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Byron Patrick Hurt

Place of Residence: New Jersey

Why He’s a Game Changer: Hurt’s documentary “Soul Food Junkies” takes a serious look at the fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, pigs’ feet and salty pork-seasoned collard greens that many of us grew up on and asks an important question: Is our culture killing us?

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In a way, you can argue that that’s the theme of much of Hurt’s work. His previous film, “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” examines misogyny, homophobia, and sexism in hip-hop.

“I’d say I’m trying to make the culture better and stronger and challenge people to think critically about their culture,” said Hurt.

The food that our forebearers ate and then passed down to us holds an important place in our hearts. It links us to the past. But what happens when it exacerbates already high rates of diabetes and heart disease?

“Slaves did what they needed to do to survive and make it through harsh times,” Hurt told KQED.  “Then that way of cooking got passed down from generation to generation. And today there is a reluctance to let go of the vestiges of the way of life of our forefathers and foremothers, even though things have changed: foods are now processed and full of chemicals and we’re not as active as previous generations.”

Dick Gregory calls soul food “death food” in the documentary.

But does that mean letting go of those traditions entirely? Not necessarily.

Not every soul food dish has to be cooked in grease. Deep fried chicken can become oven fried chicken. Greens can be cooked with turkey as opposed to ham hocks. A variety of herbs can season food well and replace the need for a slathering of salt. Isn’t a side of collard greens better than the greasy Chinese fast food I see so many kids scoffing down? Or what about all the processed food I see loaded into the shopping carts of black and brown shoppers at the supermarket?

And don’t forget that in many predominately minority areas, it’s easier to buy a 40 ounce than 40 ounces of fresh vegetables.

Hurt uses his own family as an example of how food choices can affect your life.:

It was my sister who set the first example in my family, when she changed to a plant-based diet and I saw how healthy she looked. I had started to gain weight in my late 20s and early 30s. I realized that not being involved in athletics anymore [Hurt was a football quarterback in college], I couldn’t continue to eat and eat and eat the same way I had been. So I changed my diet and lost weight and felt better. My mom was more open than my father. She was a nurturer. She changed the way she cooked because she wanted to make us happy.

Hurt’s dad resisted and died at an early age due to pancreatic cancer. He was overweight and in poor health when he came down with the disease.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to food activist and eco-chef Bryant Terry:

When people say African-American cuisine, they think it’s synonymous with Soul Food, the deep-fried fatty meats like fried chicken and sugary desserts like red velvet cake — which used to be just for holidays and celebrations. I’m not necessarily trying to discard those completely but get people to recognize these are only a part of our food ways. Things have changed over the past 40 to 50 years. My grandparents had an urban farm. They grew vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Any dietician would tell you we should all be eating more fruit and vegetables. Somehow growing food has taken on the meaning of being backward and just country folk. But it is vital to our society.

That’s why Hurt sees the film as part of a larger, important conversation about food and health and social justice. He tells NPR:

And so, you know, the point with my film is not to throw the entire tradition out, you know, in the trash, but it’s really to say we can continue to enjoy our great tradition if we change the way we prepare it and the way that we cook it — to make modifications, and that’s really what the film is suggesting.

But we also have to pay attention to some other larger food issues that are affecting our community too — like the fast food industry and processed food, you know, that is so easily accessible and readily accessible in our neighborhoods.

So, you know, while the film uses soul food as a jumping off point, it’s a much bigger conversation about food and our relationship to food as a community, which may be a factor in what’s making us so sick.

Check out this hilarious clip from “Soul Food Junkies,” where Hurt runs in to a little Southern Hospitality wrapped in pigs’ feet and turkey necks:

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