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 slaves' 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 risks 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."