Interview: The Decolonial Cooking Club

Craig Santos Perez
August 13, 2013
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The Decolonial Cooking Club is a Facebook page started by two professors, Luz Calvo (Ethnic Studies, Cal State East Bay) and Catriona Rueda Esquibel (Race and Resistance Studies, College of Ethnic Studies, San Francisco State University). They started the cooking club as part of their ongoing efforts to educate and inspire their communities to decolonize their diets.

Luz and Catriona were kind enough to engage in an email interview with me (featured below). Please feel free to check out their Facebook page and share this interview.

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1) Where are you from and how would you describe your diet growing up?

LUZ: I’m from the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. I was born in 1960. My family had largely adopted a modified American diet and I grew up eating foods like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice, and Jell-O chocolate pudding. Although we sometimes did better, like when we would eat bean burritos for breakfast. My Calvo grandparents ran a small Mexican restaurant, called Las Delicias and through the restaurant and extended family, we ate some damn good Mexican food growing up. Tamales at Christmas were always amazing.

CATRIONA: I was born in L.A. in 1965, and when I was twelve, we moved to northern New Mexico, where my dad’s family was from. I also grew up with a lot of processed foods, including Chef Boyardee beefaroni, canned ravioli, Tuna Helper, and Hamburger Helper. We were really lucky though, because we had an avocado tree in our back yard, and my mom would make taquitos with guacamole. When we moved to New Mexico, the food was completely different. In our school lunch program, we would have bean burritos smothered with green chile. My mom is from L.A. and her mom came from Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. My grandmother made flour tortillas from scratch and tamales and buñuelos (like crispy frybread) for Christmas. I was known as a picky eater: hated having to chew meat, wouldn’t eat anything with chile, would sometimes sneak my food into the garbage disposal or outside to the dog.

2) What does it mean to “decolonize your diet”? Why is it important in
your community?

LUZ: For us, decolonizing is both a reclamation and a rejection. It is a rejection of the Standard America Diet and the fast and processed foods that have been force fed to our communities. The Standard American Diet was imposed on Chicano/a communities in the US through very explicit Americanization programs, through school lunch programs, and through targeted advertising campaigns. As a result, Chicano/a communities are now facing high rates of diabetes, along with heart disease and lifestyle cancers (breast, prostate, and lung). To decolonize is to honor the ancestral knowledge that kept our communities alive and thriving for many generations. Even to this day, immigrants from Mexico arrive to the US in better health than their US-born counterparts. This is because immigrants are still connected to indigenous ways of eating. Mexican cuisine has kept alive many food traditions that are thousands of years old: corn tortillas, tamales, wild greens, squashes, and beans. These foods are so healthy and also delicious. These are the foods that can save our spiritual and physical health. On a personal note, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and that was a wake up call in a big way. I did tons of research and came to the conclusion that I had to be eating lots more cancer-fighting foods, which are basically the foods our ancestors ate in the 1940s or earlier. Mexico has historically had low rates of breast cancer, compared to much of the world. I live in the Bay area, which has one of the highest rates of breast cancer. I figure I can at least try to boost my chances by eating the plant-based diet that protected my ancestors from disease, with a focus beans, GMO-free corn tortillas, cactus, greens, and fresh fruits.

CATRIONA: I feel like it’s important to our communities because so much is being lost and so quickly. My dad grew up in New Mexico, and as a kid he ate grass-fed beef, vegetables from his mother’s garden, eggs and meat from his mother’s chickens, fresh flour tortillas, and only rarely had dairy products.
When my grandma left her husband, my dad was left behind with his dad and his older brother, and they ate all processed foods: spam, canned beans, vienna sausages. My grandmother had provided all the labor that made good, healthy food possible. After that, my dad joined his mom and older siblings in agricultural work, and eventually moved to Los Angeles. He and most of his siblings have diabetes, and I think that is directly tied to the way their diet changed in just one generation. When I was growing up, I was never interested in cooking, or even in Mexican food. New Mexico chile eventually changed all that for me, but even when I was interested in organic foods and learned to bake whole wheat bread from scratch (on a wood stove), I never learned to make tortillas. Then, in the 1990’s when I wanted to learn, my sister emailed me her mother-in-law’s recipe. Which to me is that playful, ironic kind of reclaiming: having never asked my grandmother to teach me I now need to have old recipes sent to me through technology. And that’s what Luz’s Decolonial Cooking Club is like: using the new technology to share old knowledge.


3) What inspired you to start a “Decolonial Cooking Club”? What other
decolonial food projects are you working on?

LUZ: I started the “club” for one of my Chicana students who came seeking advice on how to eat better. The student did not know how to cook at all, so I started by posting a recipe for pinto beans. Then, a recipe for lentil soup. Every week a recipe and every week the student would bring in a sample for me to taste. The page was originally meant to be just for the one student, but it grew. Eventually, I developed a class, “Decolonize Your Diet: Food Justice in Communities of Color” to respond to my students’ desire to study health food.

We are currently working on a cookbook entitled, “Decolonize Your Diet: Recipes to Sustain Revolutionary Love.” Well, that is the tentative title, we’re open to some negotiation but we really hope to keep the concept of decolonization in the title of the book somehow. We expect to complete the manuscript in the next few months and we are looking for a publisher now.

CATRIONA: I think seeing how our students eat is a real awakening: krispy kreme doughnuts, chocolate frappuccinos with whipped cream (which are really like eating an extra big mac a day). They’re in their twenties, but they’re eating like teenagers: skipping meals, eating all their food out, not cooking anything from scratch. They don’t see that corporations have an investment in making them sick. We want them to be able to take back control of their food.

It’s also been really interesting researching Mexican heritage foods. When I was growing up, we would grow corn and tomatoes in the back yard. My dad would once in a while bring home “verdolagas” (purslane) home, and cook up a bunch of them. My mom didn’t like that kind of stuff, but I ate it because he liked it. Then, when we were in New Mexico, he would point out the quelites (lambs quarter) growing wild in the field. So, thirty years later, I find out that those two plants are among the healthiest foods on the planet! Luz recently found out that the soup that her grandparents always served at their restaurant is a traditional Yaqui recipe. So I also think it’s also about finding the indigenous knowledge that has been hidden for so long.

4) What advice do you have for others who are trying to decolonize their diets?

Talk to your living ancestors. Try to recover knowledge of how your ancestors ate in the 1940s and before. Focus on the quality of the ingredients you are eating, thinking about how the ingredients were cared for and harvested. Try to eat things that grow in wild (the absolute best) or are grown with love. Opt out of processed foods as much as possible. Take it slow. Listen to your body and learn what feels best by slowing down to hear your body’s reaction to food. We are so disconnected from our bodies that we often ignore the signals it is giving us. If you feel sick or sluggish after you eat, you should probably rethink what you are eating.

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5) Can you share a decolonial recipe with us?

Cactus Smoothie

Ingredients:

• Three pads of nopal cactus, thorns removed
• 1 cucumber
• ½ of a large pineapple, skin and core removed
• Juice of two limes
• ½ cup water
• Pinch of salt
• 1 dribble of honey (optional)

Directions: Cut a few slices of lime for garnish. Cut cactus, cucumber, and pineapple in chunks. Put cactus, cucumber, and pineapple in blender along with water, lime juice, salt, and honey (if using). Blend thoroughly! Add some ice and pulse a few times. Serve cold, garnished with slices of lime!

The nopal cactus is a tremendous life giving food, especially good for treating diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

BIOS:

Luz Calvo is an associate professor of Ethnic Studies at Cal State East Bay. Luz has a Masters in political science from UCLA and a PhD in the history of consciousness at UC Santa Cruz.

Catriona Rueda Esquibel is an associate professor of Race and Resistance Studies at the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University (the only College of Ethnic Studies in the country!) She has Master’s in English and received her Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness at UCSC in 1999.

2 thoughts on “Interview: The Decolonial Cooking Club

  1. It is nice to see you do something different on your blog- an interview. It’s refreshing, as refreshing as (corny alert!) a cactus smoothie.

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