By John Adamian
2:30 PM EST, January 8, 2013
Soul Food Junkies
Mon. Jan. 14, 10 p.m., on PBS's Independent Lens, check local listings
America's food system is racist. That's one of the claims advanced in Soul Food Junkies, a brisk, provocative and wide-ranging documentary about African-American culinary traditions and eating habits. Filmmaker Byron Hurt makes the story personal, threading the film with details about his father's taste for fried chicken, mac and cheese, salt pork, ribs, sweet potato pie and cornbread. Hurt saw a connection between the consumption of soul food and health problems, and he set out to investigate.
The story of soul food — African-American cuisine, really — goes back to slavery, the cooking traditions, and in some cases the actual foods, that enslaved Africans brought to America. It stretches to the roles those enslaved Africans and their descendants had on plantations, raising the children of their white owners. Its evolution also relates to the limited freedoms African-Americans had in the Jim Crow south, to the Civil Rights struggle, the black power movement, and 21st century trends in health, politics and race relations. Hurt jams his film with talking-head commentary from culinary historians, food activists, authors, chefs, doctors, people on the street and others.
Historian and food writer Jessica Harris appears in the film. Her award-winning book High on the Hog chronicles the rise of soul food and the ways that African-American culinary traditions — like African-American music, style and culture — have been embraced by America at large, despite America's history of slavery and racism.
"At home we didn't call it soul food, we just called it dinner," says Harris.
But what we've come to think of as soul food was originally sustenance food for people who had to figure out how to survive and thrive with dignity even when given what were typically considered the worst cuts of meat, or the leftover scraps of grain and vegetables. A diet of scraps isn't automatically an unhealthy diet — greens and sweet potatoes are very good for you, after all — but over the decades, fried foods, lots of fatty pork, salted meats, and carb-heavy dishes like mac and cheese came to symbolize soul food.
As Hurt points out, high blood-pressure and diabetes — both of which are often diet-related — are a problem for many African-Americans. And the incidence of pancreatic cancer is 50 to 90 percent higher in African-Americans than in any other racial group in the US. Those numbers are startling. And they go a long way toward explaining why groups like the Nation of Islam and individuals like the comic Dick Gregory have waged campaigns against soul food. ("I call it death food," says Gregory in the film, "because it'll kill you.")
Muslims, of course, don't eat pork, and so they had clear religious grounds for overhauling the traditional African-American diet. The Nation of Islam viewed the inheritance of soul food as yet another unwanted and unhealthy legacy from slavery — in the same way many American blacks were encouraged to abandon the last names their ancestors presumably received from their slave owners.
Some view soul food as an element of cultural heritage that African-Americans should be proud of, while others feel it is an emblem of centuries of subjugation and exploitation. Equally troubling is the idea that modern America is shaping and defining — and limiting — the diets of those in low-income areas because of the absence of affordable, fresh produce, whole grains and other healthy ingredients. If all you can get to eat in your neighborhood is highly processed or salt-and-fat-heavy fast food, some would say there's a kind of insidious free-market oppression at work. "The bigger cause of the decline of African-American health is the industrialization of our food system," says food activist and chef Bryant Terry. Michelle Obama has spoken out about "food deserts" — places in American cities where good food can't be found. And the issue is being addressed by community urban farmers turning abandoned lots into gardens, and by pilot schools that make healthy eating a part of the curriculum.
Racism is no longer so much about overt injustice or physical violence, "it's about structures and systems" says author and activist Marc Lamont Hill. "There is no better example of racism in the 21st century than the relationship between black people and access to healthy foods."