Black folks have a complicated relationship with soul food. For many of us, the mere mention of fried chicken, mac and cheese, greens and yams brings forth memories of family gatherings with deceptively abundant spreads. However, these dishes are also associated with the medical issues that have taken a lot of our people out. It seemed tragically appropriate that the family matriarch Big Mama in the film Soul Food died of complications related to diabetes, AKA “the sugar.” My own grandmother (also called “Big Mama”), like many of her Southern-raised, Southern-cooking neighbors and friends, died of the same.
Filmmaker Byron Hurt (Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, I AM A MAN: Black Masculinity in America) understands just how deep our cultural connection to our treasured foods runs. He also knows that our community’s dietary issues are not hardly limited to our love of cornbread. Hurt’s latest documentary Soul Food Junkies takes a both loving and critical look at the history of our beloved dishes, while exploring some of the important steps we can take to improve the health of our loved ones.
Here, the EBONY MANifest Award winer speaks on what compelled him to make the film, why we can still enjoy soul food and what we’re eating that may be doing even more damage than your auntie’s ham hocks.
EBONY: How did this film come to be?
Byron Hurt: I was inspired to make Soul Food Junkies based on my experience watching my father become ill and deal with [his] obesity and watching how difficult it was for him to change his eating habits. That made me ask a larger question about what Black people eat and the impact that food has on our community…I wanted to take a look at soul food and the history of soul food and the tradition of soul food to see what made us as African American people, and my own father, so connected to it.
EBONY: What role do you think our emotional attachment to soul food plays in terms of our inability to recognize how unhealthy it can be?
BH: We wear our culinary tradition as a badge of honor and it is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, a culinary tradition that has helped sustain us through a very difficult time…we have essentially created [this tradition] out of food scraps and made it into a culinary cuisine. It’s difficult to give up tradition. It is difficult to let go of the past.
EBONY: How do we learn to enjoy soul food the 'right' way? Is it a matter of moderation or simply learning how to cook it in a healthier way?
BH: Yes, absolutely. There is nothing wrong with collard greens, there is nothing wrong with black eyed peas, there is nothing wrong with butter beans, there is nothing wrong with okra, there is nothing wrong with kale, there is nothing wrong with chicken—if it is organic and if it has not been injected with steroids and other chemicals…there is nothing inheritably wrong with soul food, but how you prepare the soul food, I believe, is the key… instead of frying the chicken, peel the skin off the chicken and bake it. Instead of eating candied yams, you bake that sweet potato. Instead of cooking your collard greens for hours with a fatty meat like ham hocks, you cook them for a shorter period of time and sauté them, as Bryant Terry suggested in his book, using olive oil, red peppers, garlic and other spices for flavor.
Those changes are very difficult for some people, but if you want to live longer, healthier lives, it is worth the change.
EBONY: Do you think soul food is as much of a problem when it comes to Black folks diets as say, fast food or what our kids are being served in the lunchroom? Are we eating soul food as much as we did 30 or 40 years ago?
BH: Probably not. I can’t speak for all Black households across America, but I think that processed foods, industrialized foods and fast food are a huge problem in the culture. If you combine them with some of the more fatty, unhealthy traditional soul foods, it could be a recipe for bad health. People have more access to fast food today than ever before. It is cheap, it’s easy…it is [often] the food of choice because we all live busier, faster-paced lives. If I had to guess, I would have to say that fast food and processed food are probably a bigger problem in our community than soul food. Of course, soul food also has many dishes that are healthy for you.
I think people, because of the title of the film, think I’m just going to slam soul food. My film is not a condemnation of soul food; it is an examination of food, culture, tradition, family and what happens when people within a family or people within a community or culture decide to change that tradition.