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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Soul Food' Celebrates Family, Bonding Over Sunday Dinner

WASHINGTON -- Remember Sunday dinners? You know, those extended family feasts where everyone ate together, laughed together and fought like mad? You know, those afternoon suppers in the days before "family meal" meant sharing a bucket of chicken in the car?


George Tillman Jr. doesn't want anybody to forget them. He wants to resurrect them. Celebrate them. Maybe even require them.


The writer and director of the new movie "Soul Food," Tillman vividly remembers the weekly gatherings at his grandmother's home in Milwaukee. Fried chicken. Potato salad. Candied yams. Macaroni and cheese. Egg pie. As a young boy, the food and the communion apparently made a big impression. So it's no wonder that the film treats Sunday dinner as "the net which helps keep everyone together," as Tillman, 28, put it. "Food for me in the film is a symbol of love."


And group meals are symbolic for all African Americans, added Tillman, since "several hundred years ago, the only thing that slave families had was cooking and their family meals. There they were able to talk about their souls."


In the movie, Mother Joe, the matriarchal grandma patterned after Tillman's own, presides over the Sunday cooking with the help of her three grown and married daughters. Any woman who has ever cooked with a female family member will relate to these kitchen klatches, which are as much about bonding as they are about baking corn bread.


The camera pans in on the preparations -- ham being studded with cloves, pie crust being pinched, peaches being set in a cobbler pan, fried fish sizzling in hot oil. This is comfort food at its most sensual. You can practically taste it, just as you feel the warmth between Mother Joe and her grandson.


But it is the dinner-table scenes that are the most convincing, as much for the sibling bickering as the food. And therein lies a charming take.


The food for the movie was prepared by Freddie Petross, who is described in the publicity materials as a "food stylist."


But reached at her home in northwest Chicago, Petross, 62, seems more like a great church cook than some high-falutin' specialist. Which is perfect -- and the reason she aced out a couple of experts who had been considered for the job.


"I didn't want a professional food stylist to make something I didn't remember as a kid," Tillman said.


In fact, the way Petross was hired is homey in itself. Her 39-year-old son is an old friend of the movie's on-set dresser, and she "auditioned" by cooking a couple of dinners for Tillman and the film crew.


After a two-hour feast at Petross' house that included potato salad, sweet-potato pie and egg pie, Tillman was convinced. "I ate among her family," he says. "It was great. She reminded me of my grandmother so much."