“The barbecue started in Virginia,” Deb Freeman said, nodding earnestly as she settled into a cafe couch in Richmond. We had met to discuss his latest and biggest project to date.
She’s confident, not arrogant, but it’s easy to see (and hear) why Stephen Satterfield, food educator and host of Netflix’s “High on The Hog,” backed her “Setting the Table” podcast with his company. production, Whetstone Radio Collective.
His bet is perfect – his podcast launched in March and its first episode reached No. 1 on Apple’s US food charts.
Freeman, a Norfolk native and Richmond resident, started writing with a terrible but popular self-confessed music blog in 2016.
“People thought I was funny, I guess,” she said.
But the humor didn’t work for her.
She wanted to write but had trouble finding something that stalked. Freeman’s day job at the time was director of communications and marketing for the Downtown Hampton Development Partnership and she sometimes visited the nearby Hampton History Museum after work. During a hiatus in 2016, Freeman found her way to writing in a huge black-and-white photo of black women picking crabs. She was curious – a high table full of crabs in front of a group of women in aprons. Over the next few days, Freeman shot the image in his mind. It wouldn’t leave her. She knew there had to be more than that and felt drawn to the telling of the story.
With her work at Hampton, she began to dig deeper into these women. The research connected the dots of female crab pickers to one of Hampton’s first African-American millionaires, John Mallory Phillips, who employed African-American men and women in his businesses, including Phillips Seafood. He also created the People’s Building and Loan Association in 1889 so that black people could buy homes at a time when that was not always possible.
Phillips was also instrumental in funding the Bay Shore Hotel in Hampton, a relaxing respite for black people during Jim Crow.
After Freeman published an article in 2017, historical and food-adjacent stories became his focus. She sees food as the conduit of the story.
“It’s never about food,” she said. “It’s just how you get there.”
Directing has become prolific for Freeman, who has written for publications including Epicurious, Food52 and Garden & Gun. She researched a famous tomato, dug into the history of watermelon along the East Coast (with a little anecdote about wolf urine – not to be missed) and deepened the meaning of the yellow dough cake.
She has written about James and Peter Hemings, and in October 2017 hosted a community dinner in Norfolk in honor of James Hemings. She also lobbied Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare James Hemings Day in Virginia. (If you don’t know who Hemings was, put down your fries and start reading.)
His writing has been noticed. A Twitter conversation in 2020 with Satterfield spawned an introductory meeting. Within months, with more research and a good production team, “Setting the Table” became one of six podcast offerings on Whetstone.
The “Setting the Table” episodes are focused listening, each a brilliant jaunt on black eating habits. Freeman links food experiments to the historical chronicle of black foods and how they are the basis and mold for how we eat today. The first episode guides the listener through the details of the Great Migration, an exodus of black Americans from the South to the North spanning from approximately 1916 to 1970. The following six episodes take into account the progress of farmers, bakers, chefs , brewers and distillers.
Expect in-depth discussions about the origins of the food menu at Popeye’s, the beginning of beer-making and, of course, the creation of the barbecue. Most think barbecue is a North Carolina or Texas thing. Freeman disagrees.
She knows where the pit masters created the art of barbecuing and has seen the receipts for shipping whole hogs to other states. She builds her case in episode 1 and continues as the podcasts progress. She provides mind-blowing insight into compelling evidence in magazines from the 1800s and generations of well master history with recipes discovered with vinegar and the logistics of digging wells. At the end of an episode, she reminds us to listen to those who follow (and watch an upcoming cooking show) for more.
She is succinct with me, however, talking about what is now a buzz of buzzing coffee drinkers, about the who, what and where of barbecue: the inventors, the skill, the time and the origin of the word itself – and everything is Virginia.
“We have to say their names,” Freeman said, “and I think those are people we have to talk about — give the person a personality.”
You can listen to Freeman’s podcasts wherever you get your podcasts or via tinyurl.com/DFSetTable
Contact Robey Martin at [email protected]