It’ll fill you. It might thrill you. But it can kill you.
Soul food is rich—not just in taste, pleasure, comfort, but also in history. And yet, as documentary filmmaker Byron Hurt asks in Soul Food Junkies (2012), is this legendary culinary culture also poisonous?
Hurt, whose previous films include Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (2006) and I Am A Man: Black Masculinity in America (1998), was partly compelled to make the film because of his father, Jackie, who died at age sixty-three from pancreatic cancer, a disease often tied to obesity.
Hurt stops short of simply indicting soul food for murder, for while Jackie loved his fried chicken and fried okra, his collard greens, his black-eyed peas, and his macaroni and cheese, he also loved fast food and, it would seem, ate plain too much of all of it. He grew obese, which, Hurt argues, led to his demise. Hurt, a former college football player with an activist, sociological bent, began to wonder about the history of a diet that both spiritually sustains and physically undermines so many African Americans and Southerners in general.
Scholars explained to him how plantation owners fed their field slaves thousands of calories a day in cheap stock foods like corn, rice, and yams in order to get the desired amount of work out of them, sometimes using recipes descended from African cooking. And because slave cooks were responsible for feeding their masters, the slave-quarters diet increasingly became the big-house diet, and soul food, with its recycled grease and pork fat, gradually became endemic to the South.
The film recounts other parts of this diet’s history that have made it extra bittersweet for African Americans: In the Jim Crow period, experts and family recount, boxed soul food sustained travelers who weren’t allowed into white restaurants. In the Civil Rights Era, Ms. Peaches of Peaches Restaurant donated her soulful cooking to Freedom Riders detained by the police in fenced-in areas of Jackson, Mississippi. “She couldn’t even pay the bills,” her son tells Hurt, “but she started feeding folks.” Later in the ’60s, soul food was adopted by soul politics, but in some cases became its target—the Nation of Islam and activists like Dick Gregory decried what they saw as “slave food” or, as Gregory put it, “death food.”
As African Americans—like all Americans—became more sedentary, and soul food—like all food—became more processed and restaurant proportions grew, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancers all increased. Generations that had been brought up proud for having “turned survival food into a delicacy,” as one commentator puts it, and who took comfort in this food culture, were being done in by it.
Hurt is understandably alarmed by the statistics. Consider that roughly four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese. From 2007 to 2010, African-American girls were shown to be eighty percent more likely to be overweight than non-Hispanic white girls. African-American adults are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white adults to have diabetes and, in 2009, were more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die from the disease. Deaths from heart disease and stroke are almost twice as prevalent for African Americans as they are for whites.
But soul food is well loved. Aside from being tasty, soul food carries its own social pressures, which Hurt describes in the film. Watch him squirm as he tries to duck the insistent hospitality of some friendly game-day tailgaters at Mississippi’s Jackson State University who want him to sample from their “junk pot” of pig’s ears, pig’s feet, turkey necks, corn, and so on. Others decry the “plate police” who would strip their meals of all that delicious, buttery, sweet, salty, fatty wonder.
Hurt seeks a middle ground in this food battle. He chats up his uncle about the latter’s beloved vegetable garden. He talks to activists battling what they see as a class-based food apartheid in Newark, New Jersey, and he visits with students at Newark’s St. Philip’s Academy, for whom fresh food and nutritional lessons are part of both cafeteria and classroom life. Battling stereotypes of healthy food being “white people’s food,” the school has students chant: “Vegetables are soul food” and teaches them that a good diet will make them, as one student puts it, “feel good about me.”
Fittingly, Hurt ends his film with the wish that his daughter, Massai, will live to see him become a healthy old man. I’ll drink to that: maybe some unsweetened iced tea, with just a tiny splash of lemonade.
Watch Soul Food Junkies at 10 p.m. on January 14 as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series.