Byron Hurt's new film, scheduled to air next month on PBS, is ostensibly about soul food - and has the requisite glamor shots of collards, sweet potato pies and mac-and-cheese to demonstrate its dedication to the topic. But the highly likeable Soul Food Junkies is most compelling as a documentary of the ongoing relationship between peer pressure and food choices.
Soul Food Junkies
Hurt blames soul food for killing his father, who died of pancreatic cancer after a lifetime of unhealthy eating. Although his sister points out that he supplemented his home-cooked meals with frequent trips to fast food restaurants, Hurt is sure the culprit's fried chicken and Sunday breakfasts of grits, eggs and salt pork, mashed together and spread on toast. Over the course of Hurt's childhood, the elder Hurt doubled in size.
"Is soul food causing early death in my community?" Hurt asks before setting out on a trip which takes him into a few legendary soul food joints and the offices of scholars qualified to speak about them.
Hurt learns that plantation owners, who couldn't afford to let their slaves starve, allotted garden plots to enslaved blacks. He discovers that "soul food" (which is never precisely defined in the film) was healthier before African Americans in certain communities were forced by neighborhood geography to shop for vegetables at liquor stores. And he interviews Dick Gregory, who's been preaching the value of good nutrition since the 1960s. Gregory, along with the Nation of Islam, helped persuade many churchgoing African Americans to give up pork.
Although Hurt never joined the Nation of Islam, he adjusted his eating habits based on the group's message of discipline. His father wasn't impressed: "Maybe he felt like that was me rejecting him, maybe he felt like that was rejecting black culture," Hurt reflects.
The association of certain foods with black manliness is the most interesting concept probed by the hourlong documentary. An especially revealing scene unfolds in a parking lot near Jackson (Miss.) State University's football stadium, where a bunch of tailgaters are fixing a "junkpot" of pig ears, pig feet and turkey legs. "I was like, 'yo, y'all are bugging'," recalls Hurt, who tried to pacify his hosts by fishing an ear of corn out of the otherwise porky pot. The men aren't fooled.
"Are you a 10 percenter?" one man scoffs. "C'mon, get some of that pork."
The tailgaters maintain the junkpot didn't pose a health threat "when they told us it wasn't killing us. Who's they?" Hurt asks. "You know who 'they' is," he's told. According to this worldview, modifying one's diet amounts to a dereliction of identity.
But when Hurt visits a Newark school where students plant gardens and snack on pretzels dipped in yogurt, he encounters a similar certitude. Although Hurt's so pleased to find kids who like "lettuce with ketchup" that the school's methods are presented uncritically, it's hard to imagine the the little boy who tells Hurt that he can't stand fast food wasn't somewhat fearful of what might happen if he voiced pro-burger feelings in a vegetable-oriented environment.
What Soul Food Junkies ultimately proves is most people's eating habits aren't driven by personal tastes or doctor's warnings. Whether eaters chooses pig ears or kale, they're after the same thing: They want to belong to the group.
The film closes with a scene of Rani Whitfield , "The Hip Hop Doc", cooking skinless, boneless chicken. He's also preparing watermelon, which he acknowledges is freighted fruit for African Americans. But he announces he has no plans to stop eating it, because "watermelon can enhance a man's erection." And you're eating sweet potato pie?