Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Price Those Ribs, 'Soul Food Junkies'?

At Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, a patron is dining on fried chicken and macoroni and cheese. Photos from "Soul Food Junkies" Facebook page.

USING as his jumping off point the death of his father at the age 63 from pancreatic cancer, Byron Hurt ponders whether other blacks, like his father, are "Soul Food Junkies."

The documentary from the award-winning filmmaker ("I Am A Man: Black Masculinity in America") makes its debut at the American Black Film Festival ( tomorrow.

In the interest of full disclosure, BH and I go way back. In addition to being a filmmaker, he is also an activist, lecture and writer.

In "Soul Food Junkies," he wonders whether such mouthwatering fare as chitlins aka chitterlings, neck bones, pigs’ feet, barbecue ribs, sweet potato pie, macaroni&cheese, black-eyed peas, fried chicken and corn bread is killing black folks. He elicits comments from a host of common folk, experts, activists, politicians and policymakers, including Dick Gregory and Sonia Sanchez, to arrive at an answer.

The Long Island native tracks the history of soul food from West Africa across an ocean to the Caribbean and in what would become the United States, particularly the South. On this trek, he examines how this cuisine morphed from survival food to the delicacy and, potential killer, that it is today. (See trailer below).

BH not only wrote and directed “Soul Food Junkies,” he is the narrator. It is the most deeply personal of his films, which also includes the much lauded “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.” He uses powerful images, especially of the foods so many of us love and are familiar with to engage the viewer. At a restaurant, a patron simply explains that spices and seasonings are the essence of soul food. BH makes the grits, eggs and sliced salt pork sandwich that he and his father typically ate at Sunday breakfast, a time over the years when they really connected.

One gentleman evokes myriad memories by simply remarking that fingers are very much involved in eating soul food. Many of us have relatives or ourselves simply cannot enjoy collards and cornbread unless the two are intertwined and eaten by hand. And, of course, chicken was finger-lickin’ good long before the Colonel co-opted the phrase and made billions off of it. The scene of the tailgating special "junk pot" dish (ears of corn, pig ears, pig feet, turkey necks, neck bones, etc. ) at the Jackson State University (Mississippi) football game just takes the cake. “Everything ain’t good for you, in here,” one of the tailgate/chefs quips. “But it’s good to you!”

Overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that many black folks (and others) are addicted to the very foods that are responsible for many of their preventable illnesses and for the premature death of loved ones. As DG remarks, "I don’t eat anything that fought, do-dos, pees or squoots.” The comedian-activist famously put the blame solely at the feet of soul food when years ago Phil Donahue asked him why so many black women are overweight. At the time the percentage was closing in on 50 percent. Today, the figure is closer to 75 percent.

But as “Soul Food Junkies” clearly points out, soul food is not the sole culprit in the width of black women’s waistlines or that of men. BH’s father “went from being young and fit to growing nearly twice his size.” Indeed, it takes a village. Preparation plays a role. For the most part, frying is not good. Neither is using old oil or saturating foods with salt and sugar. Many blacks, particularly in urban areas, live in food deserts. These are neighborhoods where fast food, bodegas and other purveyors of nonfresh and unhealthy food predominate. Good supermarkets and grocery stores are almost extinct.

“I go a supermarket in my neighborhood and I've seen vegetables that look like they are having a nervous breakdown,” SS says. She has not been above removing the offending produce from shelves and threatening to phone the media if store personnel threaten to phone the police, she added.

“Soul Food Junkies,” which will have its New York debut on 30 August and will be broadcast on PBS' upcoming season of "Independent Lens, is poignant and at moments laugh-out loud funny. Many love their soul food – loud and proud. Growing numbers have given up the soul food diet or only eat it in moderation, including the gentleman in Louisiana who transformed himself into what his wife terms the energizer bunny.

The film coasts nicely until it starts looking at how core ingredients themselves can be contributors to illness and premature death. BH speaks to various people about processed foods, including children at a private school in Newark, New Jersey. He wisely cites the aforementioned food deserts.

What “Soul Food Junkies” points in the direction of but does not assert emphatically – a very important point that most Americans are not aware of – is that much of the food production in the United States is controlled by a few conglomerates – Big Food – that in the name of obscene profits have poisoned the U.S. food supply with hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides and GMOs. All are harmful to soil, plants animals and, humans.

The film fails to connect the food supply problem to the weight gain, which causes many of the unpreventable illnesses that plague vast numbers of Americans, blacks in particular. Likewise, it fails to state explicitly that the problem in food supply is the reason we should eat organic or grow our own food, if possible.

Far too many viewers will come away from "Soul Food Junkies" not having fully wrapped their brains around the fact that the very urban farms and urban gardeners about whom BH speaks are doing their own thing, not only because they live in food deserts, but because they understand that so-called fresh produce from Big Food is no good, even in a food oasis like the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Our parents and grandparents, including BH’s father who grew up in Milledgeville, Georgia where BH's uncle has a garden, did not grow up eating the Smithfield pigs and Tyson chickens of today. They did not consume collards and cabbage that had interaction with synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. The flour and corn meal that formed the base of their cornbread was not processed. While “Soul Food Junkies” touches on processed foods, it fails to cogently explain why the processed food produced and sold by Big Food is bad for us and shares, as BH asserts, as much blame, if not more, for our health woes as soul food.

Byron Hurt (center) on the set of "Soul Food Junkies."

Indeed, it does not explain, for instance, that processed foods are foods that have been stripped of many of their nutrients and replaced with health- and weight-harmful additives and preservatives like salt and sugar, as well as those products bearing chemical names that most cannot pronounce. These foods are cheaper for Big Food to produce and many can last until the return of Christ. They are also high in fat and calories and, of course, very low in nutrients, thereby producing malnourished overweight people.

These oversights notwithstanding, “Soul Food Junkies” is an engaging, thoughtful film. BH concludes that, done properly, soul food can be good for you as well as good to you. The film deserves the attention of all Americans, not just blacks. It is especially important that blacks view it, however, for the simple reason that the "Food Inc." and "Supersize Me’s" of the world will not resonate as resoundingly. BH wisely couches the discussion of improved eating habits in the language that his audience will hear and likely heed. “Perhaps my pop’s story is your story or the story of someone you love,” he asserts toward the end of “Soul Food Junkies.”

No doubt every American regardless of ethnicity can emphathize, especially since the United States is a nation with a 50 percent obesity rate. BH ends with another hope, that his father’s example “inspires millions of people to take action and move toward a life of health and wellness.”

“Soul Food Junkies” makes a persuasive case for doing so.

Visit to learn more about “Soul Food Junkies.”


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