“You should call it ‘death food,’ for it’ll kill ya!” activist and one-time comedian Dick Gregory chides filmmaker Byron Hurt when interviewed for what is both a paean and a homage to the cuisine most closely associated with the African-American communities in which they grew up and live. Hurt’s Soul Food Junkies, which airs on PBS on Monday, January 14, acknowledges the joy and comfort that fried chicken, ribs and other classic dishes provide, yet also poses the question of whether that diet is destroying rather than nurturing the families whose tables are piled high with “down-home cooking.”
There is much joy in this exploration of the good and bad points of soul food. Hurt and many of those he interviews praise generations of Black American mothers and grandmothers who “turned survival food into a delicacy” and who used their cooking to bring together and strengthen their families and communities. As one of his subjects, professor and food historian Dr. Jessica Harris, pointedly remarks, in her home growing up “we didn’t call it ‘soul food;’ we called it dinner!”
Hurt does go on the offensive against the unhealthy aspects of this traditional form of African-American cooking, citing the rise in obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even cancers that have been linked to a diet quite literally larded down with grease and fat, not to mention sweetened with sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. He uses his own father’s declining health and eventual passing to illustrate the negative and even deadly consequences of an unmitigated diet of fried and high-fat foods that is still deeply embedded in African-American culture.
Those who, like the author, as he admits freely, do find soul food attractive, delicious, tempting, enjoyable and comforting (at least in moderation), will find the documentary sobering without feeling damned for their diet. This type of cuisine, as Hurt and the doctors, professors, community leaders and chefs he interviews explain, need not be a death sentence: there are healthier ingredients and alternatives to deep-fried pork products that can be substituted without taking the soul out of soul food.
Hurt uses the movie to explore the African-American community’s relationship with as well as its “addiction” to soul food and to the fast food and processed food that has wormed its way into its diet. He uses this to lead into the issue of “food deserts,” showing how in many Black and poor communities families do not have access to major supermarkets let alone fresh produce. In many areas, he notes, people get their food from the limited choices available at bodegas, corner shops and even liquor stores, as there are no major markets nearby.
Soul Food’s role in Black history is honored and explained by Hurt and his subjects, who delve into its origins and mythology as “slave food” as well as how it transformed Southern American cuisine from something dull and bland into the spicy and savory cooking for which the region is now famous. While on the one hand lamenting how it has helped turn Mississippi into “the fattest state in the nation,” Hurt and others acknowledge that, as activist Dick Gregory tells the camera “all addictions are about pleasure.”
Although admitting that his quest has shown him that “yes, we are a nation of soul food junkies,” filmmaker Hurt is not all about doom and gloom and death and diabetes. He also makes the point that by introducing and substituting healthier choices and methods of preparation into this classic diet that “soul food can be good to us and for us.”
Soul Food Junkies is part of the Independent Lens series and will air on CPTV at 10.P.M. on Monday, January 14.
Mark G. McLaughlin is a Connecticut-based free lance journalist and game designer with over 30 years of experience as a ghost-writer and columnist. An author whose first published book was Battles of the American Civil War, and whose games include the Mr. Lincoln’s War set, Mark continues to be enthralled by stories from the age of Lincoln. To view and pre-order what will be Mark's 16th published design, the American Civil War Naval strategy game Rebel Raiders on the High Seas, visit http://www.gmtgames.com/p-238-rebel-raiders-on-the-high-seas.aspx
Mark’s latest work, the science fiction adventure novel Princess Ryan's Star Marines, is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle e-book formats at http://www.amazon.com/Princess-Ryans-Star-Marines-Save/dp/1466218487/ref...
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