By Mary MacVean
11:30 AM EST, January 11, 2013
You’ve likely heard suggestions for making greens without the pork fat or “fried” chicken in the oven. All well and good, but the connection of “soul food” to African Americans goes way beyond editing recipes, and a new film asks viewers to think deeply about why they eat what they eat.
What is soul food? The responses filmmaker Byron Hurt got were remarkable: love, conversation, dinner, but also death and slavery. Fried chicken, mac and cheese, candied yams, greens, cornbread, peach cobbler, sweet iced tea. That wasn’t just dinner; it was sharing tradition, but for many people a troubling tradition of slavery, poverty, feeling forced to make do.
Soul food nurtures, for sure. But is it also food that kills? For Hurt’s father, soul food and modern processed food contributed to his poor health and obesity. Jackie Hurt died of pancreatic cancer in 2004 at the age of 63. That prompted the filmmaker to question the comfort of black comfort food.
Hurt talked to doctors and professors and cooks. And he talked to people who love soul food – at a cafe, around a family table and at a tail-gating party with a big pot of corn, pig ears and turkey. He sought the opinions of people from the Nation of Islam, whose followers were urged by Elijah Muhammad to improve their diets decades ago.
“Soul food is love” was part of what he heard, but he had to also ask if soul food was causing early death among African Americans. There’s a lot of poignancy in the film – such as the family bonding that occurred as the Hurts drove from New Jersey to visit family in Georgia -- the kids learning their history as they drove past cotton fields, eating the boxed lunches that became a tradition from a time when black people couldn’t stop just anywhere for meals.
Experts interviewed in “Soul Food Junkies” offer a complex history of growing, cooking and eating food, accompanied by moving photos and drawings.
As slaves, black people often had to make meals from the parts of animals and plants that were less desirable to white families or to sell. But myths also have developed around the food the enslaved people ate. As the historian Jessica Harris put it, moving people on ships was a business proposition, “and it was not economical to put all those people on a ship and have them die.”
Still, the diet-related health statistics for African Americans today are troubling. About 4 in 5 African American women are overweight. African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to die of diabetes.
Hurt traced the phrase “soul food” to the Southern civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, when “Ms. Peaches” fed protesters from her Peaches Restaurant. “Having the ability to cook gave me power,” she said.
But not long after, the Black Panthers began to question that traditional diet and to promote plant-based ways of eating. It was a difficult time, said Hurt, whose vegetarian diet made his father feel “me rejecting him, rejecting black culture.”
And “Soul Food Junkies” is a personal story, too. Hurt looks at his father’s difficult upbringing by an abusive father, and he and his sister speculate that in soul food -- and later fast food -- the elder Hurt found pleasure.
Hurt deftly connects the soul food traditions with some of the issues for poor communities today, such as a lack of space for gardens, difficult access to supermarkets, and fast-food consumption. And he ends “Soul Food Junkies” on a hopeful note, looking at gardening projects in New Orleans, urban farming activists like Will Allen in Milwaukee and changes people are making in their kitchens.
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