I think and write a lot about the links between our roots and our food. And I know that if you want to get the 360 story of a people
you need to take a look at what they put on the table over the years. This is particularly true in black America.
My passion is the food and culture I experienced as a black child of the South. My notions of the food of my ancestors and of what has become known as soul food were recently stretched when I previewed Byron Hurt’s brilliant documentary, “Soul Food Junkies.”
When you say “food and culture,” people don’t just want to ask questions, they want to tell you a story. Because food – good food – is love. It is a hug. It is joy at times when there isn’t much to be joyful about. In telling his food story, Byron nails it. And he raises some provocative questions about the links among blacks, the way we eat and our health.
I had the chance to talk to Byron about his soul-food journey.
Q: Why did you take on soul food in your documentary?
BH: I started working on this documentary in 2006, after my dad was diagnosed with and died from pancreatic cancer in 2004. I did some research and saw that a high-fat diet was tied to pancreatic cancer. It was difficult. I really wanted to explore the links between black people and the food they eat, particularly soul food.
Q: With a subject like this that runs along the history of not just food but slavery and black history, how did you tackle this broad subject?
BH: At the outset, I did a lot of reading about the history of soul food. One of the first books that I purchased was Frederick Douglass Opie’s “Hog & Hominy,” and I read it from cover to cover. I reached out to Mr. Opie and I had a conversation with him and he gave me a lot of leads as to who I should talk to and consider including in the film. I spent about a year reading and talking to different people before I started shooting and I continued to do additional research throughout the production process.
Q: You make some strong statements about soul food. Did you have a different food experience from most blacks?
BH: I grew up eating soul food. And my mother was a great cook. We had it on a consistent basis—holidays, after church. Much of what we ate was the typical southern food my folks brought with them from Milledgeville, Ga.
Q: Did your father’s diagnosis change you?
BH: I started making changes before then. I gained a lot of weight after college. Some of my friends were in the Nation of Islam, and they were eating healthy. They don’t eat pork. I started eating healthy. I eat mostly vegetables and whole grains now. My palate has changed from the meat and junk food I ate when I was growing up. But it has been a lengthy process of change.
Q: Were there some big ‘aha’ moments for you when you were researching “Soul Food Junkies?”
BH: It made me distrustful of the food industry. I am a lot more aware of what I eat and where it comes from. I cook most of my own food.
Q: You take a hit at one of the big taboos in the black community—the way we eat. Food is so ingrained into the way we socialize and identify. Did you take a lot of negative feedback?
BH: People have been loving the film and discussing it. And they love to share their stories. I knew it would resonate. And as a filmmaker it has been good to see the whole vision come together in this unique story. And as I travel around and tour with the film it has been great to see people talk back to the film. When I see the conversations around “Soul Food Junkies,” it was something that just existed in my mind.
I just want people to think a little more critically about their relationship to food. Talk to their families about eating a little healthier and exercising more. And we need to be pushing for healthy quality food in our neighborhoods.
Q: Speaking of food in black neighborhoods, you address the notion of food deserts in communities of color.
BH: The film does address that on some level. We need to be looking for the people that are making it easier to get fresh, good food, like the local farmers markets and the people that are growing their own food.
Q: What is one of your food staples now, as you work to eat healthier?
BH: I like sweet potatoes, but I do them baked, and try to back up off of the sweet potato pie. I also start out every morning with a kale smoothie. I use a bunch of kale, a half an apple, some fresh ginger, water and a half an avocado.
Q: You have a 3-year-old. How does she take to the plant-based diet?
BH: She loves the smoothie. It is important to start them young and get them used to eating healthy but good-tasting food. And we have to set an example for our kids. Don’t have things in your home that are not healthy. Learn how to cook vegetables in a way that is healthy and nutritious.
Q: You say that your mother was a good cook when you were young. Did she see this as a commentary on her cooking or the way she and your dad raised you?
BH: No. She and my sister loved it. And she has changed the way she cooks as well. She doesn’t use pork or meat to season the food she cooks. She cooks a lot of healthy turkey and fish. The more she learns about healthy food, the more she makes changes.
Q: At the end of your research did you decide that we need to get rid of the traditions of soul food?
BH: I’m not condemning the black culinary tradition, because it has served us well over the years, throughout slavery. It helped us survive. But I think we’ve come to a point where have to realize that we have to make a lot of changes in order to lead healthier, longer lives and have a quality of life.
The takeaway for me is that we have to figure out ways to modify the way that we’re preparing our food and be a lot more conscious about what it is that we put into our bodies and the kind of access we have to food in our communities.
The goal is to remix soul food, to modify it to where we can still enjoy many of the core ingredients without cooking it in a lot of fat and grease and salt and meat and those sort of things.
Q: Are there any other things that you think we should take away from this discussion on soul food?
BH: People’s awareness about how food impacts our lives and our communities. There’s a burgeoning food justice movement that is doing a lot of work around the country to educate people on how to eat better and how to have access to healthier food and how to change public policy to make food healthier for people.
Hurt’s documentary aired on PBS on Jan. 14, 2013. If you’d like to see it, or even set up your own community discussions, go to Soul Food Junkies.