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Soul Food Junkies: Finally a Food Film That Doesn't Preach!

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I watch a lot of food films -- usually documentaries about what is wrong with the "broken" food system and what I as an individual consumer, "eater" or "co-producer" must do to fix it. Unfairly, perhaps, I've come to feel that they've all blended together into a preachy, warmed-over mush, serving up the same global expert critiques and local folk recipes. There's no need to name names, but the same voices keep showing up on screen saying pretty much the same things.

Don't get me wrong, I agree with much (and have contributed to some) of the documentation. It's not that what is happening on the ground to change the food system isn't fresh and exiting; but I've come to feel that the dominant food narrative has gone stale. Food films are boring.

Nonetheless, I was blown away by Byron Hurt's Soul Food Junkies.

This is not just another food film. It is a heartfelt story of family and community. It is also a trenchant ethnography that unpacks the role of "Soul Food" in the historical resistance of African Americans to slavery, Jim Crow and modern-day racism. Mr. Hurt's nuanced documentary, woven into his personal narrative, reveals not only the impact of black cuisine on African Americans, but its impact on Southern cooking and on the way many of us relate to food. He manages to accomplish all of this with painful honesty, warm humor and deep respect. Not once did I feel like he was telling anyone how to eat.

Soul Food Junkies opens with handsome pictures of the director's father: "This is my pops," states Hurt proudly. "He loved to eat Soul Food." We dive right in to a Sunday family breakfast of grits, eggs, soft pork on toast... and Byron's worries about his father's diet, weight and health.

His concern leads him to wonder about where Soul Food comes from and why it is so important to black identity. Is it good or bad for you? And finally, he asks, are we a nation of Soul Food junkies?

Byron Hurt searches for answers by retracing his family's yearly road trips from New York to Georgia. These trips began with the preparation of food for the journey -- a tradition, we learn, that started in Jim Crow times when African Americans were not allowed in roadside restaurants. This is the story of people, told through their food.

Scenes and dialogue from family tables, tailgate parties and black-owned restaurants are interspersed with interviews of African-American historians, politicians, social workers and activists. Everyone (not all African-American) has something to say about Soul Food. Some is good ("Good Lord Good Meat, c'mon lets eat!"). Some is uncompromisingly bad ("Soul Food?" says Dick Gregory, the original food activist, "They should call it death food, 'cause it'll kill you").

Soul Food Junkies takes us on an historical journey as well, from the caloric requirements on slave ships, to the subsistence gardens of slave families and the white kitchens in the Big House. African-Americans invented survival food for themselves and comfort food for the masters, establishing the basis for Southern cooking: "The hand of the African in the pot, transformed the taste of the pot."

The dynamic and historical role of black cuisine through moments like the civil rights movement, its emblematic denomination as "Soul Food" in the Black Power movement, and its rejection by the Nation of Islam as "slave food" all tell a complicated and far-reaching story. Mr. Hurt is not just on a personal journey; he is gently schooling us all in the hows and whys of Soul Food in the Americas ("We turned survival food into a delicacy that people from all walks of life enjoyed eating"). This opens the door to understand not just how black cuisine impacts African-Americans, but how food -- and the black experience -- affects everyone.

Like the Blues, the film avoids succumbing to pathos or glib self-recrimination, and instead lifts up the honesty and humor of the men and women who talk forthrightly about their food, diet, health and culture. We all laugh when the director -- a vegetarian -- tries unsuccessfully to avoid eating meat from a "junk pot" of corn, pig's feet and turkey necks at a football tailgate party at Jackson State University football game, finally admitting, "turkey neck drenched in pork juice was delicious." Another Soul Food convert to vegetables insists proudly that "Salad turns me on," but then quickly admits with a grin that it's "Hard givin' up that fried chicken!"

The political significance of Soul Food is exemplified throughout, but my favorite section is of Miss Peaches, a restaurant owner who made hundreds of sandwiches to feed hungry freedom riders in Jackson, Mississippi. "When you bein' mistreated and dogged, you got no place to go... It was my duty to open the door and let you in. When you expect me to do something... I will do my best." People like Miss Peaches put the soul in the food.

The story of food in the African American community is one of oppression and resistance. But has the black community's very survival food now become an oppressor? In a section called "Soul Sickness" Hurt explores Soul Food's deadly link to modern fast food and the epidemic of diabetes, high blood pressure, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and colon cancer that disproportionally plague African Americans. Laments one young woman, "You eat, get big, go to college get your education, get your diabetes, you get your high blood pressure and then you die!"

These statistics bring the film to probe deeply into the structural racism of the food system. Vegan chef Bryant Terry -- one of the stars of the film -- claims the bigger cause of poor African-American health is the industrialization of our food system, and that the 23.5 million Americans that live in "food deserts" are actually subject to "class-based food apartheid." Clearly, this is not a simple narrative about a "broken" food system in need of a "fix." Rather, it is the history of structural oppression, and of a food system built on the backs of slaves -- a system that continues to profit from the high fat, salt, and sugar appetites that have been cultivated in our food system over the last 200 years.

Just as the African-American community sowed the seeds of their survival by adapting African foods and cooking to the New World, Mr. Hart gives us plenty of examples of African-Americans adapting Soul Food for healthier diets. Students of the St. Philip's Academy provide their cafeteria with food from the school garden, proclaiming, "Vegetables are Soul Food!" The much celebrated Will Allen and "Growing Power" teach gardening to thousands of youth who go on to start their own neighborhood farmer's markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture).

At its core, Soul Food Junkies succeeds in doing precisely what it calls for: to make healthy food part of popular culture. Byron Hurt isn't ready to abandon Soul Food. He just wants it to be healthier. He is not alone, and he has taken the debate on food to another level.