Soul Food Junkies
Last night, the Princeton Public Library showed Soul Food Junkies as part of its Princeton Environmental Film Festival. In the film, director Byron Hurt examines the history of soul food and its consequences on modern day health and wellness.
Before the showing, Mediterra provided filmgoers with a delicious sampling of soul food, healthfully prepared. The almond crusted chicken, kale, black eyed peas (without pork!) and cornbread set the mood perfectly for what we were about to see.
Hurt was inspired to make Soul Food Junkies by his own family’s history. His father was an enthusiastic beneficiary of his mother’s wonderful cooking to the detriment of his health. Hurt had difficult discussions with his father about his diet of high fat, deep fried foods. It wasn’t easy to convince him to change his eating habits.
Hurt’s father got mad after his son told him that he (Byron) wasn’t eating pork anymore and was trying to make healthier choices. Hurt comments, "Maybe he felt like that was me rejecting him, me rejecting black culture, me rejecting the food that he loved.” That could apply to many different families…in many different cultures.
His father did make small changes, but eventually was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died a few years later at the age of 63.
Hurt set out to discover of the origins of so-called “Soul Food” and whether African Americans are in fact addicted to it, as he suspected his father was. In Soul Food Junkies, he gives varied answers to that question and raises many different issues that come into play when looking at the wider problem of food, food distribution and unhealthy diets.
Just deciding what Soul Food IS was challenging. The answers in the film were varied - “Spice“, “Fried Chicken“, plain old “Love“; or Soul Food is “A Repository Of Our History”, and my favorite – “Soul Food is a time of coming, cooking and consuming together.”
Soul Food Junkies also gives a fascinating account of how the diet that slaves were fed - and what they fed themselves - transformed southern cooking into its own distinct kind of cooking. Within different areas of the south, different styles emerged. The style of New Orleans food, for example, was influenced greatly by Caribbean cuisine. Hurt quotes one expert who says, “Slave quarters influenced white quarters more than the other way around.” And “The hand of the African in the pot transformed the taste of what was in the pot.”
Much of that early food was fresh and grown on the plantations and farms. Later on, as the food industry grew and took over much of what we feed our families, Soul Food became much more associated with processed and fast food.
But change has come to traditional Soul Food cuisine. Hurt interviews comedian and social activist, Dick Gregory, who posits that “Soul Food is death food”. Another person says, “When you know better, you do better.”
What made the showing of this film particularly interesting was that director Byron Hurt participated in a panel afterwards with Raoul Momo, from Princeton’s Terra Momo Restaurant Group and Dorothy Mullen, director of The Suppers Program.
Hurt said that the movie has now been shown in many different places around the country. What always comes up is the accessibility and price of fresh food. He believes that, “We are in the midst of a food movement.” Individuals are making healthier choices, which will result in higher quality food being available in all neighborhoods.
Interesting concerns were also brought up by audience members. One person was very concerned about the quality of meals being offered to local senior citizens. Dorothy Mullen commented that one of the problems is that there is no agreement on what IS a healthy diet. Raoul Momo emphasized that the positive message of healthy food is getting out more and more. And there seemed to be agreement as to the need for a community approach to improving the food supply.
Hurt left the audience with some optimism. He believes things are changing and he pointed out that there were just a few documentaries about food a short time ago,. Now there are many, looking at all different aspects of food issues. Young people are pushing their parents to make changes, which helps to promote change. This last point is demonstrated no better than in Soul Food Junkie itself, where Hurt shows his own family (spurred on by his sister) preparing a soul food feast with many plant-based dishes and much healthier cooking styles.
Princeton Public Library
65 Witherspoon St.