the person and the life that I have now. They taught me to be very independent, very creative, not to stop moving or give up.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:09:17] Well that’s smelling nice. So here’s our rice. We’re going to put it in here…

Ashley C. Smith: [00:09:39] [rice falling into pot].

Jen Nathan Orris [00:09:40] – A few years ago, Ashley got more involved with local government and started going to planning commision meetings.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:10:09] But I wasn’t seeing myself or my demographic reflected, sitting at the decision-making table.

Cass Herrington: [00:10:19]: She learned about a program that provides city employees with a box of fresh vegetables every week, and she wondered – where are those vegetables coming from?

Ashley C. Smith: [00:10:49] And I was like, we don’t have any people of color who grow food around here?

Jen Nathan Orris [00:10:51] Ashley and her partner Trevor wanted to change that perception—to support the black-owned farms that did exist by connecting African Americans with food grown in their community. So they founded the organization Black Soil, and started bringing people on tours of local farms owned by African Americans. They were asked to speak events and conferences… to talk about the decline in black-owned farmland, the lasting effects of slavery in agriculture, and practical ways to address that disparity today.

They also organized farm dinners and placed seats at the table for people who are sometimes left out of the farm-to-table movement.

[00:11:39] We set on the concept of, what would it look like to take some of the folks that we know in our networks, black professionals, and those in our working underclass, families, it’s like, I know there’s got to be some black farmers. So we have introduced the farm-to-table concept to marginalized people. Like black people like to do things. A lot of times, the only time we are brought up in conversations is is when we’re talking about gentrification or affordable housing and I’m like, so we don’t like to go to the movies, we don’t like nice things, we don’t have to wear clothes? To me, that is one way racism really is displayed. It’s representative of a one track mind, when in fact, the black American experience is so multifaceted, and so multi-dimensional. These farmers and these consumers coming together really showcases that. We thought If just 60 people believe in going to a black-owned farm, we cleared that on the second tour. It was like, dang, we just hit something deep, deep in people’s spirits, in their familial story their desire to be connected to foodways because, again like the universal need for belonging and place all kind of comes out of farming and the hard work that goes into it. And all of that is just gathering together in unity.

[00:11:36] [music]

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:11:36] But that unity is propelled by an ugly past… one that Ashley is working to overcome through food and farming.

Cass Herrington: [00:11:40] After the break, we’ll delve into topics that make some people in the South uncomfortable. Things that challenge their closely-held beliefs about themselves and their families.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:11:40]: I know this conversation angers people. And if you were taught no, your grandpappy worked hard and this is why we have this farm and have the things. But we have to confront the truth of our history.

[00:11:47] [music].

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:11:48] Skillet it is brought to you by… us!

Cass Herrington: [00:11:48] Skillet is 100 percent self-funded right now.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:11:48] We pay for the ingredients the storytellers cook with, there’s usually some travel involved, and it takes about 20 hours to produce each episode. So we worked a few other jobs this week to pay for this episode.

Cass Herrington: [00:11:53] We reported radio stories.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:11:55] Edited magazines.

Cass Herrington: [00:11:58] Taught a lot of pilates.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:12:00] And spread cream cheese on so many bagels.

Cass Herrington: [00:12:04] But you know what would be even better? If we could make you more episodes of Skillet instead.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:12:10] If you own a company or know someone who does, tell them about Skillet. We’re looking for sponsors so we can share culture and connect communities through food.

Cass Herrington: [00:12:20] If this is in line with the values of your organization or company, let’s start a conversation.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:12:24] Get in touch at www.skilletpodcast.com.

[00:12:34] [music fade]

[00:12:34] [fork sounds]

Ashley C. Smith: [00:12:34] You know you’re an adult when you have enough forks to make a meal for more than one person. Gosh that’s so funny. So here’s our little table. We have concocted many a business deal at this table, shared lots of meals. You can sit here…

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:13:00] Now the dinner’s on the table we can dig in to the shrimp and veggie stir fry topped with Kentucky Dawgs. These hot dogs are made with beef, sausage, and a special ingredient—hemp.

Cass Herrington: [00:13:11] Ashley’s partner Trevor designed the branding for Kentucky Hemp Dawgs and it’s really important that people like him are involved in the hemp industry. We’ll tell you why in a minute. But first we need to finish our meal.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:13:25] This is my comfort food. The warmth on my stomach and just feeling it on a day like this where it’s colder outside.

Cass Herrington: [00:13:39] Yeah. Thank you.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:13:44] So good…

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:13:44] While we were eating, it became clear that Cass and Ashley had a lot to talk about. They chatted about people they knew in common, restaurants they both love, the kind of polite conversation that brings people closer together.

Cass Herrington: [00:13:44]: But then then we put our manners aside, and talked about some things that often go unspoken in the South… especially at the dinner table.

Cass Herrington: [00:14:14] The conversation shifted when Ashley brought up the legacy of slavery in our home state.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:14:21] We live in Kentucky and a lot of times when folks think of Kentucky they think basketball, horses, bourbon, but it’s also always through a very white lens. People grovel over that because it’s very traumatic, but when you truly look at slavery the culture of it, the byproducts of it is everything we connect with on a day-to-day basis—black and white in this country. The way we eat, different food products that are retailed to us. So hemp—to tie it in to our meal that we had—what we know as modern day hemp came from enslaved people because we weren’t a cotton state in the slave trade. That was further south. But here in Kentucky it was hemp and tobacco, which were two very excruciating, very laborious crops. So the great compromiser, Mr. Henry Clay, and the wealth and accolades that he receives, who was growing the hemp? Who is cultivating those innovations that he was able to take credit for?

Cass Herrington: [00:16:46] For you, as a black woman, to boldly say that the success and the strength of Kentucky’s economy—bourbon, horses, tobacco—was built on the backs of slaves. That’s a very bold and risky statement to say. Have you faced any backlash for your outspokenness?

Ashley C. Smith: [00:17:08] Not that I directly know of, but I can tell it makes some folks uncomfortable. I did a presentation at a symposium this summer and the question about hemp came up, how enslaved people in Kentucky really were the backbone. And I brought it to modern terms of how we’re doing all these hemp pilot programs. But if you have any sort of marijuana charges on your record you are automatically disqualified from being able to participate. Who is overwhelmingly prosecuted for marijuana charges? Even the smallest amount? I could see like people’s faces just dropping like I didn’t think about that; it’s making me uncomfortable; I don’t want to talk about this. But we have to talk about it. We have to see the fact that hemp is a major industry about to boom and that the descendants of people who got it to the place where it is today—overwhelmingly due to over criminalization and prosecution of marijuana—young black men will not be able to participate will not be able to gain that economic development, that ability to balance out the wealth income gap and disparity. So the backlash is very interesting. I don’t want to speak it upon myself, but I know this conversation angers people who have been taught by people they have been raised by, who have fed them, clothed them housed them—that’s where we learn racism from. And if you were taught, no your grandpappy worked hard for this land and this is why we have this farm and this is why we have these things, but never wanting to look past the fact that there were people making millions of dollars off of free labor. We have to confront the truth of our history.

Cass Herrington: [00:19:26] Just this afternoon we walked through Cheapside Park that was one of the country’s largest auction blocks for selling slaves. And we saw the mural that’s inside of the University of Kentucky’s campus where you see African-Americans bent over picking tobacco. And so those ghosts of the past that still linger, when you saw those things or were reminded of that history, how did that affect your psyche growing up?

Ashley C. Smith: [00:20:02] Well, I remember being taught never to go to Cheapside. I remember seeing that mural, and I remember every so often someone would raise the issue. More than just those visual representations of the past, the lived experience that I have with the spirits that linger from the slavery in Lexington that’s represented through lack of black owned businesses, lack of ownership and leadership and development of policy and stuff like that. So to me, there’s there’s no degrading or scale really it’s all encompassing. It’s all of these layers of these barriers that you have to be very creative in getting around it. Lexington race relations are so interesting because people are so polite here. It’s like a cake, and the cake is the racism, but there’s so much sweet goodness of icing, and it’s warm. So it feels comforting. But then when it’s over your stomach really hurts. It’s like, oh, I was all up in that.

Cass Herrington: [00:21:37] We went to the relics of the past. We saw Cheapside We saw the murals, the Confederate statues. Then we began to see these markers around downtown that are part of the African-American legacy trail. And I just want to know your reaction to that. Does that help heal some of the wounds? Give a little context to what’s still around?

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:22:03] Or no?

Ashley C. Smith: [00:22:05] I would say the importance of balancing out history, telling the full story. There were many African-Americans who were involved in leading this and they held tight to their values of putting the full story first and foremost. So when I drive downtown and I see them present, I get excited. And that portion of your question was healing wounds? I don’t know how outward of the healing, but maybe those small tinges of people’s heart starting to beat faster and tearing up and seeing like, I’m represented here and I didn’t have to beg or plead. I got excited even when you were starting to mention it because folks coming to Lexington will be able to begin to understand the city and the region more fully.

Cass Herrington: [00:23:18] As we’ve been talking about this, the circumstances we’re in, the legacy of slavery in Kentucky has led to poverty, perpetual discrimination. Do you have an opinion or have you ever talked about reparations?

Ashley C. Smith: [00:23:40] We talk a lot about reparations.

Cass Herrington: [00:23:43] Wow. So reparations is something that’s talked about. Where have these discussions come up?

Ashley C. Smith: [00:23:45] Oh gosh, the Southern Loan Fund, Soul Fire Farm talks about land reparations. So I’ve seen folks turning over land as a form of reparations. But how? How, how. I’m a how person. So. Unless there is a realistic way that we can approach reparations rather than continuing to talk about them like it’s this carrot that’s getting folks who have been so shut out of the benefits of capitalism for so many years. It tickles people’s ears but I just don’t get my hopes up, especially when it comes to money. You know, attaching hope to getting money and attaining that is never a good look. So I don’t know. It’s not an easy answer. It’s complicated.

Cass Herrington: [00:24:42] I guess being as involved as you are now, and as passionate as you are now, do you get tired and weary of the work?

Ashley C. Smith: [00:24:55] Ok, so burnout is real. My gosh. Yes, being tired and weary of this work when it can feel like an uphill battle, especially when you’re working with a storyline such as black agriculture that is so misunderstood, and it’s like we talked about backlash and you’re just waiting for any minute for that shoe to drop. Well, I’m a farmer and I have a hard time, too, and we lost our land, and why are you making it about race and this and that? So the exhausting task of explaining, um, I have to mentally prepare myself that I have the honor to tell this story and if I come at it from an exhausted place or an exacerbated place or a frustrated, angry place, that’s not doing the hard work of the people that I represent any justice. This pregnancy journey, like we’ve not stopped our programming. It’s very physically intense and so pouring out and sacrificing myself and offering, like helps the weariness.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:26:20] So self care on a regular basis. Staying in when I need to. Saying no. No is a beautiful word and it’s a complete sentence. Having time to just take walks and and be by myself when I need to. So yes, the road in the work can become very excruciating especially when you’re dealing in such polarizing topics and especially in this political climate where people have really made identity politics or whatever you want to say very divisive, like, I’m black but like seriously, I’m black. There’s no discounting that I am and that it’s a double edged sword. And the pressure is, well, you don’t want to be embarrassing, or you don’t want to do this, or you don’t want to come off as ghetto, and it’s like F it all. I don’t have time to worry about what you’re thinking about me because you’re not losing any sleep about what I’m thinking about you.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:27:31] It goes both ways and I think that comes from that mental strength of learning about whiteness at a very young age and be like Oh, okay I understand. I get this and let’s just call it what it is. And we can be friends and I have lots of, again, when you grow up and you are the only black family on the street until you’re in third grade, like, you’ve pretty much already been socialized, you know, your personality has developed and then having race and gender play into it is just a lot of navigating.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:28:13] I have a passion for mentoring younger black women who are coming up out of school. They’re young and their professional career. I try to help them avoid some of the mistakes that I’ve made or just be a listening ear so we can then create more and more pillars of folks having seats at the table and when you’re at the table what do you get to do with that opportunity? I’m coming from a point, I’m speaking from my own experience, strength, and hope.

Cass Herrington: [00:28:47] Thanks so much. It’s definitely been a pleasure for me and I’m so glad to know a fellow Kentuckian doing good work here.

Ashley C. Smith: [00:28:54] Oh, you’re so welcome. Thank you for coming, spending some time cooking for, I don’t cook for anyone other than Trevor. [laugh] So it was a great bonding experience.

[00:29:09] [music]

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:29:09] There you have it, our first episode of Skillet. We hope you’re feeling nourished and inspired

Cass Herrington: [00:29:15] If you’re hungry for more, you can check out photos and extra content on our website — www.skilletpodcast.com.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:29:23] You can also find us on social media. We’re @skilletpodcast on Instagram and Facebook.

Cass Herrington: [00:29:29] We have a few folks to thank for making this series possible. First, thanks to Ashley Smith for sharing her time and kitchen to tell this story. You can find out more about Black Soil at www.Black Soil.life.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:29:41] And a big welcome to Ashley’s twins-to-be who were in her belly for this recording.

Cass Herrington: [00:29:47] Aw, their nicknames are T.J. and C.C. and they’re expected to arrive in January.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:29:52] We’d like to say a huge thank you to our digital producer Rich Orris. He designed our logo, made our website, and gave tons of moral support. And deep gratitude for some really sage advice from our sister in sound, Greta Johnsen from Nerdette Podcast.

Cass Herrington: [00:30:03] If you liked this episode, we would be super grateful if you spread the word. Please follow, like, and share so we can keep feeding you more Skillet.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:30:03] Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And check us out at Skillet Podcast dot com.

Cass Herrington: [00:30:03] Our theme song and ad music are by Podington Bear.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:30:03] We’ll be back in two weeks with the next episode of Skillet.

Bruce Ucan: [00:30:03] And I was just crying and thinking, ‘I need to stop it. I can’t stop.’ I tried to do it, but I just couldn’t by myself.

Jen Nathan Orris: [00:30:03] Tune in on January 1st to hear about the New Year’s Eve that saved this chef’s life… on the next episode of Skillet.