Making healthier soul food traditions
January 14, 2013
By Taunya English
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.
"Soul Food Junkies"
Discussion and Screening with filmmaker Byron Hurt
6:30 p.m. on Feb 7
Community College of Philadelphia - Bonnell Auditorium
1700 Spring Garden Ave
PBS is streaming Soul Food Junkies free, until February 11th. If you missed the national television broadcast, can't wait until it airs in your area, do not get PBS on your TV, or don't own a television, CLICK HERE TO SEE IT