Filmmaker Byron Hurt's father died at age 63 from pancreatic cancer. To the end, Hurt says, his father loved soul food, as well as fast food, and could not part with the meals he had known since childhood. Hurt began to look at the statistics. The rate of obesity for African Americans is 51 percent higher than it is for whites. He saw a long list of associated risks, including cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Black females and males are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking around at his own community, Hurt had to ask, "Are we a nation of soul food junkies?" The search for an answer led him to his newest documentary, "Soul Food Junkies," premiering tonight on PBS.
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The film includes interviews with historians, activists and authors to create an informative and deeply personal journey through soul food's history. Hurt unpacks the history of soul food, from its roots predating slavery to the Jim Crow South to the modern day reality of food deserts and struggles for food justice. One woman interviewed, who served Freedom Riders and civil rights activists in her restaurant's early days, tells Hurt that being able to care for these men and women who found little love elsewhere gave her power.
Now a healthy eater, Hurt says he hopes the documentary can speak to others who find their families facing similar discussions around health, while also telling the story of soul food.
A lot of people give their definitions in the documentary, but how do you define soul food?
When I think about soul food, I think about my mother's collard greens, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pies. I think about her delicious cakes, her black-eyed peas, her lima beans and her kale. That's how I define real good soul food.
Was that what was typically on the table growing up?
It was a pretty typical meal growing up. Soul food was a really big part of my family's cultural culinary traditions but it's also a big part of my "family." If you go to any black family reunion or if you go to a church picnic or you go to an [historically black college and university] tailgate party, you'll see soul food present nine times out of ten.
Why do you think it's persisted and is so popular?
Well, it's a tradition and traditions really die hard. Soul food is a culinary tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. People are very emotionally connected to it. When you talk about changing soul food, people become unsettled, territorial, resistant. It's hard. A lot of people, to be quite honest with you, were very afraid of how I was going to handle this topic because people were afraid that I was going to slam soul food or say that we had to give up soul food and that soul food was all bad.
My intent was really to explore this cultural tradition more deeply and to try and figure out for myself why my father could not let it go, even when he was sick, even when he was dying. It was very difficult for him, so I wanted to explore that and expand it out to the larger culture and say what's going on here? Why is it that this food that we love so much is so hard to give up?
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