High-calorie, high-fat “soul food” slammed

Diet of fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, barbecued ribs, and similar foods is taking a toll on health

Soul food is killing African-Americans at an alarming rate, according to a new film.

“Soul Food Junkies,” which will air on Jan. 14 on U.S. public broadcasting television, examines how black cultural identity is linked to high-calorie, high-fat food such as fried chicken and barbecued ribs.

In the deeply personal film, filmmaker Byron Hurt details his father’s fight and eventual death from pancreatic cancer.

“I never questioned what we ate or how much,” the 42-year-old New Jersey native says in the film. “My father went from being young and fit to twice his size.”

Hurt delves into his family history, as well as slavery, the African diaspora and the black power movement in the film. In Jackson, Mississippi, Hurt joined football fans for ribs and corn cooked with pigs’ feet and turkey necks. He also visited Peaches Restaurant, founded in 1961, where freedom riders and civil rights activists including Martin Luther King Jr. ate.

Hurt, whose family came from Georgia, grew up on a diet of fried chicken, pork chops, macaroni and cheese, potatoes and gravy, barbecued ribs, sweet potato pie, collard greens, ham hocks and black-eyed peas.

“The history of southern food is complex,” he said. “In many ways, the term soul food is a reduction of our culinary foodways.”

The origins of the diet lie in the history of American slavery, according to food historian Jessica B. Harris, who appears in the film. Slaves ate a high-fat, high-calorie diet that would allow them to burn 3,000 calories a day working, she explained.

Southern food began to be called soul food during the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s, according to Hurt.

“There’s an emotional connection and cultural pride in what they see as the food their population survived on in difficult times,” he said.

But Hurt said African-Americans are being devastated by nutrition-related diseases.

Black adults have the highest rates of obesity and a higher prevalence of diabetes than whites, and are twice as likely to die of stroke before age 75.

Besides tradition and habit, poverty and neighbourhoods without good supermarkets also contribute to an unhealthy diet, Hurt said.

“Low-income communities of colour lack access to vegetables and have an overabundance of fast food and highly processed foods that are high in calories and fats. I always know when I’m in a community of colour because I see… very, very few supermarkets and health food stores.”

Harris calls this situation “culinary apartheid” while in the film, Columbia University Prof. Marc Lamont Hill described minority health problems related to poor diet as “21st-century genocide.”

But change is also occurring thanks, in part, to organizations such as Growing Power Inc., which runs urban farms in Chicago and Milwaukee.

Brian Ellis, 21, said all he ate was fast food when he started working at one of Growing Power’s urban farms in Chicago when he was 14.

“Then I started eating food I’d never seen before like Swiss chard,” said Ellis, who appears in the film. “I never knew what beets were. I’d never seen sprouts before. I’m not that big of a beet fan, but I love sprouts. I could eat sprouts all day.”

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