A new documentary "Soul Food Junkies" is stirring up a renewed debate about the merits of traditional, black, Southern fare.
New Jersey filmmaker Byron Hurt explores his father's love of fried, gravy-slathered goodness and worries about how that food might have hurt his dad's health.
Battling 'brown food syndrome'
Tia McDonald calls herself a "rustic, soul food chef" and says her approach is a counterpoint to the classics.
"There's a lot of great tradition out there, that we need to pass on from generation to generation," said McDonald, chef for the Vetri Foundation for Children. "I like to look at food very simply, bring out the best of those flavors. It doesn't have to be this heavy, burdensome food that is doing more harm to our bodies than good."
McDonald said she stays in the lines when she's cooking soul food but uses different colors.
"We suffer from brown food syndrome," she said. "Let's say you have french fries with chicken nuggets, just everything is brown. I was always taught when I was younger: eye-appeal is half the meal."
During a demonstration at Vetri's Alla Spina restaurant kitchen, McDonald prepped Sweet Potatoes Anna to show off a deep green, brown and bright orange. First, she sliced fresh potato on a Japanese mandolin, and then added sage to a sauté pan. After layering the thin potato slices, she cooked them until the edges were caramelized and crispy, the center still soft and sweet.
The potato is familiar; it's the preparation that breaks with tradition. McDonald avoids cooking vegetables to the "point of no return."
"Traditionally it would be mashed, lots of butter and lots of seasoning, maybe a little bit of milk in it, and whipped up," she said.
With affluence came calories
The debate over the merits of soul food sometimes forgets that the true roots of southern black cooking were largely vegetarian, said registered dietitian Lauren Swann, of Bensalem, Bucks County.
Meat was expensive and used sparingly.
"They had to make that last, so they would cut it up and put it in the collard greens. And of course that was tasty," Swann said. "With the freedom and affluence came the ability to buy more of the expensive foods that were also higher in fat and calories."
Today, a soul food meal almost dictates some kind of pork: spare ribs, country ham, a piece of fatback or bacon. For her meal, McDonald used pork loin crusted with fresh parsley and rosemary and trims some, but not all, of the fat.
"This is a way that you can incorporate flavor without having the thought in the back of your mind. 'Is this healthy? Is something my kids can thrive off of?'"
Swann says an embrace of "nouvelle" cuisines — lighter options or vegan soul, often follows a critique of traditional soul food.
"A lot of people recognize — public health experts, people of color, churches have done efforts," Swann said. "We know that we need to work harder at our health not just because of physical size and appearance, but because excess weight and poor eating habits can increase your risk for diabetes and hypertension, which we all know are prevalent among African Americans."
Swann co-authored "The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook" in 1992.
"I've seen this cycle around before," she said.
Traditions old and new
Swann said there will always be criticism of traditional soul food and people who say they don't want to change their traditions.
Byron Hurt tackles both in the new film "Soul Food Junkies."
"The 'junkie' part, I think, is a kind of hip slang expression," Swann said. "And it's attention grabbing if you are trying to promote a movie or book."
In the past, soul food was mostly cooked at home. Chef McDonald said, today, many people only eat a shelf-stable approximation done up in industrial kitchens.
"We have lost that connection from farm to table, which my great grandfather knew," McDonald said. "That you grew tomatoes in the summer, and you made nice tomato salads, and ate what you grew."
For her demonstration, McDonald served a hoppin' John salad. She starts with black-eyed peas, but they are not stewed with salt pork. Her dish is studded with sautéed — still crunchy — celery and onions.
"I remember hearing stories of my great grandfather who was a sharecropper and lived to 93 years old," McDonald said. "And for breakfast every day he ate scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon and grits. Now granted, he worked every day in the fields, so he was exercising every single day of his life, he was working those foods off."
McDonald said she's working to help moms and dads start new traditions to carve out time for a few more from-scratch, family meals.
"So whether it's a pot of overcooked greens or a fresh escarole salad, it's all about this experience and what sticks in your mind," McDonald said. "So a child can grow up saying: We used to make this fantastic salad when I was a kid and it was so delicious and I got to help."
The WHYY-TV debut of the PBS Independent Lens documentary "Soul Food Junkies" is on Jan 14 at 10 p.m.