‘Decolonize Your Diet’ With Healthy Plant-Based Mexican Cooking

A new cookbook explores a cuisine built around healthy native crops that predate the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.
(Photo: Facebook)
Nov 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

They may not appear on the menu of your local Mexican restaurant, but cooks who know their way around the food of Mexico likely know his or her way around the two plants Michael Pollan heralded as the most nutritious in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. They’re cornerstone ingredients of the country’s traditional rural kitchen.

“When we go out into the community and mention verdolagas and quelites,” greens known as purslane and lamb’s quarters in English, “everybody has a story about how their family cooks them, how the young people think it’s weeds and don’t want to eat it,” said Luz Calvo, professor of ethnic studies at California State University, East Bay, who prefers the pronoun they. “But the elders in the community recognize it as a really important food.”

That kind of community-sourced information helped shape Calvo’s new cookbook, Decolonize Your Diet, cowritten with partner Catriona Rueda Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University. The book, based on ancestral knowledge gleaned from community and family members as well as old self-published cookbooks the couple has been collecting for years, shines a light on precommercialized Mexican food and features plant-based recipes made with native ingredients such as cactus paddles, the fruit xoconostle, wild greens, tomatoes, corn, and chiles.

“I always like to say without food from the Americas, Italian cuisine would not have polenta or tomato sauce,” which were introduced to Europe as a result of the Spanish Conquest and colonization in what is now Mexico, Esquibel said. As the name indicates, this is a cookbook with larger implications than the recipes themselves.

“We’re really wanting people to look at what we eat in relation to political and social forces both contemporary and historic for U.S. Latinos, which is what we are and who we imagine our primary audience to be as well,” Calvo said. In broad terms, this is a book about reclaiming one’s food inheritance. The message, according to Calvo, is for readers to talk to their oldest living relative about what they ate, how it was prepared, and what ceremonies surrounded food in order to maintain those traditions and be aware of the extent to which they’ve been lost over time.

“We’re really looking for people to look at the colonization of the New World by Spanish colonizers and to look at how that changed the way indigenous people of the Americas ate,” Calvo said.

That included the so-called Americanization programs of the early 20th century, which sought to “integrate” Mexican immigrants by encouraging women to give up rice and beans and replace tortillas with bread. “Go after the women,” became a refrain of Americanization teachers in their efforts to “save” the second generation. “Food and diet management became tools in a system of social control intended to construct a well-behaved citizenry,” wrote George J. Sanchez in his study of the movement.

The legacy of these teachings is wrapped up in the “Latino health paradox” in which the health of immigrants who have recently moved to the U.S. tends to be better than the health of second- and third-generation Latinos born and raised in the country, who have higher blood pressure as well as higher rates of obesity, smoking, cancer, and heart disease.

Calvo found the way to a traditional Mexican diet, filled with mushrooms and foraged plants, following a breast cancer diagnosis in 2006. After researching what sorts of foods to eat during treatment, they realized that a holistic system of eating was in order—anti-cancer foods also fought diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

“It’s really not about one or two superfoods. ‘Oh everyone should just incorporate chia seeds in everything,’ ” Calvo said. “It’s really about a way of eating whole, wholesome foods.” The authors are hopeful that returning to these foods can in turn reverse some of the health issues second- and third-generation Latinos in America face.

“Even more than that, for us personally, it’s really given a spiritual grounding to our lives,” Calvo said. “It’s made us feel so much more connected to our communities, to the land we’re living on, to Mother Earth in general, to our ancestors, and to a greater sense of purpose. It’s really that holistic vision of health that’s really important to us.”

They hope the kind of diet laid out in the book can help fight “the diseases of development.” But Calvo also wants to help Latino people “regain our community health so we can become stronger and more effective in the way that we resist the things we need to resist, because there’s plenty of injustices that we need to be fighting locally in our communities but nationally and globally as well.”