‘Soul Food Junkies’ Offers a Window Into Black America’s Food Culture
By David J. Leonard
In 2007, Byron Hurt’s father lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. As with many children, Hurt wanted answers. His quest to understand his father’s death was further propelled by his daughter’s birth and his desire to live a long and fruitful life. This serves as the backdrop for his masterful film “Soul Food Junkies.” According to the film’s description:
“Baffled by his dad’s unwillingness to change his traditional soul food diet in the face of a health crisis, Hurt sets out to learn more about this rich culinary tradition and its relevance to black cultural identity. He discovers that the love affair that his dad and his community have with soul food is deep-rooted, complex, and in some tragic cases, deadly.”
In trying to understand and process this death, he turned his attention to his father’s love affair with soul food, a source of contention throughout his life. Hurt, the film’s head chef, sous chef, pastry chef, and maître de (director, producer, writer, and narrator) recalls how Sunday breakfast at his house was a time where the family would come together to share a meal. A time where as a young child he not only ate the foods his father ate but did so in the exact same way as his father. It was in this space that he ultimately confronted his past and future.
One morning, he decided to eat just his eggs and grits, leaving the salt pork and bacon alone. This decision was not simply a dietary choice but one implicated in family, tradition and identity. His refusal to eat everything made his father uncomfortable. Whether it be because he felt rejected or whether he thought his son was turning his back on black culture, he left an impression, illustrating the power and importance of (soul) food. As noted by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826, “tell me what you think you eat, and I will tell you who you think you are.” “Soul Food Junkies” shows truth here, but pushes the conversation to highlight the truth of this as well: “Tell me what you think you eat, and I will tell you where you live.”
The greatness of “Soul Food Junkies” is its ability to seamlessly navigate viewers through a myriad of issues. Hurt explores the power of soul food given its history, given its connection to the identity, community, family, and memory. He highlights the ways in which soul food has served as a glue or foundation for families, communities, and even the civil rights movement.
Yet, Hurt pushes the conversation beyond cultural or identity explanations for soul food, reflecting on context and the larger social forces that have effected the recipes and the production of food for centuries. In addition to the connection between slavery and soul food, Hurt documents the ways in which foodways have been impacted by Jim Crow and by post-1960s de facto segregation. For example, the realities of Jim Crow impacted the ways African Americans travelled for many decades. The development of the Green book – which provided how-to advice and insight about traveling within the Jim Crow south – the creation of “shoe box lunches” contributed to foodways in that era. Food was thus constrained by the realities of American apartheid.
“Soul Food Junkies” brings the importance of context into the contemporary. It expands the discussion beyond tradition and beyond soul food, to reflect on how fast food and processed food is threatening the health and wellness of the black community. It sadly documents how diabetes and high blood pressure have become part of the life cycle for black America; it too is emerging as a tradition of sorts. Yet, Hurt pushes back against those who simply scapegoat soul food. At one level, he challenges those who see fried chicken, ham hocks, mac and cheese, and red velvet cake as authentic African American cuisine, instead arguing that the history of American foodways is one of great diversity.