Soul Food Junkies
A new documentary film agrees that soul food tastes good, but asks is it worth it?
by Erin Z. Bass
A new film by Byron Hurt, “Soul Food Junkies” premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens series Monday night. Inspired by his own family’s complex relationship with “soul food,” award-winning documentary filmmaker Hurt asks whether this diet is nurturing or destroying the African American community. Traveling from New York to Georgia, Newark to Mississippi, Hurt, whose family is from Milledgeville, relates his own father’s struggle with weight to America’s love for comfort food.
The film opens with shots of barbecued ribs, grits and eggs, and greens. Hurt says that along with fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler, these are the foods his family grew up eating. “I never questioned what we were eating or how much,” he says. As his father continued to gain weight and eventually got pancreatic cancer, Hurt, who lives in New Jersey, tried to talk to him about his diet. Nevertheless, he still enjoyed huge family meals and plenty of soul food on his visits home.
In “Soul Food Junkies,” Hurt examines the origins of soul food, from slavery to home cooks and now the chain restaurants offering low-quality, low-priced meals. He heads to Jackson, Mississippi, for tailgating at Jackson State University and a stop at Peaches soul food restaurant, then to his own inner city in Newark to get peoples’ reactions to soul food. Professor of History and Foodways at Babson College in Massachusetts Dr. Frederick Douglas Opie, New Orleans food writer Lolis Eric Elie, chef and food justice activist Bryant Terry and other experts weigh in on the state of soul food and its origins.
Hurt (pictured on the right with his mother and sister) concludes the film with solutions, from city farms to more access to fresh produce in the African American community and just oven-frying your chicken at home.
Photo credits: Soul food plate by Shawn Escoffery and Byron, Frances and Taundra Hurt courtesy of Byron Hurt.