“Dr Jessica B. Harris, Adrian Miller, Michael Twitty…all of these authors write in a way that makes me want to tell stories that reflect my heritage and also make me want to show that Black food isn’t a monolith.”
Debra Freeman is a food writer focusing on African American culinary history. She is Managing Editor of Southern Grit Magazine and has bylines in The New York Times, Atlas Obscura and of course, Pit Issue 08.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you became a food writer?
My background is in politics – I’ve worked in government relations, campaigns, for two members of congress, and have a background in communications as well. I stumbled upon food writing – my boss dropped off a copy of a local magazine (Southern Grit), and I pitched them.
That was three years ago, and that led to writing about African American culinary figures (often ones who are not widely known) through the lens of food, either because that was their profession, or as a way to connect a reader to a cultural issue.
My previous work influences what I do because I want to be able to always make sure that a person’s story is always at the centre of everything I write. Policy and food history can become a bit boring unless you can connect with the reader or listener. I have found the best way to do that is to show how there’s a person in the middle of the issue and if I can successfully show that something isn’t arbitrary, but connects to someone with a name and a story, then my hope is that I can make a reader think a bit about the world around them.
Who/what are your main influences? We’d love to know more about what motivates you to write.
I have several influences: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor are authors I fell in love with in college, and after reading their work, it was probably the first time that I seriously thought about seeking out things that were written by people that looked like me.
As far as food writers are concerned, there are so many that I admire because every time I read something they’ve written, not only do I learn something, but I start connecting dots in ways I hadn’t considered before; Dr Jessica B. Harris, Adrian Miller, Michael Twitty… these are the first ones that come to mind where after reading their work, it stays with me. All of these authors write in a way that makes me want to tell stories that reflect my heritage and also make me want to show that Black food isn’t a monolith.
There is a depth and breadth of contributions that we have made to American cuisine that is just now starting to crack through and come to the forefront. It’s not just fried chicken either, for example, Thomas Downing changed the way that Americans viewed oysters, James Hemings studied in France and brought back the first iterations of ice cream, macaroni and cheese and was the first chef de cuisine of this country. These are just two examples of the work that countless nameless and faceless people did to create America’s culinary history.
Another author I admire is Zora Neale Hurston. She writes in a way that I can hear each character without any effort, and I love that I can see everything vividly. Her work is raw and honest – it’s a cliche almost to say that my favourite work is Their Eyes Were Watching God, but it’s true, particularly as I get older, I relate to realising who I am and standing in that without any shame or cowardice.
Could you recommend some of your favourite work?
High on the Hog by Dr Harris; Soul Food by Adrian Miller; The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty; The Bluest Eye and Beloved by Toni Morrison; Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor, and Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.
Can you tell us about your approach to barbecue at home?
My approach to barbecue at home has been relegated to a backyard grill I – would not consider myself an expert, but I can make a meal where there won’t be any complaints! Lots of grilled vegetables and seafood in the summer on the deck is one of my favourite ways to spend an evening.
Which is your favourite style of barbecue?
Brazilian! I had it for the first time in a small restaurant in California where the owner and waitresses barely spoke any English, and not only was it phenomenal, it was the first time I thought about barbecue in other cultures. I was hooked immediately.
We noticed you posting a lot of watermelon photos on social media. Can you tell us a bit more about that, please?
Last summer, my boyfriend and I travelled the east coast looking for heirloom varieties and put a couple of thousand miles on the car. That all started because I read about the Bradford watermelon, and how it tastes as it did in the 1800s, which started me thinking about if I actually knew what watermelon tasted like. So our goal was to find watermelons that were pre-1950s, and taste as many different kinds as we could.
Fast forward to this year, and we’ve planted some of the seeds from last year, and have grown some pretty massive ones, including the Ancient Crookneck, Ali Baba (which is an Iraqi watermelon that is incredibly sweet), among others.
We’ve sold some of the watermelons, but we’ve also gotten them into the hands of chefs who have created hot sauces and barbecue sauces with them (I was surprised that combination was so delicious and now it’s my new favourite thing) that we are in the process of bottling and selling, along with watermelon rind pickles. It’s been quite a whirlwind, and we plan on planting even more next year.
Debra is @audiophilegirl on Twitter