CRRL Guest Picks: Food Historian and Podcast Host Debra Freeman

This post is part of our Guest Picks series, featuring members of our library community sharing their favorite books and movies.

Growing up in Norfolk, I was a shy kid and an avid reader, so I loved the library. It had just the right sun-to-shade ratio, so I really enjoyed spending time there. I was that kid who always asked the staff how many books I could check out, and then I’d be sure to check out the maximum allowed. I was a voracious reader then, and I still am today.

I sort of fell into cultural anthropology about six or seven years ago. As a part of my role as a marketing director for a large city here in the Commonwealth, I visited a nearby museum and was taken by this large, framed image from the early 1900s of these African-American women picking crabs. Literally, I couldn’t get my mind off of them. I kept thinking, "Who are these crab pickers?" These women were enterprising. They were taking care of their families by crabbing and earning enough to send their children to what was then known as Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). I just had to know more, so I started searching for information, found it fascinating, and eventually decided to pitch the story to Southern Grit Magazine. That was the beginning of the path that has led me to becoming a food anthropologist, writer, and podcast host focused on African American culinary history.

When asked about the earlier foundations that prepared me for this work, I’d say three things converged to bring me here. The first is my grandmother, who was really passionate about food. She had a nice, home-cooked meal ready every afternoon when I got out of school, so food is definitely in my DNA. And speaking of school, I attended an African American Catholic school, which is a rare institution. We were taught Black history year-round, so I was consistently being exposed to these stories. Finally, my insatiable curiosity helps a lot--I’m always incredibly interested in the various facets of each topic, and following up on them can lead to some captivating places.

For me, the work I do is not just about the food, it’s all about the stories. There’s a story behind the people, the customs, and how it all relates to their lives. There’s a much deeper meaning and a huge legacy behind it. That’s what drives me.

Debra shared some of her favorite books with us. All are available through Central Rappahannock Regional Library:

CRRL Guest Picks: Debra Freeman

Learn more about African American foodways and culinary history via Deb Freeman’s critically acclaimed and multi-award winning podcast Setting The Table, opens a new window, available wherever you enjoy podcasts.

Beginning in July 2024, Freeman will also be featured on Virginia Public Media discussing the life, legacy and impact of Edna Lewis,, opens a new window the Orange County, Virginia-born chef, teacher and author who changed the way Southern food was perceived throughout the country. Her upcoming documentary on Lewis, who is also known as the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking, will air on Virginia Public Media in February 2025.

Her written work can be found in popular publications such as Condé Nast Traveler, Southern Grit Magazine, Food52, Epicurious, Garden & Gun, and many more. Freeman also serves as Food Editor for Richmond’s Style Weekly magazine.