Southern Grit

Interview by Lucas Czarnecki
Issue 66 • August 2018 • Norfolk

What started as a frank conversation about food has shifted to a frank conversation about culture—but are the two really all that different?

“All American food starts in Virginia,” declared Fitz, and while it might sound like an exaggeration, Debra “Deb” Freeman and Joshua “Fitz” Fitzwater mean every word they speak: “There is a rich history here—a history of shaping food for the country.” Hampton Roads foodies already know the duo behind the Southern Grit magazine and the Grit radio show, but the rest of Virginia would do well to learn their names. Deb is an African American woman with a background in journalism and politics, and Fitz is a blue-collar white man with a food background; combined, they’re an unlikely team of honest, endearing, and sometimes controversial Virginian food advocates.

Three years ago, Fitz and a few friends—all of whom are food-lovers—noticed a troubling trend in food media while eating at a local, relatively-unknown restaurant: “Food media here was dictated by advertising dollars,” he said. “There’s a lot of pandering going on.” They set out to correct that trend by launching Southern Grit, a quarterly magazine that Fitz says is dedicated to covering “the chefs and restaurants that locals go to—the places that are shaping the food industry.” The magazine started well, with a passionate group of foodies behind the wheel, but it wasn’t until Deb entered the mix that Southern Grit took off.

Debra “Deb” Freeman

She started as a contributing writer, but soon after meeting, Deb and Fitz discovered a shared vision and complementary strengths. The first and most obvious addition, according to Fitz, was Deb’s perspective: “We were touching on some history, but as a white man, I wasn’t covering the African-American influence as well as I needed to. Deb brought a historical context and a point of view that broadened what I was doing.” One piece of historical context which Deb shared was the tale of James Hemings, a classically-French-trained chef, who happened to be a slave of Thomas Jefferson. “Without him,” she said, “we wouldn’t have mac-n-cheese. We wouldn’t have crème brûlée. We wouldn’t have whipped crème. But no one talks about that.”

Even though Fitz started Southern Grit as a more balanced alternative to the mainstream food media outlets, he never noticed the exact aspect of cultural representation that Deb lived and breathed. As he put it, “I recognized that there was a money component in popular food journalism. When she and I sat down and looked at other publications, I was struck. They were not inclusive at all. It worried me because I had never thought or worried about that as much as I should have, so we went through back issues of Southern Grit to see if I had been writing about a bunch of white people. We got lucky, because out of the twelve we had published, only one was wall-to-wall white. I had never considered that like I should have.”

The shift in perspective didn’t happen overnight, though, and the two still go back and forth with each other and their writers to eschew bias in their reporting. Deb explained her role in this process as such: “Sometimes a writer will write something—for example, a writer might say that an African American woman is ‘sassy’—and I can notice that and say, hey, let’s not be stereotypical. Let’s not pigeonhole an African American woman into one of the archetypes.” To Fitz’s credit, he has learned quickly, adding that, “If you’re not talking about African American food, then you’re talking about Hampton Roads food through a very narrow lens.”

Joshua “Fitz” Fitzwater

Deb’s role in Southern Grit has also included the creation of community events, such as a Hampton Roads dinner series that paired history with food entitled Stirring the Pot. According to Fitz, “In Hampton Roads right now, you’re not going to find an African-American food event without talking about the Stirring the Pot.” Their next big scheme? A follow up to last April’s interactive celebrity chef competition known as the 3 Cities Chef Challenge to be held on Friday, August 3. The three local mayors—Norfolk’s Kenneth Cooper Alexander, Chesapeake’s Rich West, and Virginia Beach’s Louis Jones—each made public statements in support of their city’s participating chef contestant, offering the kind of public attention that stretches far beyond the average event.

Deb and Fitz, though, are used to these kinds of stretches. Their radio program, which is broadcast by 102.1 FM The Tide, started as a food conversation, but has quickly expanded in scope. Fitz explained, “Much of the time, it becomes a simple conversation between an African American woman and white man. We see America differently, we see everyday life differently. We have different experiences, but we respect each other immensely.” The show’s recent guest list reflects this shift, including Top Chef contestants, The Voice contestants, and recently the showrunner for Netflix’s Luke Cage.

Keeping the conversation civil and entertaining comes naturally for the two, who never lose sight of their motivations. For Deb, “The show allows me to tell those stories that aren’t being told. It allows me to share the African American perspective in a way that many people may not have considered.” For Fitz, “The show is an affirmation that Southern Grit is real, and that I’m lucky to be able to get up every day and do what my heart tells me to do.” And if things get heated—which happens—Fitz says that their respect for one another allows them to “hug at the end of the show.”

Between the magazine, the events, and the radio show, the two make a powerful, hard-working duo. Their efforts to put Hampton Roads on the foodie map has resulted in at least one success that exemplifies their collective goals. Governor McAuliffe and Senator Warner have both reached out to Deb and Fitz, thanking them for helping bring James Hemings, the titan of a chef, once-hidden, to popular light. These two might call Hampton Roads home, but all of Virginia is fortunate to have them.

Southern Grit’s 3 Cities Chef Challenge: Part 2 will be held on Friday, August 3 from 7–10 PM at Sweetwater Cuisine in Virginia Beach. Listen to Grit with Deb and Fitz in Hampton Roads on Sundays at 8 PM on 102.1 FM The Tide or stream online at southerngritmagazine.com.

Photography by Taylor Shaw

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