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Food and Culture 2

2012 May 22
by Josie
“My grandma always says family pulling together in times of need will make you stronger.”

Soul Food- Food and Culture 2

“My grandma always says family pulling together in times of need will make you stronger.”

“Soul food cooking is about cooking from the heart.”

Soul food is a heart-warming story told through the eyes of Ahmad, a young boy, who is part of an African American family. Big Mama Joe, Ahmad’s grandma, is the glue that sticks everyone in the family together. With a smile always on her face, she’s the type of grandma that wants nothing more than to have her family together as much as possible. She communicates this desire for family gatherings by hosting a dinner at her house every Sunday, where she serves chicken and dumplings, string beans, and catfish.

From the start of the movie, it is obvious that Teri, one of Big Mama’s daughters, is the rich one in the family that pays for everything because she is a lawyer. Teri is married to Miles, who is passionate about music and is in a local band. Maxine, Ahmad’s mother, and Teri never got a long growing up in part due to the fact that Maxine ends up marrying a man that Teri goes on a date with. Throughout the movie, you see this constant tension between the two sisters.

Aunt Bird, as Ahmad refers to the third sister, is Big Mama’s other daughter, who is a hair stylist and is married to Lem. Lem tries to further support his family, but cannot get a job due to a criminal offense on his record.

By getting together every Sunday, Big Mama hopes that they can make “soul food” as she calls it and remain close and loving as a family.

Once Big Mama Joe falls into a coma from suffering a stroke during surgery, the family completely falls apart. Teri finds Miles sleeping with her cousin and chases after him with a knive in the middle of Maxine and her husband’s anniversary party. Bird goes behind Lem’s back and asks her ex boy friend to help him get a job. Though Lem gets the job, he finds out he only got it because Bird’s ex boy friend still has feelings for her and is expecting her to “repay” him for the favor. Lem gets extremely upset, ends up pushing Bird, then leaves and goes to a bar. Teri then calls someone to try to get Lem all fired up and angry while he’s drunk. Successfully, Lem ends up pulling a gun on the man and ends up going to jail.

After five weeks of a complete disaster, Big Mama Joe wakes up from her coma and Ahmad is there by her side. Big Mama starts to ask Ahmad to carry on the Sunday tradition, but sadly dies before she can even finish her sentence. However, Ahmad knew exactly what she was trying to say and it became his goal to fix the family.

Ahmad secretly puts together a plan to get everyone in the family at Big Mama Joe’s house for their traditional family dinner. He tells each family member separately that Big Mama left some money behind and only told him where she hid it. He insists to each person that if they come to Big Mama’s Sunday at 3 that he will give them and them only part of the money.

Naturally everyone shows up to the dinner and is confused and tricked into having their normal Sunday family dinner tradition. The family works out their problems over dinner and though not all of the issues get resolved, “cooking [returns as] the way [they] expressed [their] love to on another,” just as Big Mama Joe intended it.

Soul Food, in my opinion, exaggerates African American Culture, with all the ghetto dancing and talking, the southern friend chicken, guns, and expressive loud voices. I personally dated someone who was African American and his family was definitely not that intense. They were expressive and friendly if anything, but definitely not as ghetto as the way Soul Food portrays them to be.

Tina M. Harris, however, disagrees with my opinion in her article titled “Deconstructing the Myth of the Dysfunctional Black Family in the Film Soul Food.” Here she states that, “audiences who witness the family engaging in this ritual are able to observe nonstereotypical images of Blackness virtually nonexistent in other mainstreams media.” She goes on to discuss where the stereotype of a dysfunctional black family actually comes from. Then furthers her article by discussing the actual traditions of an African American family verses the way the family dynamic is stereotypically portrayed sometimes in the mainstream media.

Food For Thought

1. Do you think the way Soul Food portrayed African American culture is accurate? If so, how is it accurate? If not, why don’t you think it is an accurate portrayal of African American culture?
2. Going back to previous topics of discussion, how is food used to describe any of the character’s identity in the movie Soul Food?
3. Do you have family dinners similar to the ones portrayed in the movie Soul Food? If so, what are the similarities? If not, what is different about your family’s dinners?

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Introduction- Danielle Tamulis permalink
    May 22, 2012

    I feel as though the way Soul Food has portrayed African American culture is not fully accurate. As I read the article by Harris, Deconstructing the Myth of the Dysfunctional Black Family in the movie Soul Food, I felt as though some of these stereotypical myths are associated with African American culture but others are not. Many of the example provided in the article are exaggerated. I feel as though, regardless of your culture, each family has there own practices and beliefs. In Moynihan’s historic work (1965) his perception of the black family is seen as a “social system predisposed to a matriarchal structure, yet failed to take into account the economic and social disparities forced upon African Americans that resulted from slavery and racism.” In order to preserve what was left of the African American community due to the slave trade, the family was restructured to compensate for its imposed reconstituion. As a result, the female became the head of the household, holding the family together. I disagree with this because men play the role of being “head of the household, and in charge, whereas, the woman is the caregiver back then. The Cosby Show is mentioned as providing a positive image of African American family and is well liked by viewers for their attempt in debunking stereotypes made about African American Families.
    Food is used in describing the identity of characters in movies, like in the movie Soul Food. As we have read in previous articles, food shapes our identity.
    I can say my family and I have had our share of family dinners similar to the ones portrayed in the movie Soul Food. Some of the similarities are that like the sisters in Soul Food, my sister and I have our arguments at times, and disagreements on particular matters. Although, our tensions are not as personal as the one seen in the movie between the two sisters. The sisters narratives in the movie reveal a complex character struggle for balance. In the movie, the sisters “vie for approval from Mama Joe, the tensions that threaten to strain their relationships are subtle, waiting for the precise moment at which to explode.” My family dinners can also be more pleasant at times depending on what family members attend. Being from an Italian family, we are loud and talk “a lot,” some of us more than others.

    • Josie Warren permalink
      June 25, 2012

      In response to Danielle’s post, I agree with you that “regardless of your culture, each family has there own practices and beliefs.” I know plenty of white families that have traditions of eating meals consisting of southern fried chicken and other foods that are stereotyped as “black foods.” Just because a lot of African Americans eat southern fried chicken, doesn’t mean that other people don’t? What the tradition is depends on who the family is not what culture the family comes from. I’m sure there are plenty of African Americans that have traditions of eating foods from varying cultures (like Chinese food or Italian food). I also like how you say “Food is used in describing the identity of characters in movies, like in the movie Soul Food.” That’s exactly what I was trying to get you all to say by asking the questions I did. Big Mama creates her identity through the food she makes and how she presents it. The fact that she gathers everyone together as a weekly tradition for a meal shows a part of her identity (that she is “the glue that sticks everyone together”) that we might otherwise not have known.

  2. Emma Hubbard permalink
    May 22, 2012

    I believe that the way Soul Food portrayed African American culture is not completely accurate. The way that the Joseph family was portrayed focused on the family member’s identities, family tradition, and culture. I do not believe that this portrayal accurately represents the entire African American culture. Although many members of a culture share the same beliefs, morals, and norms, every family is different in that it has its own issues and problems that may not necessarily be shared across the entire culture. I do not think Soul Food is an accurate portrayal of African American culture as a whole. The film seems to depict conflict between family members as a cultural norm. Every family has its own problems, varying from several problems to little or no problems. I also think the film was a bit exaggerative when it portrayed the conflict between Teri and Miles. When Teri finds out that Miles has been sleeping with her cousin, she chases him with a knife during Maxine and her husband’s anniversary party. Although this is an issue that Teri should not take lightly, I think it was exaggerated a bit that she would chase after Miles with a knife, especially during a party. This is not an ideal way to solve a problem, because it adds more drama and draws attention to the conflict. Soul Food and the Cosby Shows portrayed African American culture in very different ways, but had similar characters. The adult family members in the Cosby Show were very successful, similar to the Joseph family members. Teri, the eldest daughter, was a successful lawyer and business woman. She builds her individual identity through work, which many people from different cultures do.

    I believe food is used to describe all of the Joseph family member’s identity in the movie Soul Food. The traditional Sunday family dinners shaped each family member’s identity. According to Harris, the Joseph family’s Sunday dinner ritual is a ceremony. She says, “This ceremony functions to construct an increased level of relational intimacy among and between family members.” I completely agree with this statement, and it saddens me that today, the significance of this ritual is usually only applied to holidays and special occasions. In Soul Food, Sunday after church was a time for the whole family to gather at Big Mama’s house and communicate with one another. The characters could build family connections. The sisters of the Joseph family experienced tensions and were stressed over balancing family life and personal life. The family dinners allowed the sisters to communicate about their issues and the way in which they dealt with these issues and with balancing their family life and personal life shaped their identities. In Harris’s article, she says, “After Big Mama’s death, the sisters and the Joseph’s must deal with their new family identity, which largely remained intact, due in part to the Sunday dinner ritual.”

    My family dinners have both similarities and differences in relation to the ones portrayed in the movie Soul Food. The similarities are that my family gathers at my house on Sunday after church and has a large meal together. It is a time for my family members and I to build connections and communicate with one another about what is going on in our lives. I have two sisters, and at times we all have issues or problems that arise and cause arguments. The differences between my family dinners and the Joseph’s family dinners are that my family eats dinner together for just about every night of the week, so we have several opportunities to connect and communicate with another. The issues that my sisters and I have are not on as much of a personal level, and we do not raise our voices or use loud tones to express ourselves. My family members and I do not struggle to find a balance between family life and personal life, as the Joseph family members do.

  3. Emma Hubbard permalink
    May 22, 2012

    In response to Danielle Tamulis:

    I agree with you that the way Soul Food has portrayed African American culture is not fully accurate. I thought it was great how you discussed Moynihan’s perception of the black family. I agree that women play the role as a caregiver, and men are “head of the household” because they are in charge. However, I think what Moynihan may have been referring to is that many women took over the role of being in charge of cooking, cleaning, and preparing family meals that could turn into traditions, which could be viewed as taking on the role as “head of the household.” I do see the point you made though, that the man is in charge and is the overall “head of the household.” I thought it was great how you mentioned Harris’s focus on the Cosby Show, as it provided a positive image of African American culture. I think it is important to look at the Cosby Show because it is a program that truly looked at the African American culture in a new and refreshing light.

    I gave similar examples as you did, in reference to how my family dinners are similar to the Joseph family dinners. I talked about having sisters and that we have arguments and conflicts at times, but they too are not as personal as the Joseph sister’s problems. I really liked the example you gave from the movie, Soul Food, about how the sisters “vie for approval from Mama Joe, the tensions that threaten to strain their relationships are subtle, waiting for the precise moment at which to explode.” You did a good job by incorporating your experiences at family dinners, saying that you are from an Italian family and some family members talk more than others. It is important that you pointed this out because families can differ within cultures, and within families, members may be different. Some may handle conflicts in a subtle way, while some may wait for the precise moment to explode. The sisters in the Joseph family vie for Mama Joe’s approval, and I believe this is because Mama Joe coordinates the Sunday family dinners and is eldest, and may be seen as at the top of the family hierarchy. The sisters may become competitive and conflicts may arise as they attempt to gain Mama Joe’s approval. The way in which family members handle problems and conflicts, and the extent to which they desire to gain approval from older family members, can shape and build their personal identities.

  4. Seana McCroddan permalink
    May 23, 2012

    In response to Danielle Tamulis and Emma Hubbard-

    I also agree with your position of “Soul Food” not being a completely accurate representation of the African American culture. Every family, no matter whether they have the same ethnic backgrounds or not, are completely different, so I am not sure if any type of ethnic representation can be made from a single family’s story. I did like how the movie used each sister to tell a different story of her struggles with dialectical tension and identity negotiation (both were explained in Harris’s article). I think that allowed viewers of all backgrounds to be able to relate to the Joseph family, maybe just not to the over-the-top way that was sometimes used in the film, as Emma and Danielle mentioned.

    I also liked your examples of your own family dinners you used to tie into the movie and essay. I see similarities and differences in my own family dinners to the Joseph’s as well. We try to have dinner together every night of the week, and they have always been a way for us to take a few minutes out of our busy day to sit down and hear what everyone else has been doing. After watching that movie, it made me realize that we too show our positions in the house by the comments we make and rituals associated with dinner (who gets their plate first, who gets the largest portions, who cleans the dishes, etc.) that helped me relate to the Joseph family struggles and triumphs based on the grounds of each changing relationship I have with my family members.

  5. scalesaj permalink
    May 25, 2012

    I believed the portrayal of African American life was exaggerated but somewhat true. At the same time I would also say that it was a good portrayal of a white family, or just any American family, if you just changed some of the words, and faces. There were definitely things that made it quintessentially African American but there was also things which I thought united everyone rather than separated this culture.
    My mother’s side of the family are plain Iowa foke, who would typify “white people” or the stereotypical large white family. My father is black and Korean however and that side is made up of a completely African American culture because all the Korean members are dead, and it is a dysfunctional family. Surprisingly food is the common denominator, the thing which brings both my families together. This is part of the idea that Harris puts forth in that it is the importance of the dinner ritual to family bonding which comes from its use as a place of discourse as well as a source of tradition. This is what gives Soul Food its relateability and why people from all cultures can appreciate the story, even if they don’t like the acting.
    My general opinion can be summed up by Harris when she writes “It is through the stories of the different characters of the Joseph Family that we understand the complexities that come with being a Family that happens to be black”. It is interesting to note that Harris says that this important ritual which binds all families in all cultures is being relegated to special occasions, perhaps she is right. It would be a shame if something so integral to not just African American culture, but all cultures fell as a casualty to efficiency, laziness or progress.

  6. gilliakl permalink
    May 25, 2012

    I do not think that the way Soul Food portrayed African-American culture is neither right nor wrong if that make sense. I do not think that one piece of media or text can fully paint a fully accurate picture of a group’s culture. There are so many undertones and subtle differences that I feel that it is almost impossible to do. Even within a given culture, you have subsets of culture that are profoundly different from the larger body. However, I think that his film did a great good of offering a balanced portrayal of African-Americans in the media. So often, we see African-Americans and thugs, uneducated, and over sexualized in mainstream media. This film showed many aspects of African-Americans and not just the typical portrayals that we might be use to.

  7. gilliakl permalink
    May 25, 2012

    In response to Seana:

    “I also agree with your position of “Soul Food” not being a completely accurate representation of the African American culture. Every family, no matter whether they have the same ethnic backgrounds or not, are completely different, so I am not sure if any type of ethnic representation can be made from a single family’s story.”

    I totally agree with you on that point. I feel that too often in the media that when we see portrayals of different groups of people in the media some people too often assume that must be the norm for all people within that group as well. However, that is not the case because the people may be the same racially but their fields of experiences may be totally different which shapes their interactions and how they perceive the world as well. So I really appreciate you bringing up that point.

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