You are what you eat, the old saying goes. But if you change what you eat, are you fundamentally changing who you are?
That question underlies much of the new documentary Soul Food Junkies, premiering Monday night on PBS' Independent Lens series. Director Byron Hurt's highly personal, often funny film explores how traditional Southern comfort fare became entwined with African-American identity. And it asks whether this food, often loaded with salt, fat and sugar, is doing its consumers more harm than good.
The film was inspired by Hurt's father, Jackie Hurt, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2007. He was overweight and in poor health.
"When he became ill, I started to examine his relationship to food," Hurt tells NPR's Michel Martin, "and it was soul food he grew up with and loved so much."
It's a love affair with deep roots in the African-American community. As the film recounts, soul food was survival food in the black South. Dishes were inspired by a need to make do with what slaves could access: greens they grew themselves, leftover meat parts like pig ears and feet, and cheap foods like rice and yams loaded with calories to fuel a field slave's work. Some of these recipes had origins in Africa. (Gumbo, we learn, was the West African word for "okra.")
And during the civil rights era, it was soul food purveyors like Ms. Peaches of Peaches Restaurant in Jackson, Miss., who fed demonstrators and helped keep the movement going — at no small risk to themselves. "Black women have done so much to sustain us as a community and as a culture," Hurt says. "Ms. Peaches is one example of a woman who used her culinary skills and her courage to help feed the civil rights movement."
But even at that time, when places like Sylvia's in Harlem were bringing soul food to a wider audience, some in the African-American community were raising questions about soul food's toll on health. Nation of Islam leaders denounced soul food as "slave food," while comedian Dick Gregory, who became a vegetarian in the '60s, termed it "death food."
Hurt himself revamped his diet after a dalliance with Nation of Islam teachings. His rejection of pork, he recalls, hit his father hard.
"Maybe he felt like that was me rejecting him, me rejecting black culture, me rejecting the food that he loved, you know?" he says in the film.
These days, lots of people — from vegan chef Bryant Terry to nutrition nonprofits like Oldways — are creating more health-conscious interpretations of traditional soul food recipes. The PBS site offers up its own healthy takes on seven soul food favorites.
"We also have to pay attention to larger issues affecting our community: fast food and processed food," he says.
"It is true that poor and working-class families who live in communities that don't have access to good supermarkets don't have access to good, quality, healthy foods," he says. "And a lot of those poor supermarkets can be easily found in communities of color. And that is a problem."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we want to talk about how women took center stage at the Golden Globes last night.
But, first, we want to tell you about a new documentary premiering tonight on PBS that takes kind of a tough look at one of America's favorite things. It's called "Soul Food Junkies" and the title alone gives you a taste of what the film is all about. Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUL FOOD JUNKIES")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What is it about soul food that you love? What's so appealing?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The spice, the seasoning.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I came for the fried chicken.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Now, you haven't had nothing till you had my black-eyed peas.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Soul food tastes good, better than most white man food, that's for sure.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Soul food is a great part of our culture because it's a time of coming together. It's a time of cooking together, talking together, sitting down and consuming together.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's why, when we pray, good Lord, good meat, come on, let's eat. Hallelujah.
MARTIN: Director Byron Hurt's film is not just a celebration of this traditional fare. He is asking some important questions about whether this food, as loved as it is, but packed with fat, sugar and salt, is actually doing the people who eat it more harm than good, and he's with us now from our bureau in New York.
Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
BYRON HURT: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
MARTIN: You know, you're very up front about your motivation for making the film. It comes out of concern for your own family, particularly your father, who loved food and loved to eat, but also gained a lot of weight and eventually became quite ill.
HURT: Yes. That's exactly right. The film is inspired by my father, who became ill in 2004 with pancreatic cancer and it was at that time that I started to really, really focus in on what could have led to his illness. And I had always been really concerned about my father's health from the time that I was a young boy because he was overweight. He was obese, I would say. I recognized that his eating habits were not the best and so, when he became ill, I started to take a look at, you know, his relationship to food and it was soul food that he grew up with and that he loved so much, in addition to fast food and processed foods.
And so I just started asking questions about, you know, the very nature of sickness and illness in the African-American community and I wondered if other people were experiencing similar things, which is what led me to make this film.
MARTIN: Well, in the course of the film, you dig into the roots of why this food became soul food, why it's so much beloved, you know, where the traditions came from. You make the point that this was survival food, you know, at one point, but you also make this interesting trip, at some point. One of the trips that you make as part of the film - you make a stop to Peaches Restaurant in Mississippi.
MARTIN: And I want to play a clip from your interview with Ms. Peaches, who opened the doors to her restaurant in 1961.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUL FOOD JUNKIES")
MS. PEACHES: You out there and being misused and mistreated, people are dogging you around and you ain't got nowhere to go. I think it was my duty to open the door and let you in.
MARTIN: Now, she's actually talking on two different levels here. She's talking both just about food as comfort, but she's also talking about her own bravery. She doesn't call it that, but you do, clearly. I think people can appropriately draw that conclusion. She was one of the people feeding demonstrators during the Civil Rights Movement at no small risk to herself. But why did you think it was important to include this in the film?
HURT: You know, black women have done so much to help sustain us as a community and as a culture and Ms. Peaches is one example of a woman, you know, who used her culinary skills and her courage to help feed the Civil Rights Movement. You know, I ran into her restaurant down in Jackson, Mississippi. I talked to her son, who was very - he spoke very, very fondly of his mother and how courageous his mother was and he told stories about the great lengths that his mother went to to make sure that the residents of Jackson, Mississippi were well fed.
You know, I felt like I really had to interview her because she represented so much strength and so much power and soul food was a huge part of her identity and she speaks to how soul food gave her power in her community. So I wanted to use Ms. Peaches as almost like the embodiment of so many women, and not just women - black men, as well - who used food that was cooked and prepared from the heart to help sustain an entire community.
MARTIN: You know, you have another interesting moment in the film that I just had to play. You go to a tailgate at...
MARTIN: ...Jackson State University, an historically black college - university. Football game's going on. The folks brought so much food to the tailgate that I think it was almost more important than the game.
HURT: And there's a clip where some folks are trying to get you to sample their wares. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SOUL FOOD JUNKIES")
HURT: All right. So wait, wait. You're saying everything in here ain't good for you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No. But it's good to you, though.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But it's good to you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You got to have this.
HURT: I'm good. I'm good. I'm good. No, I'm good.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Taste it. Taste it, man. Taste it.
HURT: I'm a taste it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Everything, uh-uh. You got to taste in front of us.
HURT: I'm a taste it right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. Taste it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That's it. Ain't right. Tell the people eating right.
HURT: Yo, I cannot front. That turkey neck drenched in pork juice was delicious.
MARTIN: Well, we're glad you enjoyed it but, one of the things I found fascinating about this is that number one, you don't eat pork.
MARTIN: You haven't eaten pork in years.
MARTIN: You didn't really want to eat it. It's almost as though people are saying to you if you don't eat this food you are no longer one of us.
HURT: That is exactly right. And you caught that. And you're spot on with that. You know, soul food is a culinary tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. You know, and it's helped us survive some very, very difficult times. You know, it came with the enslaved Africans over from West Africa to the Americas into the Deep South and people are very emotionally connected to soul food. They're connected to the food that their mother prepared or their grandmother, or great-grandmother, or their great grandfather prepared for them, you know, when they were young people growing up. And I think that's the case with my father and so many other people who love and enjoy soul food. So whenever you challenge that culinary tradition, that culture, you know, people become a little territorial, you know, and protective of it. And they feel like if it was good enough for their grandmother or grandfather, it should be good enough for them.
And so, you know, the point with my film is not to throw the entire tradition out, you know, in the trash, but it's really to say we can continue to enjoy our great tradition if we change the way we prepare it and the way that we cook it - to make modifications, and that's really what the film is suggesting. But we also have to pay attention to some other larger food issues that are affecting our community too - like the fast food industry and processed food, you know, that is so easily accessible and readily accessible in our neighborhoods. So, you know, while the film uses soul food as a jumping off point, it's a much bigger conversation about food and our relationship to food as a community, which may be a factor in what's making us so sick.
MARTIN: We're talking about the new PBS documentary. It premieres tonight. It's called "Soul Food Junkies." We're talking with director Byron Hurt about this.
And Byron though, in the run-up to the premiere, which is today, as I said - and you'll want to check your local listings for exact times - one of the criticisms I've seen of the film by some of the people who've seen it is that they feel that you're connecting this to kind of, one of your commentators says that there is no more pointed manifestation of racism than the lack of access to fresh food. And some people think that that is just a step too far. I mean their argument is that like people are making choices, they have a right to make choices, it's free people about what they want to eat. Processed food is, you know, there's pluses and minuses. And one of the pluses is that it can be, you know, very affordable. And I just wanted to ask if you would address that.
HURT: Well, I thought it was really important to address the issue of food deserts and African-American communities - and I would say poor communities around the country, not just African-American communities, but poor working class communities, the issue is very real. You know, my office is based in what is considered to be a food desert in Newark, New Jersey. It is true that poor and working-class families who live in communities that don't have access to good supermarkets don't have access to good quality healthy foods. And a lot of those poor supermarkets can be easily found in communities of color. And that is a problem and I think it should be addressed. And I think that Marc Lamont Hill, who talks about that in my film, addressed it very, very intelligently.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I mean it's important to note - as you just noted - that excess weight is not just an issue for African-Americans or other people of color. You know, excess weight...
HURT: No, this is a global issue.
MARTIN: ...it's a global issue. It's certainly an issue for the United States. I mean it's been reported by the first lady, for example, that the number of recruits to the armed forces, a significant, a number of them are rejected because they have excess weight and can't meet the physical requirements.
HURT: Is that right?
MARTIN: You know military service.
HURT: Well, you know what?
MARTIN: So clearly it's an issue for the country. I'm just wondering what you hope people will draw from the film if they see it, whether they're African-American or not.
HURT: You know, if people can connect to the film and personalize it and be inspired by it, and maybe consider it possibility of changing the way they look and the way they prepare their meals or reduce the amount of fast food that they eat, or drink more water, as opposed to drinking soda, then that would be my goal.
I think for those who are open, yes, I think it will have an impact. For those who are not open and their resistant to change, it probably won't have any impact at all. I've had people say to me Byron, your film has really forced me to change my eating habits and I'm eating more salads and that sort of thing. And I've had people say to me Byron, your film made me want to go out and buy a whole carton of fried chicken. You know, so it's gone both ways.
MARTIN: Oh, dear. Well, at least it wasn't pork knuckles, so.
HURT: No. Yeah, pork knuckles, that's a different conversation.
MARTIN: OK. Byron Hurt is director of the new documentary "Soul Food Junkies." It premieres today on PBS, although you will probably want to check your local listings for exact times.
Byron Hurt, thank you. so much for joining us.
HURT: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.