Soul Food Junkies
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Filmmaker Byron Hurt looks at the past and future of soul food — from its roots in Western Africa, to its incarnation in the American South, to its contribution to modern health crises in communities of color. Soul Food Junkies also looks at the socioeconomics of the modern American diet, and how the food industry profits from making calories cheap, but healthy options expensive and hard to find.
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Documentary filmmaker Byron Hurt grew up eating (and cooking with his mom and sister) "soul food" at home. He noted that his father was gaining a lot of weight and looking unhealthy. When his father died because of the unhealthy food he was eating, the younger Hurt set out to discover why black Americans were eating so much of it and where it all began. This 63-minute film gives a cultural history of food in the households of blacks (going back to the days of slavery and plantations). Hurt does visit some renowned soul food restaurants (but doesn't promote them) and interviews a number of "food historians" and "culinary historians". (Who knew such a designation existed???). The best-known interviewee is former comedian, now food activist, Dick Gregory. Hurt, himself, changed his diet and no longer eats red meat. He visits a man known as the "Hip-hop doctor" who explains that collard greens and fried chicken can be made in a healthier way.
I'd recommend this this DVD to those who - like Hurt - want to know where "soul food" started as well as those who love it but want to cut back. The DVD has no bonus features and this is one area where I wish PBS Home Video went an extra step. It would have been nice to include (either as bonus videos, or as an inserted pamphlet) some recipes (probably by the "hip-hop doctor) for healthier prep of the sol food staples. But, it's a start to know that this DVD will be available to watch and share - and should be in every public library's DVD collection.
I hope you found this review both informative and helpful.
I agree with that proposed by one of my eternal favorite comedians/activists Dick Gregory who features largely in this documentary, that this manner of eating and cooking is a type of racism made manifest. The argument goes like this: the black community has to cook the slops and even garbage of the rich white world. While I do not believe an entire documentary knocking the food itself ever makes any sense, I see the vital message because the black community cannot even find the opportunity to open grocery stores.
Hurt knows very well that the answer to the lack of health can be overeating or excessively unhealthy eating--he explores the origins of Southern "soul" food which is, of course, none other than "comfort" food. He gets a few things wrong, but his quest is lofty. He realizes quite early on that his father simply ate way too much of the wrong things. Hurt then began to worry that all of the black community eats this way for the obvious reasons: lack of proper access to good nutrition; lack of fresh produce and any way to produce it; the firm foot that always stands on the black neck.
This is a powerful 55 minutes. I loved Hurt throwing himself back into the middle of Southern hospitality which culminated in him eating some turkey neck and corn. It is not going to surprise you that it made me hungry as all get out-- I have been on a poor diet for many years, unable to eat much of anything and often going days without eating due to multiple sclerosis. But I am still hungry for the food of MY youth, and in the words of one interviewee here, "Oh!--Hard to give up that fried chicken!"
SOAPBOX TIME: The salient point about soul food reflecting racism may be built into a case this way: our food staples and means of production, without which there is no survival, are powerful currency. Land, water, livestock and seeds which few in the black community ever owned. In America it seems 'the food economy' is often above the law. It also seems the government has been preparing for a time when food staples will be the ultimate currency, if you look at the way it uses means of production, pure water sources, national parks and wild animal sanctuaries.
The big clue is the government handling of farms, the land, and the way they deal with farmers. It is a kind of stockpiling, and the first to suffer (when times are so-so) is the black community followed by the Hispanic and Native communities. At such times, our government also insures the permanent downtrodden status of the minorities. Imagine an economic apocalypse! In the past, in places like post-revolutionary China, parents were eating their own children. Many Chinese refugees within China were either kidnapping kids or would cook a dead person found on the road.
One cannot eat gold or shelter in a house made of dollar bills. The markets that always emerge during war, they sell what? - food STAPLES. Salt. Sugar. Meat. You name it, even seeds and during WWII they sold livestock out in the Italian countryside. Food staples are the only true currency and for those to be sustained you need land, pure water, seeds. Never forget that with all that comes one other vital need: labor. Well, Hurt also ambled right into the solution to this problem as well, as I will explain below.
You need no other lessons in the counterfeit economy this land has adopted toward the black community. Hurt has gotten to the bottom of this in my opinion. It startled me happily when Hurt visited his uncle, his deceased father's brother, who has his own very fine vegetable garden. He proudly grows all his own food and remarked that the black community is now engaging in growing at community gardens. The unspoken hope is that one day, there will be a black agriculture in America and that just might save us all. It took me back to my childhood, because my parents and siblings did that: a bountiful veggie garden was in everybody's backyard. My mother could have gotten rich selling her canned veggies, but she simply gave away all the extra.
A famous economist (this is not in Hurt's film), when questioned about investments against a bleak future, answered, "Buy Spam. [big laugh from audience] You can't eat gold coins [big gasp from the audience as they realized he was serious]." Perhaps this mentality has always been with us, as this documentary shows. Far from being some sort of fanatic, Hurt really stumbled on an important set of issues, and we owe it to ourselves and everybody to hear him.