I never knew people ate pig's feet until I came to Lexington and visited the homes of fellow students here.
I watched as they hungrily attacked what looked to me like pure fat and gristle, and I heard them moan with pleasure when a hog maw or chitterling was also put on their plate.
My mother had tried to serve "chitlins" once, but her three children protested loudly when we learned they were pig intestines. She never cooked her husband's favorite food again.
What we did have, however, were mounds of fresh, gently-cooked kale greens, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and homemade rolls. We also had liver and onions and fresh-picked okra, but I secretly tossed those.
We called it country food. We ate whatever was in season and fresh from the garden or a fruit tree, or what a peddler brought to our door.
As I entered junior high school, the recipes changed dramatically. The bacon grease was replaced by an array of herb seasonings, and dessert became sherbet instead of cobbler.
And that is the message of Soul Food Junkies, a documentary film by Byron Hurt that premiered in the PBS Independent Lens series in January.
People can continue to eat the foods their grandmothers cooked, but it must be in moderation or modified, and we have to move a lot more than we do now.
Soul Food Junkies was inspired by Hurt's father, who loved the fried, high-calorie and processed foods that may have contributed to his death from pancreatic cancer in 2004.
Hurt tried to persuade his father to change his eating habits to no avail. Alarmed by the unhealthy fat, sugar and salt-laden diets black people celebrated, Hurt, an award-winning independent filmmaker, began to explore the relationship between those foods and the black community.
The film explores the roots of soul food in Western Africa and how those flavors were brought to these shores.
The film peeks into many black family reunions and church gatherings, where fun, laughter and overeating are on the menu.
One of the people interviewed proudly said he craves salads now after changing his eating habits. But when asked if he had given up fried chicken, the man paused a long time and then admitted with a smile that it is hard to give up fried chicken.
What we crave could be killing us.
"I hope this film makes it easier for families and communities to talk openly about the impact food has on their lives and their health," Hurt said.
Soul Food Junkies will be shown March 26 at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center and will be followed by a panel discussion highlighting the preventable diseases that are prevalent among black families and how a change in diet and exercise can prevent them.
Those diseases include diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and stroke.
"The film is all about awareness," Hurt said. "It's talking about their own experiences and having conversations in their own families to change the way we eat and see food."
Hurt said his diet is mostly vegetarian, but "I eat whatever I want to eat."
"I don't classify myself," he said. "People have to make a choice on how they want to eat.
"I don't really try to convince people to do anything. Nor does my film."
Jim Embry, director and founder of the Sustainable Communities Network, said he became aware of Hurt and the film last fall and found organizations and agencies to bring the New Jersey director to Lexington and Louisville.
The film struck a chord with Embry because his father suffered a heart attack years ago and changed his diet. Now 85, his father lives alone and visits nursing homes daily to lend a hand to people often younger than him.
Embry said he himself had changed what and how he eats after meeting activist and comedian Dick Gregory, who is featured in the film referring to soul food as "death food."
Embry, who has helped start community gardens throughout the city and at several schools, wants us to know that what we put in our mouths could reverse a negative trend.
Those attending the film's screening will be given information about various health issues, as well as gardening tips and samples of nutritious foods from culinary students at Sullivan University and Employment Solutions. Plus, Frank X Walker, Kentucky's first black poet laureate, will be reading selections from his body of work.
While individual changes are a must, Hurt's film points out that manufacturers who process food and government officials who accept the lack of fresh foods in some communities should be pushed to do more.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's fight to ban mega-size sugary drinks is an example of how government should step up to the plate, Hurt said.
"It has always been people with power who have shifted the issues," Embry said. "Cars didn't have seat belts. You used to smoke anywhere you wanted. When people take up those kinds of issues, other people always resist those changes.
"Communities and people have to lead the way. The food industry is a huge corporation that produces food, sells food and markets food. It is not concerned about the health and wellness of the community."
That's why Embry is bringing the film and Hurt to Kentucky.
"It is not just to show the film," Embry said, "but to try to build a much greater awareness in the community, especially the black community, about the food we eat and how it is related to dietary problems. That is part of my mission."
'Soul Food Junkies'
What: A showing of the documentary film that examines the relationship between the food we eat and our health, followed by a panel discussion.
When: 6-9 p.m. March 26
Where: Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.
Learn more: Visit Sustainlex.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (859) 270-3699.
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