'Soul Food Junkies' looks at the negative price paid for good eats

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On Monday, Jan. 14, PBS' "Independent Lens" presents "Soul Food Junkies," a documentary from filmmaker, writer, activist and lecturer Byron Hurt ( "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes").

Hurt grew up eating "soul food" from the African-American Southern tradition: grits and cheese-covered scrambled eggs, buttered biscuits with gravy, bacon, collard greens with ham hocks, fried pork chops, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, fried fish, barbecued chicken and ribs, and candied yams.

While all these dishes are delicious and come from recipes passed down for generations in families, they also can contain large amounts of fat, sugar and salt.

Hurt grew up concerned about the health of his overweight father, who eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 63. One of the risk factors for developing this kind of cancer is a high-fat diet centered on meat.

Worried this same fate was befalling others in the African-American community, Hurt set out to learn more about the soul food culinary tradition and its relevance to cultural identity.

In the documentary, he talks to cooks, historians and scholars, along with doctors, family members and everyday people, trying to learn about the positive and negative aspects of the cuisine.

At the same time, Hurt explores how the socioeconomic conditions in many black neighborhoods affect the kinds of food -- whether fast food, restaurant food or grocery-store items -- that are readily available.

He meets with pioneers in the emerging "food justice" movement who challenge the marketing efforts of the food industry. They encourage communities to create sustainable and eco-friendly gardens, advocate for healthier options in supermarkets, and support local farmers markets.

At the same time, these activists urge avoidance of highly processed fast food and encourage finding new, more healthful ways of preparing traditional soul food dishes.

Along with Jackie Hurt, the filmmaker's father, those featured in the film include poet and activist Sonia Sanchez, food historian Jessica B. Harris, author and professor Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie, restaurant owner Willow Craft "Mrs. Peaches" Ephram, food justice advocate and author Bryant Terry, author Lolis Eric Elie, politician Chokwe Lumumba, professor Mark Lamont Hill, comedian Dick Gregory, Nation of Islam member Minister Abdul Hafeez Muhammad, and Dr. Rani Whitfield.

Soul food basics: greens (leafy vegetables, such as collard and mustard greens); grits (coarsely ground corn, prepared into a porridge or fried in oil, butter or bacon grease); black-eyed peas (usually cooked with pork for flavor); "chitlins," or chitterlings, another word for pig intestines; pigs' feet; pork varieties and flavorings, such as ham hocks, fatback (salty pork), pork rinds or "cracklins" (made from pig skin); sweet potato pie, made from sweet potatoes or yams; and various breads, such as cornbreads, hush puppies (deep-fried cornmeal batter); and johnnycakes (pancakes made from cornmeal).
Photo/Video credit: PBS