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Richmonder Deb Freeman hosts a top-rated podcast about African American foodways.

click to enlarge A Hampton Roads native, Debra Freeman is a Richmond-based food writer and host of the popular Whetstone Radio Collective podcast, “Setting the Table.”

Scott Elmquist

A Hampton Roads native, Debra Freeman is a Richmond-based food writer and host of the popular Whetstone Radio Collective podcast, “Setting the Table.”

Of all the creative mediums churning steadily in the spindrift of modern media, it is the humble podcast which continues to reign supreme.

Sure, there’s a place in consumer lives for thoroughly engrossing New Yorker profiles and scintillating docuseries featuring the most satanic of cults. But podcasting – when well done – can mold longform, heavily researched work into something spectacular.

A good podcast is both intimate and casual – the listener doesn’t feel like they’re invading someone’s story, they’re simply along for a fascinating ride.

A good podcast feels like a lecture from a tenured professor who is still deeply passionate about the subject matter.

A good podcast keeps you coming back for seconds, thirds, fourths.

That’s what cultural anthropologist, food writer and podcast host Deb Freeman has achieved with the debut season of her Whetstone Radio Collective podcast, “Setting the Table.”

The Hampton Roads native didn’t pen her first food story until 2017, but in just five years she’s (quite successfully) devoted her free time to unearthing modern and historical narratives centered around African American foodways, writing for publications like Food52, Garden & Gun and Conde Nast Traveler.

Freeman’s articles have covered everything from African Americans’ relationship with veganism to – on the other end of the culinary spectrum – the birthplace of American barbecue.

Spoiler: It’s here! In Virginia. And enslaved men and women were the primary cooks of this tender meat.

Freeman dives deeper into the history of barbecue in episode seven of “Setting the Table”; one of her episode guests, Adrian Miller – aka the Soul Food Scholar – talks about its origins:

“If you go back, historically, that is how everybody at the time thought about it. A lot of the references to barbecue as a social event would say ‘Virginia barbecue.’ It was really only later that you got the term Southern barbecue or other states applied. The earliest writings we have of barbecue come from Virginians.”

Freeman isn’t afraid to rile up ‘cue fanatics who have their own claims about the nascence of this wholly American tradition. She’s done her research. A lot of it. And not just for this episode.

“You have to decide how you want to frame each episode, what you want the focal point to be,” says Freeman. “For example, in the brewing episode [episode four], between writing the script and doing the research and voiceover, that just took hours,” she laughs. “Well, actually, the Black farmers [episodes two and three] one may have taken the longest.”

click to enlarge Freeman's subjects have included "everything from African Americans’ relationship with veganism to – on the other end of the culinary spectrum – the birthplace of American barbecue. "
  • Freeman's subjects have included "everything from African Americans’ relationship with veganism to – on the other end of the culinary spectrum – the birthplace of American barbecue. "

Part of the beauty and the bane of podcasting is that there is such a low barrier to entry – everyone has a shot at a Spotify stream. But that can also mean the turnaround time, at least for Freeman, is quite short.

“It’s such an intense process. I’m going through every script rewriting and taking things out and thinking we need to add things, and then the guest will start talking and you think of different questions that go in other directions,” says Freeman, who would have “less than a week” to put each of her 10 episodes together, from recording to publishing.

Even given this vigorous production timeline, Freeman says she was prepared for the organized chaos. She’s been thinking about African American foodways, and the stories that so often go untold, for years now.

It seemed only natural to Freeman to DM her “Twitter colleague,” Stephen Satterfield – the brains behind Whetstone Magazine and critically acclaimed Netflix series, “High on the Hog,” when she saw he was starting a podcast collective.

“I had the entire thing imagined,” says Freeman. “When I first met with Stephen and Celine [Glasier, Whetstone head of podcasts], I had a list of people I knew I wanted to talk to. Ninety percent of the guests on the first season were on that list.”

Freeman’s lineup of guests is impressive. She culls experts in cooking, barbecuing, farming, food-influencing, researching – even master whiskey blending. “I had to consider who would be knowledgeable but also who would be interesting to listen to,” says Freeman.

Each “Setting the Table” episode is roughly 30 minutes long, give or take. That’s an extremely narrow window of time to convey everything there is to know about the history of Black farming, to an audience with, perhaps, zero context.

But Freeman was up to the challenge. “I thought about season one as a primer,” says Freeman. “I asked myself, ‘If I didn’t know about anything about Black food history, where would I start?’”

Episodes one to three lay the foundation, delving into the Great Migration, the history of Black farming and the movement of young, innovative farmers carrying the torch today. Freeman’s guests are experts, yes, but they’re also charismatic – you can hear and feel the warm rapport between interviewer and interviewee. The dialogue is far more polished than a simple conversation between friends, but it never feels pedantic or preachy.

Freeman’s subject matter – African American foodways, broadly – lends itself to ample history lessons. The past informs the present, and culinary context is everything in a day and age where we know better to know better.

Freeman reminds us in episode four, “Let’s Talk About Black Brewing & Distilling,” that it was not Thomas Jefferson who produced beer at Monticello. It was Peter Hemings, the enslaved brother of Sally Hemings, who was head of brewing and malting.

In episode nine, “Black Women in Activism and Food,” we hear from scholar and writer Suzanne Cope talking about Civil Rights movement heroes Aylene Quin and Cleo Silvers, two Black women who created programs to feed people as a means of revolution.

“Setting the Table” isn’t just about pulling up and reexamining long-buried roots, though. It’s also about what’s happening today. Freeman asks: Who are the Black chefs, farmers, makers, and innovators the world needs to know, needs to visit, right now?

In addition to big-name guests like Miller and Carla Hall, Freeman also makes a point to introduce her audience to well-deserving, under-the-radar folks.

“I wanted to talk to some chefs who I thought were really great but not necessarily your stereotypical chefs,” says Freeman. “For instance, Chris Scott, I wish him all the goodness in the world, I’m surprised he isn’t bigger.

Chef Scott is featured in episode five, “The Complicated Stories of Soul Food,” along with chef Mashama Bailey and chef and culinary historian Therese Nelson.

Scott’s resume is impressive – he’s cooked for esteemed establishments around the country, was a finalist on “Top Chef” season 15, runs Butterfunk Biscuit Co., is a culinary educator, cookbook author and TV personality – but it is his reverence for and unique interpretation of soul food that makes him such a strong interview subject.

“To me soul food is more of our story, it is our way of life, and we communicate that through our food,” Scott tells Freeman. “Having that opportunity to tell that story about my youth and this food – that’s everything.”

In his recently released cookbook, “Homage: Recipes and Stories from an Amish Soul Food Kitchen,” Scott explores the amalgamation of cuisine – his family has Tidewater roots, and he was raised in Pennsylvania – he grew up eating. Everything Scott makes is a reference, in some way, to the past that shaped him, as well as a nod to the future of Black cuisine.

“Soul food purists–that’s brilliant,” Scott tells Freeman. “But there are a great number of us rooted in that who are changing things a little bit at a time. Sometimes I like to have one foot in and one foot out.”

Scott’s execution of soul food may be best represented by a recipe he tells Freeman he just whipped up in the kitchen “the other day.” It’s a cornbread recipe, but instead of making the entire dish in one sitting, Scott creates a cornmeal “sponge” with sourdough starter, lets it sit for 48 hours, then comes back after the fermentation process to add goat milk, buttermilk, eggs, sugar, “all that.” Scott describes this take on cornbread as moist and tangy – he tops it with honey butter and sea salt.

“I’m telling you, every time I do cornbread now, this is the new way I’m going to do it,” says Scott. It’s still rooted in ingredient-focused stuff and culture; I just tweaked a few things here and there.”

You can follow Freeman on Instagram @audiophilegirl and check out more of her work online. Listen to “Setting the Table” wherever you get your podcasts, as they say.

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