Friday, January 11, 2013

Soul Food Junkies: Culinary Culture and Health Issues

Filmmaker Byron Hurt wants to remind everyone traditionally prepared soul food can be very unhealthy, but he sure makes it look delicious.  That is sort of the whole dilemma in a nutshell.  For Hurt, it is not merely an academic question.  It has very personal implications for his family, as he explains in Soul Food Junkies (trailer here), which airs this coming Monday as part of the current season of Independent Lens on PBS.

Hurt’s father Jackie died at a relatively young age.  His one real vice was a love of comfort foods, particularly soul food.  Hurt traces how his southern-born parents’ vivid memories of segregation shaped their approach to food.  On family vacations, instead of stopping for meals on the way, his mother always cooked up a batch of fried chicken.  It might have been more economical, but Hurt clearly links the cumulative fried chicken, mac & cheese, and fat drenched collard greens to his father’s diabetes and associated health problems.

Of course, the filmmaker admits his father and many men like him also probably over-indulged in fast food over the course of their lives, but that is really just the other side of the same coin.  Yet, in documenting the evolution of soul food, he readily concedes both its special place in African American cultural history and how great it tastes, even to a largely vegetarian convert such as himself.

Some of Junkies talking heads overstate their cases, such as the commentator who blames the lack of full service grocery stores in inner city neighborhoods on institutional racism.  Evidently, the relative economic climate in urban areas has nothing to do with it.  However, he also includes some productive recommendations for healthier soul food options from Dr. Rani “Hip Hop Doctor” Whitfield.

While intended as a call for healthier living, Junkies ironically often serves as a bit of food porn.  Obviously, if it were not so tasty, those fatty, salty, sugary foods would not be so hard to resist, even without the historical significance of soul food the film so nicely elucidates.  By focusing so much on his own family, Hurt gives it a very TV vibe, but for its Independent Lens broadcast that is not so terrible.  Worth seeing for some perspective on the food some many Americans of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds know and love, Soul Food Junkies airs Monday (1/14) on most PBS outlets nationwide.  It also screens conventionally at the Anthology Film Archives on the 29th.