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Monday, February 25, 2013

Soul Food

For this edition of the weekly Monday Matinee, I want to talk about soul food.

Yes. Soul Food.

I decided that I would bring up the topic of soul food because it is something that can be linked to “Black History Month”. After all, “soul food” is cuisine that is typically found and consumed in African-American households.

It really wasn't until the 1960s that the words “soul food” were coined in modern day vocabulary, and some examples of soul food are fried chicken, ham hocks, sweet potatoes, okra, cornbread, grits, peach cobbler, and black-eyed peas. Not those Black-Eyed Peas. I mean, these ones.

Now, in the United States, “soul food” began to gain in popularity around the Southern states around the 1960s, but the origin of soul food began much, much earlier in and around Africa and Europe. Back in the era where slave trading was commonplace, food items such as rice, sorghum, and okra were introduced to the Americas via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was said that these items became the main staples traditionally found in the diet of an African slave. In Europe, the conditions were even harsher, as slaves often ate whatever scraps were left over from the plantation. For example, the “vegetables” that the slaves ate might consist of a mixture of turnip tops, beet tops, and even dandelions!

As time passed, the menus became more and more elaborate and unique based on the limited amount of ingredients that they had to work with. Mustards, collards, and kale were used more often for greens. Discarded cuts of meat like ham hocks, pigs' feet, and tripe were used for main courses. Onions and garlic were used as flavour enhancers. And, because there were laws in place that made it illegal to teach slaves to read or write, many of the earliest recipes that were created had to be passed through word of mouth from slave to slave...often creating a set of brand new recipes in the process.

TRIVIA: The very first cookbook dedicated to soul food was composed by Abby Fisher in 1881. The title of the cookbook was “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking”.

One of the traditions associated with soul food is the idea of it being the glue that held African-American family celebrations together (something that I had no idea about until I began to do the research for this blog). If you pick up a modern day version of a cookbook devoted to soul food, one of the key points that you might notice is the emphasis on sharing. And, really, that's the whole purpose of soul food...a way to bring families together to share their traditions and values while being grateful for the meal that they are about to eat.

I suppose it's kind of similar to Thanksgiving...except that these gatherings are held more than once, and there's no turkey in sight. But still, reading more about the traditions associated with soul sounds really nice.

So, I thought to there a feature film that features soul food, as well as bonds between African-American families?

And, the answer is...yes.

On September 26, 1997, the feature film “Soul Food” was released in theatres. Although it only made $43 million at the box office, it was made on a budget of seven and a half million dollars, so it did make a profit.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia about the movie “Soul Food”. Did you know that one of the producers for the film was R & B singer/songwriter Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds? And, the film was directed by George Tillman Jr, who would later direct the highly successful 2004 film “Barbershop”.

This film also boasts a long list of highly successful African-American actors and actresses, including Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Mekhi Pfifer, Michael Beach, and Irma P. Hall.

The film is told completely from the point of view of one of the youngest members of the Joseph family. Eleven-year-old Ahmad (Brandon Hammond) is the son of middle Joseph sibling, Maxine (Fox) and her husband, Kenny (Jeffrey D. Sams). And, this is a marriage that has caused some bad blood between Maxine and eldest Joseph daughter, Teri (Williams). The reason why this is so is because Teri used to be Kenny's girlfriend until Maxine stole him away from her and married him. Despite the fact that Teri moved on with her life and became a very successful lawyer, she still seems to have resentment towards Maxine. Teri ended up marrying another lawyer, Miles (Beach), but Miles has a dream of making it big as the keyboardist of a R & B group called “Milestone”, and this causes tension between Miles and Teri because Teri doesn't seem to support him.

Adding to the tension is youngest Joseph daughter Robin (Long), who goes by the nickname of “Bird” in the film. Bird has just started up a new business (a combination barbershop/beauty salon), and she has just gotten married to Lem (Pfifer). What should be a happy time for Bird is marred by her family's disapproval of her choice of mate, because Lem spent time in prison.

Still, despite all of these obvious “soap opera plot” tensions within the family, they all manage to put aside the feelings of animosity, anger, and jealousy each and every Sunday night when the matriarch of the family, Mother Joe (Hall), prepares a feast of soul food for everybody to stuff their faces with. It has been a tradition that Mother Joe has kept going for four decades, and she was determined not to let anything prevent her from keeping the Sunday tradition alive.

Until one fateful day when Mother Joe ended up in the hospital.

Mother Joe had been battling diabetes for a while when the film began, and the effects of the disease forced her to have one of her legs amputated. During the operation, Mother Joe suffers a devastating stroke, which has left her comatose. This means that the person who kept the family together was unconscious, and the Sunday soul food feasts came to an end...which meant that the tension between the Joseph sisters grew even hotter.

Teri, for instance, decides out of the goodness of her heart to take in her troubled cousin, Faith (Gina Ravera)...but when Teri discovers Faith in bed with Miles, this sets the stage for one explosive confrontation. Meanwhile, Bird tries everything to help Lem find employment (which is a difficult task for him given his past conviction). She tries to get her ex-boyfriend (whoops) to help Lem find a job, but the fallout that comes from that request puts Lem back in the slammer (double whoops).

Meanwhile, Maxine and Kenny have their third child, and at first are seemingly the only couple to remain stable since Mother Joe fell ill. But then old wounds resurface, and the tension between Teri and Maxine blows up in both of their faces, and soon enough, their constant fighting and bickering tears the whole family apart.

Devastated by the constant arguing and the chaos that has erupted in the family since Mother Joe's stroke, Ahmad tries to come up with a plan to bring the family back together to resume their Sunday night dinner tradition with the hope of smoothing out the tension between the Joseph sisters. But when he goes about it by telling a little white lie involving Mother Joe and a secret stash of wonders if his plan will do more harm than good.

And, you'll just have to keep wondering, because I'm not going to spoil the ending!

But, I will share with you a little trivia about some of the behind the scenes things you might not have known. For instance...

  • Before Vanessa L. Williams was cast in the role of Teri, other people considered for the role included Halle Berry and the late Whitney Houston (wow...Whitney was considered for both this role, and as Sondra Huxtable).
  • Vivica A. Fox also auditioned for the role of Teri, but producers felt she was a better fit for the role of Maxine.
  • Before Nia Long was cast in the role of Bird, other actresses that were considered included Regina King, Kenya Moore, and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

  • Milestone was made up of some rather famous faces in the music industry. In addition to Beach, the rest of the band was made up of K-Ci and JoJo, and Babyface and his brothers Melvin and Kevon Edmonds.

  • The soundtrack album for the movie was released in 1997, and contained the Boyz II Men single “A Song For Mama”, and Earth, Wind, & Fire's “September”.
  • The film won four NAACP Image Awards in 1998, including the award for Best Picture.
  • The film was adapted into a cable television series in 2000. Irma P. Hall was the only cast member to reprise the same role in both the film and the TV series.
  • In a weird connection, all three lead actresses once starred on the television series “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” as love interests for Will Smith!
  • Malinda Williams, who portrayed Bird in the television series, was once married to Mekhi Pfifer, who played Bird's husband in the movie!

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