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Byron Hurt seeks a soul food renewal

January 26, 2013|By Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times
  • Inspired by his own family's complex relationship with "soul food," filmmaker Byron Hurt asks whether this diet is nurturing or destructive.
Inspired by his own family's complex relationship with "soul… (Byron Hurt )

Byron Hurt was inspired to look at the ties between African Americans and soul food after the death of his father from pancreatic cancer. The result was his film, "Soul Food Junkies," which can be seen on public television.

Your father connected getting comfort with food. Do you have some thoughts about how people can keep connections to their heritage without eating unhealthfully?

It's important to keep and maintain the healthiest aspects of our culture, regardless of whatever that tradition may be. In my film, we demonstrate how soul food can be maintained in a healthier way. Dr. Rani Whitfield talked about baking chicken as opposed to frying chicken, not cooking any sort of greens with the fat back and the pork or meats. Just season the foods. There are a lot of ways we can stay connected.... It's hard for people to wrap their head around making modifications to something they grew up with, but if we open ourselves to the possibility that we can make those changes and it can still be good, we can still have those connections.

What surprised you in making the film?

I think what surprised me more than anything else was just how passionate people are about food, how territorial some people are when it comes to food. It is really difficult to get people to change, and it's even more difficult if you are coming from a self-righteous place or you're condescending or finger-wagging. People do not like that. It was a realization that people who don't eat healthy really don't like people who eat healthy. You have to be really careful that you don't lose people. There's a real chasm between people who are considered health nuts and people who don't think twice about what they put into their bodies.

Are you hopeful?

I'm definitely hopeful. ... While people don't want to be preached to, people do want to be inspired, people do want to be motivated. They want to be shown how they can eat healthier but maintain the taste. I think people are really afraid they're going to lose something. … People need inspiration and motivation, and that's why this time of the year is always about change and doing better and eating better. People view the new year like a clean plate. … The problem is how do you sustain that energy and really commit? Changing eating habits is not for the faint of heart.

The comedian Dick Gregory speaks in the film about the gardens that people's grandparents always had for fresh food. Do you see people returning to that?

I know a lot of people who are growing gardens, who have rejected the market or the food industry. I don't know how widespread it is, but within certain circles people are using whatever land they have, even if it's their windowsill, to grow vegetables or fruit. I think there is a lot of energy around sustainable growing, urban farming. I think it is because this current food system and the distrust that people have for it is reaching a point where people feel like they have to do something. I do see a lot of change.

What would you like to see First Lady Michelle Obama do in the next four years about these issues?

Her profile and the fact that she's such a likable figure is really great. I'm proud of what she's doing. I know she has a lot of opposition from people who don't think her Let's Move program should be a priority, a national priority. I would say to her, keep moving in the face of the opposition, because what she's doing is visionary. It's a real demonstration of leadership.

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