Forkways #21: Film Review - Soul Food

The movie Soul Food entered theatres in 1997 and centers around the tradition of Sunday dinner. In this family, the relatives get together for a meal at Mama Joe’s house; a tradition which has been alive for over forty years. But family drama is starting to tear everyone apart. Especially after Mama Joe enters the hospital due to diabetes complication. The movie is mainly narrated by Mama Joe’s young grandson, Ahmad, who provides some unique perspectives on the family drama.
The term soul food is not without controversy. First coined in the 1960s, the terms has gone through a few iterations since. The most interesting controversy that may have arisen is the desire of African American to disconnect with the terminology and the food it represents. Since I started studying the cuisine of slaves and the descendants of slaves, referred to as Gullah in some regions, I have been curious about where soul food ends and Gullah cuisine begins. And if that line exists, I still do not know where it begins and ends. One thing I do know, the food presented in Soul Food represented some of the most stereotypical dishes of southern black cuisine.
One of the controversies that has come with soul food is the toll that these food preparations are taking on the health of African Americans. This is a theme the movie is trying to invoke, especially when Mama Joe refuses to change the way that she cooks for the sake of her own health. One of the things that the film is trying to portray is the change in mindset about food and health between the older and younger generations. Mama Joe is particularly stubborn about the reality of her health risks. It also creates a juxtaposition between traditional health care and folk traditions.
Chitlins, black eyed peas, greens, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, and fried chicken are the foods generations have connected with African Americans. There are two issues with this. The cuisine of African Americans historically had more depth than these dishes repeatedly represented in the film. And these examples of soul food represent the pinnacle of unhealthy cuisine. Many African Americans used and still use a large variety of preparation practices that do not represent the same depth of unhealthy eating that is often depicted in popular culture. Still as Miller writes in his book Soul Food, “It’s difficult to counter soul food’s unhealthy image. First, the cuisine conjures up images of something excessively boiled, fried, sweetened, and topped off with a dash of hot sauce. Second, there’s the high visibility of chronic diet-related disease amongst African Americans” (Miller 2). Maybe these images connect with the issue of terminology. I continue to question the use of soul food in the first place. I am starting to wonder if soul food is a reductive oversimplification of Gullah cuisine that represents a kind of othering of the African American population. This reductionist perspective may attempt to boil down African American culture into easily identifiable fragments including chitlins and fried chicken.
Soul Food attempts to dispel these myths about African Americans while simultaneously presenting images that confirm them. Some of the stereotypes of African American culture are included only for the sake of drama. This drama can take away from some of the more impactful and influential elements of the movie. My favorite scene is one it the best examples of showing both the preparation of soul food and representations of the family that are universally identifiable. This scene is toward the end of the movie. Ahmad has asked for a victory dinner to be held at Mama Joe’s house. Unfortunately Mama Joe succumbs to her health issues and passes away. The film shows the matriarch acting as a glue for the family that swiftly falls apart without her. Ahmad tricks several of his family members into attending this dinner. My favorite part is the entire food preparation. Each family member arrives surprised to find a meal being prepared and quietly joins in the cooking experience. This scene conveyed the way in which cooking can take on a ritualistic quality. Ahmad’s voice over says,
Now I understand what soul food was all about. During slavery, black folks didn't have a lot to celebrate. Cooking was how we expressed love for each other. That's what those Sunday dinners meant. More than just eating. It was a time for sharing our joys and sorrows. Something old folks say is missing in today's families.

Ahmad’s realization was very impactful for me. A lot of African American cuisine is tied to the time of slavery and the forced migration connected with it. This part of the story was able to convey the meaning of food on family, identity, and culture. Glimpses of this concept were present throughout the film but the culminating point was very impactful.

Miller, A. (2013). Soul food: The surprising story of an American cuisine, one plate at a time. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.


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