Sunday, October 04, 2015

Just Published! _Decolonize Your Diet_ : Interview with Luz Calvo and Catriona Esquibel

Book cover photo by Tracey Kusiewicz and cover illustration, "Maiz Sagrado," by Veronica Perez
La Bloga readers are in for a treat today!  The cookbook, Decolonize your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing is ready for YOU to bring into your kitchen! Authors Luz Calvo and Catriona Esquibel are here to talk about their newly published book.  I personally tried some of these recipes when I first wrote about Luz and Catriona last year (click here) and, a few weeks ago, after receiving an advanced copy of the book, I cooked some of the recipes in my own kitchen, and can tell you the recipes are fabulous.  I highly recommend this book and am grateful that Luz y Catriona were willing to come back to La Bloga to tell us about their journey to publication!  Welcome Luz Calvo and Catriona Esquibel!

Left to Right: Catriona Esquibel and Luz Calvo with their
chickens in their "permaculture food forest" (photo by Miki Vargas)
How did the making of this cookbook first come about? 

After Luz’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in 2006, we started doing a lot of research about food and health.  This turned into an all-consuming project, both in our home life and in our work.  At home, we turned the backyard into a permaculture food forest.  We started to raise chickens for eggs and because they help in the garden (providing compost, pest control, and weeding).  We acquired some design help from an Oakland-based group called, “Planting Justice.”  They produced a garden design to transform our backyard into a place where we could grow food with a focus on foods with anti-cancer properties.  Following their design, Luz did most of the work installing the garden.  One day we had a work party and rented a jackhammer.  Our friends helped us take out a bunch of concrete so we would have more room to plant. 

Luz y Catriona's garden (photo by Amelia Montes)
 In our work lives, we devoted our research time to deepening our knowledge about food and the medicinal value of plants.  We were especially concerned with Latina/Latino health and how to reclaim it, for ourselves and for our communities.  We integrated some of these issues into the courses we teach and we found the students to be very receptive.  We started giving talks in community settings, such as at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center.  And, we started the Facebook group, Decolonize your Diet, as a way to spread the message and disseminate knowledge, political analysis, and recipes.  Early on, we had the idea of writing a cookbook, but it took years of research and writing to figure out how to structure it and what kinds of recipes to include.

How is your cookbook different from other cookbooks that focus on Mexican or Mexican American dishes? 

Most Mexican cookbooks conceive of Mexican food as an “authentic” mixture of indigenous and European ingredients and techniques.  Our take is a bit different.  For one, we try to undo the notion of “one” authentic way to do anything, since dishes change so much by family tradition, by region, by the era, and by the individual cook or chef interpreting the dish.  We talk about tamales, and the way that “traditional tamales” among Mexicans in the U.S. are generally thought of as including lard, beef, or pork, along with red chile.  We trace tamales back to the pre-Hispanic era, where there were literally hundreds of different kinds of tamales, many with ingredients we have never considered putting in a tamal, such as amaranth, or wild greens.  Our book is trying to recover some of those ancestral ways and ingredients, while at the same time, encouraging our readers (and ourselves) to be creative in the kitchen.  We believe in a rasquache approach which means: the art of making do with what you have.  Above all, that is what our ancestors have done over thousands of years.  It is their ingenuity and inventiveness that got us to where we are today.  Our book includes recovered recipes and many recipes that take “traditional” dishes, that we refashion, so they don’t include unhealthy ingredients historically brought by the colonizers, such as flour, refined sugar, or white sugar. 

What are some things you learned about publishing a cookbook that you had not anticipated? 

Oh, so many things.  First, it is really important to record measurements, even if that is not how you usually cook.  The press is going to require exact measurements.  Luz cooks by feel and never follows a recipe exactly, so that made the process of writing recipes a bit contradictory!

More seriously, though, we learned that there is a lot of racism when it comes to popular presses.  We received so many rejections that said we were catering to a “niche” market.  That is, they can’t imagine Latinas/Latinos as a book-buying audience.  Worse, we had one acquisitions editor who told us that our whole premise was incorrect, which she knew, because her fiancé, a graduate student in history, teaches his students that Native peoples were malnourished before European contact. 

You reference Gloria Anzaldúa in your preface and El Plan de Santa Barbara.  How does Anzaldúa and El Plan fit into a book about cooking? 

We see this book situated within Chicana/Chicano Studies.  Although we don’t often think of cookbooks as cultural or academic production, they really are.  Or, at least, we think of our own book as having both cultural and academic components.  Our book has many references to issues that are central to Chicana/Chicano Studies:  such as critiques of NAFTA, solidarity with farmworkers, a critical engagement with pre-Columbian histories and oral traditions, Chicana/Chicano art, Chicana feminism, decolonized queer theory, and borderlands epistemologies.  These theories and concerns frame our approach to decolonizing the food system and cooking healthy meals. 

Luz Calvo at work in her cocina (photo by Amelia Montes)
How can educators, then, use your book in the classroom? 

I think, more and more, professors and teachers are feeling the need to teach health issues in their classes and our book would certainly help faculty develop that curriculum.  I think the book would fit well in courses dealing with theories of decolonization, food studies, and feminist theory.  Luz is teaching from the book this fall 2015 and plans to require students to cook from one of the recipes for an end of the quarter potluck celebration. 

You have pointed out that your recipes do not have any empty calories.  What does that mean? 

Empty calorie foods fill you up and they might taste good, but they have no nutritional or medicinal value.  They actually do harm to your body.  Most processed food falls in this category.  Ingredients like white flour, white sugar, and white rice are also “empty calories.”  They give you a quick rush but without any substance to sustain you.  The recipes in our book, even if they are “treats” (that is, dishes you would probably not want to eat every day), have nutritional value.  For example, our chocolate cake recipe is gluten-free, and includes amaranth and sweet potato, which provide good nutrition.  The cake also uses raw cacao and raw local honey, both of which have medicinal value.  The sweetness is balance. 

The book is also beautiful.  The cover, the artwork on the pages are gorgeous.  Who decided the cover design and the artwork/photos within the book? 

We worked with the Arsenal Pulp Press graphic designer, Gerilee McBride.  She was great because she was very open to our input and also had many good ideas of her own.  From the beginning, we hoped to include Chicana/Chicano art inside the book, because so many artists are addressing issues that relate to food, decolonization, and reclaiming indigenous knowledge.  We are so grateful to the artists who allowed us to use their art:  Veronica Perez, Ernesto Yerena Montejano, Melanie Cervantes, Jesus Barraza, and Orlando Arenas.  Their work adds so much to the beauty and power of the book. 

Were there many recipes that did not make it into the book?  What was your selection process? 

Some recipes, even ones we make regularly, were too tricky for a cookbook.  With a cookbook, you want the recipe to come out right the first time.  For example, for a while, we were cooking amaranth-crusted pizzas every week, but the crust was actually quite delicate to work with:  very easy to tear, and we felt like it would be frustrating for folks trying it for the first time.  Other recipes were delicious and healthy but didn’t necessarily look all that attractive.  We share those recipes on our Facebook page and will continue to do so.  We’re not planning to write another cookbook, so our plan is to use the Facebook page to disseminate any new recipes we develop.  Some recipes we rejected because when recipe testers made them, we could see that our own vision for the recipe was confusing. 

The recipes we did choose had to follow a few rules:  They had to feature native ingredients.  They had to be plant-based and “healthy.”  And the recipe could not include flour or refined sugar.  Cheese or oils are sometimes included, but in small amounts.  And, we only included cheese if we could provide a vegan alternative.  We made one exception and that is the whole wheat flour in the “Borderlands Whole Wheat Tortillas,” our ode to Gloria Anzaldúa. 

Cookbook Recipes: "Beans, Greens, and Chiltepines" (page 163)
and "Mesquite Corn Tortillas" (page 158) (photo by Amelia Montes)
 The recipes are quite user friendly.  How were you able to achieve that? 

Oh, we’re so glad you feel that way!  We wanted to have basics in the pantry section of the book, because our readers include our students and folks like ourselves who did not learn to cook at grandma’s elbow.  Although, when Luz’s mom married into the Calvo family, she did actually sit at her mother-in-law’s elbow and she wrote down everything she did and even guessed at the measurements.  No one else in the family did that, and no one else has Nana’s recipes. In our book, we really tried to use our writing skills to describe the process of cooking dishes in exact detail.  I’m not sure we always achieved this precision, but we did try. 

You mentioned earlier that you had food testers.  What was that like? 

Well, we had many enthusiastic volunteers to taste the recipes.  Our neighbors were expecting their baby at that time, so we would carry over all these dishes to their house because we had more food than we could eat and no time to invite anyone over to dinner.  At one point, Luz was delivering pieces of amaranth chocolate cake to five different locations in Oakland to get feedback.  And there was one day when Catriona was encouraging friends to drive by the house and pick up muffins.  Eventually, we did pay a recipe tester to test some of our baked goods (muffins, cornbread, cake, etc.) because that is where we felt the least level of confidence, both in our own recipes and our taste for those things.  We wanted to make sure a professional would approve.  The tester gave some good feedback about making slight tweaks to get the recipes in the best shape.  And, several of our friends did the same thing.  Our friend, Hadas, in particular, prepared every bean dish in our book and from that experience, we were able to see how another home cook would interpret our recipes.  It was very helpful. 

What is your hope for this book?

We hope that our book adds fuel to the fire and directs more Chicana/Chicano political energy toward contemporary food-related issues.  We know that people in our communities grow their own food, as they did much before the so-called urban homesteader movement, but today we see young people interested in reclaiming this knowledge in ways that they haven’t been in the past.  We’d like to see more people recognize and appreciate the vast food knowledge held by rural populations in Mexico and the travel of this knowledge to immigrant urban and rural communities in the U.S. and Canada.  We’d like to see a specifically Chicana/Chicano political vision emerge that is cognizant of the need to defend ancestral corn from Monsanto and GMO seed.  We’d like to see more critiques of NAFTA coming from this side of the border. We’d like to see webs of solidarity forming across the border on issues related to food, environment, and the rights of people to stay on their ancestral lands.  We’d like to see our communities reject fast food, both as a “solution” to hungry bellies but also as a way of life.  We’d like to see Chicana/Chicano-run farmers’ markets selling ancestral foods like amaranth, quelites, verdolagas, heirloom beans, organic corn, and traditional varieties of squashes.  We’d like to see Chicana-owned worker cooperatives that sell non-GMO corn masa and community workshops teaching young people to make corn tortillas and tamales from scratch, using a variety of native ingredients. 

Now that the book is published, what next? 

We’ll continue to do research, writing, and sharing but through community presentations and through our blog and Facebook group.  We hope to have more time to devote to community organizing around these issues. 
Luz y Catriona's dining room table:  "Red Pozole with
Medicinal Mushrooms" (pages 101-102) (photo by Amelia Montes)
What does cooking mean for you now? 

Cooking is self-care.  It’s a creative outlet.  It’s resistance to capitalism and an unjust food system.  And, to be honest, we just get a lot of pleasure out of eating food we prepare from scratch.  It’s a way of showing love, care, and affection.  It’s an arena of comfort, healing, and familiarity.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with La Bloga readers?

It’s important to us to acknowledge that our project grew out of a set of political projects that were already well underway when we started our research.  Some of these include the amazing resurgence of interest in native foods in the U.S. and Canada.  We always credit Dr. Devon Abbott Mihesuah (Choctaw) for coining the term, “decolonizing our diets.”  Of course, Winona La Duke (Anishinaabeg) is also a leader in this area.  There is so much excitement about native chefs like Sean Sherman, Walter Whitewater, Lois Allen Frank, Nephi Craig, and others.  We’ve been fortunate to meet and eat the food of some of these chefs at Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House, in programs organized by the Cultural Conservancy.

In Oakland, were we live, Phat Beets is a food justice organization that has been doing “Decolonize Your Diet” workshops for years.  We appreciate their vision.  Bryant Terry, an Oakland-based cookbook author, whose books Grub, and Afro Vegan had a big impact on us. Terry’s ability to promote plant-based recipes in ways that are appealing to communities of color inspired us and, personally, he has been very supportive of our project.  In addition, Luz was involved in a grassroots affinity group called “Decolonize Oakland,” that tried to use decolonization as a framework for political organizing.  Living in Oakland, surrounded by young people doing some really good thinking and activism around issues of decolonization, gentrification, and state violence, has helped us keep our focus. 

In a larger Chicana/Chicano context, there are several scholars and community activists whose work we follow.  Early in our research, we found a blog, “Decolonial Food for Thought,” a project of two graduate students, Claudia Serrato and Chris Rodriguez.  They had already given a lot of thought to these issues and put forward strong arguments for what Claudia calls an “indigenous veganism.”  And more recently, we’ve come across other Chicana chefs who are on similar trajectories:  Marinette Tovar, Marlene Aguilar, and Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz. 

All this to say that our project is indebted to many others who we see constructing an interesting web of activity—some writing, some teaching, some cooking—but all with the same goal.  We hope our book is a contribution to this web.  We feel fortunate to have been able to publish this book and we hope people find it useful.  We also hope that many more books follow ours.  There is so much more to learn about our cultural food inheritance. 

Thank you so very much for taking the time to talk to La Bloga, Luz y Catriona.  Readers, check out Luz y Catriona’s website for information about the book, recipes, and for events where Luz y Catriona will be appearing.  (Click here for website) 

"Decolonize Maiz" by Ernesto Yerena Montejano (silkscreen print, 2012)


Barbara Garcia said...

Wow! Cant waite to try some new/old type of tamales...tks

Odilia Galván Rodríguez said...

Great article! Just received my copy of the book in the mail today, and can't wait to try out some of these fabulous recipes!

Tlazocamati, Odilia