Sunday, September 14, 2014

Urban Farm Gardening, Cooking, with Luz Calvo & Catriona Esquibel: Decolonize Your Diet Conversations

Luz Calvo (holding Nopalito) & Catriona Esquibel (holding Sweet Pea) in their kitchen (photo by Tena Rubio)
Reporting from Oakland, California, at the beautiful home of Luz Calvo, Professor of Ethnic Studies at California State University East Bay; and Catriona Esquibel, Associate Professor of Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University.  They are the authors of the blog site: Decolonize Your Diet.  I invite you to enjoy our conversations about food, urban farming, and designing your home to be a space of visual delight and healing.  This posting also includes recipes for you to try!

Contact info for Luz Calvo and Catriona Esquibel:
All social media related to Decolonize Your Diet:  
Front room in Luz and Catriona's home
Dining room 
In the dining room, Kiwi painting is by artist, Margo Rivera-Weiss

Luz y Catriona's Altar (beautifully placed in the center of their casita)
While watching Luz prepare the most delicious dishes (Huarache de Nopal, Garden fresh salsa, Pozole, tortilla making), we also talked about the vital connections among health and food, the importance of growing one’s own food, why our health can be restored by remembering and cooking our abuelita’s recipes, which includes returning to the food of our ancestors.

"La Cosecha" ("The Harvest") in Luz and Catriona's kitchen
Amelia Montes:  When did you begin getting interested in cooking mindfully, choosing “pre-hispanic” foods and recipes? 

Catriona Esquibel:  I think it started in 2007.  During those years, I was blogging about Luz’s breast cancer, diagnosis, and treatment.  When we started thinking about food in relation to recovery from cancer treatment, we started to imagine a “Queer Postcolonial Cookbook,” to capture what we were doing with food.  We first began renting this house in 2005, Luz was diagnosed in 2006, and we were able to buy the house in 2008.  At that point, we knew we wanted to start growing our own food.

Spice rack.  At the very top shelf are jars of canned nopales
Luz Calvo:  Once we started considering food in relation to colonization, we hooked into Devon Abbott Mihesuah.  She is Choctaw and we came across her book, Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness (University of Nebraska Press).  She coined the term, “Decolonize Your Diet.”  Then there was the “Decolonizing Diet Project” from Northern Michigan University.  They experimented with a year of eating and cooking with only local indigenous foods. We also came across the blog,“Decolonial Food for Thought,” by two graduate students from the University of Washington, Claudia Serrato and Chris Rodriguez.  They write from a Vegan Chican@/Indigena perspective.  Through our research, we began to see that eating our ancestral foods would lead us to a healthy path. 

El Jardin de Luz y Catriona
Amelia Montes:  How did you actually begin this healthy cooking journey? 

Luz Calvo:  We started with the garden.  After my breast cancer diagnosis, I had a real profound crisis around food.  I felt that maybe something I had eaten had caused the cancer.  I had already been a vegetarian for 15 years.  And yet, I thought I had eaten something cancer causing, so I didn’t want to eat anything.  We met with a group called, “Planting Justice” here in Oakland, and they came to our house.  At that time, our garden was mostly just rocks and cement. We asked them to design a garden with cancer-fighting plants.

Catriona Esquibel:  They came up with a plan, and slowly, area by area, Luz began to plant.

Luz shows me Verdolagas or Purslane.  These leaves have more nutritious omega-3 fatty acids than in some fish oils!
Luz Calvo:  My hands were working in the soil and it became profoundly healing for me.  And it was at this time that we also added chickens (laying hens) to our urban garden.  It was also healing caring for the chickens, and feeling good about what I was eating from the garden. 

Chickens in the coop at Luz y Catriona's urban backyard farm
So it’s been eight years.  It’s like a path we’re walking.  What’s so cool about it, is that there is so much to learn.  Lately, we’ve been learning all about fermentation.  We have been researching what kinds of foods were fermented in Mexico.  For example, the Mexican/Indigenous drinks of Colonche, Tesgüino, Tepache, and Tibicos are all fermented drinks. 

Fermenting Kombucha at Luz & Catriona's house
Colonche, for example, is made from fermented tunas [prickly pears]. It produces a super sweet luscious drink, and it’s made without added sugar.  This is the only way we use white sugar:  in our ferments because the sugar then is consumed away.  For example, when we make Kombucha, the SCOBY, (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), consumes the sugar, producing a drink that is naturally fizzy and tart. 
"Quelites" or "Lamb's Quarters"--medicinal herb packed with Vitamin C & E
We are also paying attention to the stories around foods.  Many foods are indigenous that have been previously thought not indigenous.  For example, there are wild garlic and onion plants that are indigenous to the Americas, but the history books will tell you that onion and garlic come from the Europeans.  While the onions and garlic that are sold in markets are of European origin, there were also varieties of onion and garlic in the Americas. 

The corn here was gifted to Luz Calvo by two of her students (sisters) who are from Salinas, California.  The seeds came from Mexico and the community in Salinas has continued to preserve and grow this corn.  It is a red corn used for
making posole or corn masa.  
Catriona Esquibel:  We also have been reading articles from major scientific databases, such as “PubMed,” which confirms the medicinal value of many of our native foods, such as nopales, verdolagas, quelites, and so forth. 

Amelia Montes:  What changes have you noticed in these five years of decolonizing your diet? 

Luz Calvo:  I continue to be in good health.  The cancer has not returned.  I feel strong.  For me, it’s the spiritual part of it.  The spiritual path has connected me more to mother earth/nature, to ancestors, to people who, back in the day, were doing things that now I am doing. 

Luz Calvo, cooking greens from the garden 
Catriona Esquibel:  I’d been having lots of issues with menopause, and recently had surgery, but I feel like I’ve healed really quickly from my surgery.  I no longer have symptoms.  Overall, the food is just so pleasurable, and it feels like it’s getting better and better.  Food feels good.  We rarely get sick and rarely catch the viruses that everyone else gets.  We’re also big on remedies.  For instance, a nettles tincture is quite healing for infections. 

L to R:  Mexican Oregano, Peppers, Avocado, Safflower
Luz Calvo:  Instead of vitamins or what’s on the pharmacy shelf, we use food/spices, like turmeric, that contain anti-inflammatory properties. I also go to yoga.

Catriona Esquibel:  Walking is my main exercise.  My phone has a pedometer on it. 

More from the garden:  quince and lemons
Amelia Montes:  What do you hope to do with all this information you have acquired, and the delicious food you have been creating? 

Luz Calvo:  We have already been doing workshops for students and the community.  We’ve done a workshop with high school students in Oakland, giving them a tour of our garden.  We’ve also done cooking demos for “Poor Magazine” in East Oakland.  We did a food demo for the “Latina Migrant Women’s Health Fair,” which was held in the plaza outside of the Fruitvale BART Station.  And, we just did a talk at Mills College.

Pineapple Guava (also known as feijoas).  They are of South American origin:
rich in antioxidants (vitamin C), vitamin B complex, high in fiber 
Amelia Montes:  And who is your audience for your cookbook? 

Luz Calvo:  We have several different audiences in mind.  We are writing for our students who appreciate our foods but don’t know how to cook them.  Then there are the people who are interested in history and stories about their family’s food.  The “slow food” community is also interested.  We are also concerned about food justice.  We advocate for our communities' access to healthy, culturally relevant food (food sovereignty); fair wages for people who work the fields, for people who work in the food service industry; an end to NAFTA/CAFTA, which is destroying local food systems in Mexico and Central America.  Of course, we are also concerned about GMOs and pesticides which corrupt our food system, pollute the environment, and make us sick.  At the same time, we recognize that these issues are not going to be fully solved without a radical restructuring of the global economy.  Right now, all decisions around food revolve around one thing:  increasing the profit margins of a few corporations that dominate the food industry.  Instead, food should be viewed as something sacred.  All living beings need food to survive, but it is also linked to our humanity and our collective need for health, community, and culture. We present a way of looking at Mexican food and valuing ancestral knowledge that we can share with each other.  To have “Decolonize Your Diet” on Facebook, people are invited to share and that’s awesome.  We have a framework to continue that exchange so that we can benefit from each other’s generational history. 

Amelia Montes:  Thank you so much, Luz y Catriona. It is exciting to now have our La Bloga readers invited to join you.  Below are some of the recipes I had the pleasure of eating at Luz and Catriona’s house.  I’m definitely going to try these in my kitchen. I hope you do too. Sending all of you good health, healing energies, and delicious, nutritious eating! Let's eat!

Huarache de Nopal
Huarache de Nopal
  • 4 whole nopal paddles
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 cups beans, cooked and smashed
  • Fermented Red Cabbage Slaw (recipe follows)
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • Raw Tomatillo Salsa (recipe follows) 

Clean the paddles, removing all the spines.  In a molcajete, pound together the garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil.  Marinate the paddles overnight in the olive oil mixture.  The next day, place the nopal paddles on the grill and cook.  Place the nopal on a plate and spread the beans over the nopal.  Serve topped with Cabbage Slaw, avocado slices, and salsa.

marinated and grilled nopal paddle
Red Fermented Cabbage

  • 1 (2- to 2 1/2-lb) red cabbage, cored and cut into fine ribbons
  • 2 large carrots, grated
  • 2-5 fresh jalapeños, stemmed, seeded, and minced
  • 1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Red cabbage on the Huarache de Nopal. Raw Tomatillo Sauce on top.
Place vegetables in a large mixing bowl and add the salt, working it in with either a wooden spoon or your hands until the juices release from the cabbage, (use gloves to avoid getting chile on your hands).  Stuff everything, including released liquids, into a large canning jar (Ball jar).  Pound vegetables down add water so that all the vegetables are covered with liquid.  Use a pickle weight to hold the cabbage under the water line.  Cover the top of the jar with a cloth and rubber band so air can still get in it.  Let it set for 1-3 weeks.  If any little white scum forms at the top, don’t worry.  Just skim it off.  You can also use an air lock instead of a cloth and a rubber band.  The longer it ferments, the more sour and “alive” it is. 

After a week, taste the cabbage every few days.  When the cabbage tastes sour enough (al gusto), you can put a lid on the jar and refrigerate to stop the fermentation process.  The cabbage will last several months in the refrigerator. 

Raw Tomatillo Salsa
  • About 6 tomatillos
  • 1 serrano chile
  • 1 large handful of cilantro
  • a little water
  • a little salt
  • ½ avocado
Using a blender or food processor, combine ingredients, adding avocado at the end for thickening.

Vegan Mushroom Posole
Vegan Mushroom Posole


  • 2 dried ancho chiles (soaked in warm water, stems and seeds removed)
  • 2 small tomatoes
  • 2 thin slices of reishi mushroom (optional but adds medicinal value)
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • ½ teaspoon of each: whole seed cumin and coriander, toasted and ground in the molcajete
  • 1 teaspoon of safflower petals (from Lois Ellen Frank’s recipe)
  • 1 onion, diced and sautéed
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 cups blue corn posole, cooked
  • 1 portabello mushroom (diced)
  • 2 shitake mushroom (about 4 large), chopped
  • Maitake mushroom (1 large flower), chopped
  • 5 chanterelle mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 nopal paddle, grilled and diced
  • 1/2 green cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 4 radishes, sliced
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • 4 limes, cut in half
  • Mexican oregano
  • Chile Pequin
Put broth ingredients in the crockpot and cook over low heat for several hours or all day.  Remove reishi mushrooms.
Sauté mushrooms in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add salt and pepper.  When mushrooms are cooked through, add them, along with posole and nopal to the broth in the crock pot.  Turn heat up to high and cook until all ingredients are piping hot. 

Note on mushrooms:  Use whatever mushrooms are available and local.  Organic or wild harvested mushrooms are best.  Never eat mushrooms raw.  Only by cooking them, do their medicinal benefits get released. 

Ladle stew into soup bowls.  Place toppings on the table and allow everyone to add the toppings to their stew. 

A Vegan Mushroom Posole feast!
Mesquite Corn Tortillas

  • About 1 cup fresh, organic corn masa
  • 1 Tablespoon mesquite powder
Mesquite Corn Tortillas with frijole and greens
Using your hands, mix the mesquite powder into the masa.  Form into four equal size balls, each ball the size of a lime.  Heat the comal (or griddle) so it gets pretty hot.  Line the tortilla press on both sides with plastic and then smash masa into a tortilla shape.  Carefully peel off the plastic, one side at a time, and place the tortilla on the comal.  When the edges start to rise up, flip the tortilla. Continue cooking until both sides look done. Wrap tortillas in a clean dishtowel so that they will stay warm (they also continue to cook on the inside a bit, so don’t worry if at first they seem a bit raw.)

"Decolonize" by Ernesto Yerena Montejano


Anonymous said...

I'm a writer and this stuff about cooking meals
takes away from reading about new books,
essays and having a dialogue amongst ourselves.

I hope I'm not the only one that feels that way.

And one woman's taco isn't necessarily worth
pages and pages of pictures.

Thanks for listening.

Edith Montemayor

Daniel A. Olivas said...

I loved this post. It's nice to read well-crafted writing that explores an area that many of us may not know much about. Thank you.

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Wow! How inspiring, colorful, and beautiful this all looks. Thanks for this delicious post. So much to think about in relation to de colonizing La Panza.

Anonymous said...

I'm a writer and this stuff about cooking meals
takes away from reading about new books,
essays and having a dialogue amongst ourselves.

I hope I'm not the only one that feels that way.

And one woman's taco isn't necessarily worth
pages and pages of pictures.

Thanks for listening.

To Edith Montemayor: I'm listening.
Like you, I'm also a writer, and contribute to La Bloga what I can about new books, essays and dialogues, which we're glad you've enjoyed. Occasionally I write about other raza-relevant topics, like azteca or other indigenous gardening because La Bloga sets no limits on how much of or which parts of our culture we cover. This might sometimes make our posts less "literary" but without the rest of our culture we would be thinner versions of writers.
I can't claim to have read every line of every one of our posts, nor looked much at every photo. I have personal preferences, just like you do. I don't see that the pictures on this post are about "one woman's taco." After you commented, I deliberately read every line and photo caption to verify that.
Although, you did present me something to think about: could I write something you and others deemed worthy that was only about "one woman's taco?"
Gracias por leer las partes de La Bloga que te ha gustado. - RudyG, one founder and contributor

Anonymous said...

Dr Montes thank u so very much for this post. Food is getting such a bad rep right now, and we need to be reminded of its healing properties, the healing properties of putting our hands in the soil and trusting it to produce foods to nourish our bodies. We have abused food by using it when we don't need it and making our bodies eat it when it is not even hungry. What i find in your posts on food is your own care for the health of people. They are a blessing! ~ kwakiutl

Anonymous said...

Yes it is .... it is a beautiful post!

Linda Rodriguez said...

Amelia, thank you for this beautiful--figuratively and literally--post! I loved seeing the entire lifestyle that Drs. Calvo and Esquibel have created for themselves in an effort to more effectively and healthily live their culture. As always, your post has made a real connection with my heart.

As for the complaint about this not being literary enough, I think that could only be true if one were to consider the term "literary" in only the limited ways the literary establishment has used for decades to close doors against writers of other cultures--and if one does not recognize the literary skill you have applied to giving us this portrait of two women's journey to reclaim their culture.

Holly Jean said...

Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring story. Planting Justice is such a blessing, love them. Gracias hermanas, this feast has fully inspired me. Can't wait to share it with friends. VEGAN POSOLE!!!!!! Much Love!!

Xánath Caraza said...


What a beautiful post. I'm never tired of learning. Gracias.

Amy said...

To Luz and Catriona: What beautiful post showing your abundant organic and anti-cancer garden and chickens, too. I, too, am diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and I revamped my values on eating cleanly and simply, with much less processed foods. I am researching on alternative therapies in addition to chemotherapy and know it will be a uphill battle with my oncologist and insurance company, possibly. I am happy that you are sharing your home and garden in this blog to show us the beautifully prepared colorful and delicious recipes. I hope someday I can bring my brother and husband to visit your garden in Oakland. I will definitely spread your message and book to my friends and co-workers. Best of success to us in our journey towards fighting this cancer. Amy