Without being too cliche, try not to judge "Decolonize Your Diet" by its cover. Though the in-your-face title might be a turn-off for readers and cooks unfamiliar with indigenous fare, this expertly written cookbook could one day help heal the masses.
The paperback cookbook published by Arsenal Pulp Press in late 2015 is essentially sharing native foods and showcasing how popular and healthy they were to indigenous ancestors in the Americas. Authors Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel will be sharing their political vision for the book this weekend at The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.
Partners Calvo and Esquibel (both professors at California State East Bay and San Francisco State University, respectively) tackled "Decolonize" as a passion project that took nearly seven years to complete. After a 2006 breast cancer diagnosis for Calvo, the pair decided to take a hard look at what they call traditional foods in the landscape of Mexican-American cuisine.
Though both were practicing vegetarians long before Calvo's diagnosis, Esquibel recalls looking at work being done by food writers that concentrated on plant-based diets within the confines of European and Mediterranean fare.
"Indigenous ingredients were a a part of the global diet and we started to think about how tremendously they affected the rest of food. Italian food needed tomatoes, chilies for the Chinese...there's a host of foods that come from the Americas," Esquibel said.
During their* experience with cancer treatment, Calvo says the diet focused on European sensibilities that weren't always appetizing. "I knew kale was good for me, and broccoli, but it was torture to me. It made me sad," Calvo says.
Their vision for the book was to help others re-indigenize their diets. With Calvo as the cook and Esquibel as baker, the two fleshed out their concept over the course of three summers. Pitching the book to mainstream presses was an entirely different story as they were often met with criticism of the book being "too niche," or lacking mass appeal. Calvo recalled racist rejection letters from publishing houses that argued natives were often "malnourished."
They widened their net and eventually clicked with Vancouver's Arsenal Pulp Press, an independent publisher that supports books on native cook by queer authors.
The result is a lauded tome broken down into 12 chapters with topics ranging from decolonization that sets forth the books mission trifold. Calvo and Esquibel honor ancestors and future youth though native foods by recognizing food as medicine. They stress flaws in the standard American diet filled with processed foods. And finally they point to the Latino/a Immigrant Paradox as a reason to re-indigenize with urgency.
The paradox cited by researchers points to a decrease in immigrants' health the longer they stay in the states. During their book tour, as people share their food stories, Calvo notes that indigenous food is often shamed. Yet, eating the same ancestral foods in poverty before coming to the U.S. is often what protected immigrants from diabetes and other maladies.
A chapter in the book is devoted to helping readers become more familiar with Mesoamerican ingredients such as achiote (or annatto), allspice berries, amaranth, avocado leaves, beans, butter, raw cacao, cashews, chaya ("tree spinach"), chayote, chia (not just for smoothie bowls, it turns out), fresh and dried chiles, fresh and frozen corn, masa, honey, hibiscus flowers, epazote and more. Not all ingredients are entirely new either — the sweet potato and cabbage slaw tacos are a hit and easy to make. From there, chapters are divided by antojitos, ensaladas, sopas y guisados, platos fuertes, tacos, a la carta, salsas, postres (because we all need a little dessert in our lives), bebidas and desayunos.
What Calvo and Esquibel get oh-so-right is their mellifluous writing and improvisational style. "Luz doesn't use recipes," Esquibel says.
Moreover, though they encourage getting back to the land (Calvo also maintains a expansive garden filled with herbs, beans and hens for eggs), they acknowledge the cultural shift that's taken folks away from knowing where indigenous foods like esquites and verdolagas come from, while also pointing out market culture can be traced as far back to daily life in Aztec Tenochitlan.
"Our book provoked discussions among family members... [it] opens discussions about ancestral foods that nobody necessarily recognized as super valuable, and that's powerful thing for families," Calvo said.
"Decolonize Your Diet" is simple to follow and perfect for beginner cooks to understand, which seems to be a purposeful addition by the authors.
"Not everyone learned to cook from their grandmother," Esquibel said. "There were some things we had to learn how to make ourselves and now it's our turn to teach them to the next generation."
In fact, Calvo wasn't always a pro tortilla maker. Delving into fresh maiz and nixtamalization (the process of soaking and cooking maiz into an alkaline solution for consumption) took several attempts with misshapen tortillas before feeling comfortable enough firing up the comal with confidence.
Meet Calvo and Esquibel this weekend, first for a platica and book signing at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center on Friday at 7 p.m. and on Saturday at 7 p.m. for a panel discussion with Rebel Mariposa of La Botanica, and Ale Tierra of Mama Tierra and Food Not Bombs SA, moderated by Lilliana Patricia Saldaña, a Chicana activist scholar raised in San Antonio’s Southside.
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*The article has been edited to reflect Luz Calvo's preferred pronouns.