Claudia Serrato, a chef and culinary anthropologist, has worked hard to integrate precolonial ingredients and locally sourced produce into her daily meals. This effort to honor her history goes beyond what’s on any given plate—it’s a way to resist an oppressive, violent, unsustainable food system.
What does it mean to you to decolonize your diet?
I grew up eating a predominantly plant-based diet, including a lot of nopal, which is cactus. My grandfather was from Zacatecas, and they’re known for eating cactus galore. But later in life, my grandfather had some serious heart issues and other food-related diseases that he never had before. So I asked him, “What happened? What happened in your diet?” And he shared a story that we’re all really familiar with: he wanted to bring in more foods to feel like he was part of society after he had immigrated into the United States.
I began to really look at what “Mexican” food is. I always understood “Mexican” as being a culture because I was raised in Mexican culture, but I didn’t understand the whole politics of identity. During this time, I was in school. I learned that a lot of the foods that we were eating were a result of Spanish colonialism. Their foodways infiltrated my cultural Indigenous heritage foods from Zacatecas, from Michoacán, and from San Luis Potosí.
I wanted to know, well, what were the foods that were native to Mexico? What are the foods that are native to the United States, Turtle Island? And what are the foods that were introduced? So I began to categorize, which took me a good year of research. At this point, I had changed my diet to what I call “Indigenous vegan.” But the super aha moment was when I was in grad school getting my first master’s, and I was reading a piece by Cherríe Moraga out of the collection Queer Aztlán. She talked about how Aztlán is no longer a mythological homeland; it is indeed our skin, flesh, and blood, which is under occupation by the white, patriarchal, imperialist United States.
And for me, it just flashed fireworks. Everything just happened. I was like, “Wait a minute. My body is still colonized, and I’m participating in my own colonization by consuming the foods that are doing this colonial work.” I saw my body as the last frontier, and I was like, “I refuse to be colonized.” At that point, I realized, “This is why I’m doing this work. This is why I’ve been going down this path, so that I can decolonize my diet.” Decolonizing my diet means returning to my cultural heritage cuisines closely to what they were prior to colonization. That meant removing chicken, beef, pork, and dairy products from these animals out of my diet and also wheat, because that was introduced.
I decided that part of my healing, part of my liberation was: one, to reclaim my kitchen, no longer see it as a space of oppression. And then two, to truly honor a Mesoamerican Indigenous diet that was local, organic, seasonal, sustainable, ecological, native.
What the land experiences, I experience. What my body experiences, the land experiences.
I love that what led you there was a mixture of talking to your grandparents and this formal education system, which let you look at history more critically. When you decided that you wanted to work on decolonizing your diet, where did you look for those recipes and what you should be cooking? Was it through talking to your family? Was it reading old books? How did you find what specific dishes that you wanted to make?
It did begin by talking to my family, remembering what I was fed when I was growing up and how that changed. The introduction of heavy animal products and the products that also come out of them—that was my first step. Like calabacitas, which is a squash stew. My mom would top it with a queso fresco. Because of mestizo culture, you might see that as, “Oh, well, this is our culture.” But I was so determined to decolonize my taste buds, help them remember what food tastes like without these extra ingredients. So I would take them out. I didn’t want to lose what we call sazón, which is the flavor that reminds us of home.
Same thing with our mole. My mom makes great mole, but she would always make it with chicken. So I began eating it with potato. I began eating it with oyster mushrooms. These were ingredients native to the Americas. I began to substitute ingredients.
Then I would follow my grandmother around and look to see how she was preparing certain foods. I’d ask her, “When you were growing up, how was this prepared?” Eventually I began to travel more to Mexico, and I began to really look at the ingredients that were taken out of my palate. I would support local vendors. I’d ask questions like, “What are the ways that you would prepare this?” They’d say, “Oh, this is huauzontle. One of the best ways would be to steam it.”
I began to ask, “What are these ingredients that have been forgotten?” I began to experiment. I began to even ask the food, “What do you want me to make out of you? How do you want to be eaten?” I would literally sit there and people would be like, “Are you talking to the food?” I’d be like, “Yes. I’m really trying to make this connection. I’m really trying to embody. I’m really trying to understand its texture, its flavor, its fiber, and what this can taste like in tacos.”
It was just all experimentation. Even with masa, there’s so many ways that folks make masa. There’s no recipe because there just weren’t recipes around. So I’m like, “All right, ancestral taste memory, genetic memory. I’m trusting you to guide me.” Through that trust in my body and how it likes to taste and what it likes to taste, I’ve been able to recreate foods that there were no instructions on how to prepare.
It’s not necessarily to say, “I’m going back, I’m preparing foods that my ancestors prepared.” But I’m using the ingredients my ancestors used.
That’s a really fascinating way to look at decolonizing your diet because it’s not like there’s a rigid instruction manual on how to go back in time. We can’t go back to a time before colonization. It’s about creating this new world that is decolonized. And so this balance of experimentation and tradition and this focus on ingredients makes a lot of sense.
But it makes me wonder: your ancestral foodways come from the Indigenous cultures of what is now Mexico, but you live in Los Angeles. How do you honor the land that you’re living on while also honoring your cultural traditions and the ingredients that your ancestors used?
It’s been a journey. My mind was like, “I need to reclaim my ancestral heritage foods. My family comes from San Luis Potosí, my family comes from Zacatecas, Michoacán. So what are the foodways there?” That was my first mindset. I’m grateful because I’m first generation and my family arrived with that taste palate.
I eat a lot of red salsa with guajillo because of my mom. In San Luis Potosí they use a lot of guajillo. With my father, I grew up eating a lot of fish and a lot of dried jerky—we would make our own. I didn’t know people didn’t make their own jerky. We had a clothesline, and he would hang meat that he processed. But he would always say, “Well this is what we have now, but in Michoacán, you would eat deer, you would eat fish.”
But then being engaged in academia and reading Indigenous feminist works around food sovereignty, place-based making, becoming native to place, I was like, “Whoa, whoa. What does this mean for me as an Indigenous settler?” I began looking to see, “Well, who are the native folks that are doing the work here?” And I did cross paths with some folks from the Chia Café Collective, who are elders, mostly Tongva, native to LA. I began to understand plants differently. I began foraging, sitting with plants, studying them.
I see plants as kin—they’re very much alive. I’m looking right now at my California native bay—I use that when I make my frijoles de olla now. If we don’t consume these foods and remind people that they have a beautiful purpose here, they’re going to go away.
Women who are holding up ancestral foodways, connecting with place-based foodways, are healers.
I’ve incorporated more native proteins also. I feed my family salmon, I feed my family bison. But I think about, “When is the appropriate time that our bodies can handle these foodways?” Because we’re not supposed to be eating these foods all year long. There’s a time and a place: in the winters, we eat a lot of our dried meats. In the spring, we eat a lot of the wild greens, a lot of the flowers, a lot of berries. And then in the summer, we have more carb-dense foods that lead us into the fall.
I wouldn’t be able to create these particular types of diets or menus for my family and community if I didn’t have a deeper appreciation for the landscape and what the land provides me. My cultural heritage foods are like a mobile memory that still survives because I survive. But I also need to be aware of my landscape here because my foodways might damage these ways. So how do I find balance? Ecological balance equals a place-based diet with cultural relevance.
You keep coming back to this idea of decolonizing the body. That’s an added layer over decolonizing food: it’s not just about health and heritage; it’s also about your body. You’ve talked about this Indigenous feminist concept of “body as landscape” and I would love to hear more about that.
Man, it goes deep. I’ve studied a lot about embodiment. With Indigenous feminist works situated within Chicano feminism, there’s always this conversation around how our bodies are landscapes, how our bodies are mobile geographies. When we decolonize, then we begin to heal the land. Because we’re consuming the foods that come directly from the land.
Our bodies are composed of these particular elements that make up the soil. Our bodies are composed of water, so we’re oceans, we’re lakes, we’re rivers. Just like the land cleanses itself, so do our bodies. We are not separate. We are all one. Whatever happens to one reflects on the other. What the land experiences, I experience. What my body experiences, the land experiences. And so I see my mouth as the portal. For me, it’s the entryway.
There’s so much to learn about growing. There’s so much to learn about harvest even within our own selves. How we trim and how we care for us is how we care for the land. This is what comes out of a lot of Indigenous feminist work. Just like our bodies, the land has been colonized. I’ve been colonized. What is that work that we need to do to reclaim our spirits? Spirit of the land, the spirit that resides within me. It’s all one and the same.
That’s such a fascinating experience of food, which takes us outside of the isolated experience of one meal and looks from a cosmic and an ecological perspective. You’ve written about how certain foods—like a plant-based diet—have been feminized while other foods like meats are masculinized. How does the patriarchy find its way onto our plate?
It began at the moment of the colonial encounter. Many of the Spanish folks arrived with this mentality that a meat-based diet was a superior diet because that is what their God preferred. They had the idea that foods that weren’t dense in these particular proteins were inferior foods. They had no value—just like women. So they were deemed feminine foods.
This is the start of the patriarchy, these patriarchal taste cravings that were pushed onto our bodies, the native body, at the time of early colonialism. When the Spanish arrived, they saw that Indigenous folks were eating a predominantly plant-based diet, 80% maíz. They had their binary way of looking at gender, so they were like, “These men are feminine men because they eat these feminine foods.”
Anything affiliated with the feminine was to be conquered, was to be colonized. Then we see what we call “culinary mestizajes,” which is this change of diet where these masculinized flavors became central. Because the European body did not want to eat something that didn’t have these ingredients. They’re like, “Uh-uh, that’s going to make me native. That’s primitive, that’s savage.” So a lot of the women—because it was mostly women that were cooking during these early times—had to change the foodways as a form of survival for themselves and for their families to feed the European bodies what they wanted.
Because that ideology became so popular, folks began to believe it—that these were superior foods. But in essence, you’re centering the European male body to say that the European male body’s foodway is superior.
All of this speaks to the really unique role that Indigenous women play in decolonizing food. Because their perspective is, as you’ve laid out, not just ecological or cultural, but also reproductive. I would love to hear you talk more about that role.
There’s different forms of how women are doing that decolonizing food work. One way that I really have seen it bloom is through midwifery work.
In the making of Los Angeles, many different communities settled here. And the way people knew what to eat was because of the midwife: she was the chef, the reproductive worker, the farmer, the cook. She understood what needed to be eaten for ultimate reproductive health. This was prior to conception, post-conception, and then during pregnancy. It’s really unfortunate because LA made it illegal for those without a license to practice midwifery. Even though midwifery practices have been around since time immemorial. My dad was a home birth because his grandmother helped his mom birth him. My family has had midwives since forever.
Because of criminalization, midwifery practices that weren’t “legal” went underground. However, because of a movement around rethinking the medical-industrial system, midwives have begun to reemerge. As they emerge, they bring this knowledge of what to eat, how to eat, when to eat. It’s a whole other level of decolonizing our diets, decolonizing our taste buds.
If we’re eating our cultural heritage foods, foods that are not centering the patriarchy, we’re birthing babies with decolonized taste buds. What womb ecology continues to suggest is that what one tastes in early life will determine their health as an adult. What we eat when we’re children—we’re going to crave those foods later. Our bodies are going to return to them. Women who are holding up ancestral foodways, connecting with place-based foodways, are healers. They’re doing decolonial healing. It’s outside of Western medicine. It’s tradition. Now, I know a few birth workers who are doing meal plans for those that have just had babies. And I’m like, “Thank you, creator. Yes, this is what resurgence looks like.”
Listening to that response especially makes me think of just how different most people’s relationship to food in the U.S. is to yours. It’s about things like convenience or efficiency, and a lot of people don’t feel like they have the time to invest in their foodways. Or they don’t feel connected to their ancestral food practices potentially, because they’re so many generations back. They don’t have that direct link you have with your grandparents and your mother. How do people who are less connected with their ancestral foodways work to decolonize their diets? Or just change their relationship with food?
I have one friend whose family is from Peru. And she asked me, “Girl, how do I begin to do this decolonizing work?” I was like, “Well, how deep do you want to go?” She was like, “I want to go deep, girl. I want to understand what my ancestors ate.” She didn’t know specifically the name of the pueblo that her family came from, but she knew the region. I told her, “Oh, that’s all we need to know.” People think local means within five miles. No, sometimes we had to walk 25 miles to get somewhere. Sometimes it meant even a hundred. So I helped my friend identify some of those regional foods. It’s a wonderful way to start. You begin to understand those regional foods, their proper seasons. You begin finding one recipe that centers that particular seasonal, regional food. And for her, it helped affirm her identity.
Then for folks who have no clue, I’m like, “Well, what food do you eat? What food does your grandmother create?” And we look to see that this food comes from this part of the world. And then we’re able to use food as a guide. If you’re eating this specific ingredient that you find in five of your meals, then where is it native to? I’m a full believer in genetic taste memory, and there’s science behind it. Your body knows. Learn to trust your body. It allows a different relationship with one’s body by trusting one’s taste buds, by trusting one’s cravings.
And there’s fluidity in that. I’m not here to say, “This is the only way to eat.” Because you can also become native to place by eating the place-based foods. For some folks, that’s all you have. That itself is decolonial work because you’re getting away from the standard American diet that tells you that you’re supposed to eat broccoli all year long, you’re supposed to eat berries all year long, you’re supposed to consume dairy all year long. In nature, that’s not how it works. When we begin to pay attention to the seasons and begin to pay attention to what is growing, then we begin to understand food differently.
When we begin to pay attention to the seasons and begin to pay attention to what is growing, then we begin to understand food differently.
That’s beautiful. I love the idea that there’s no prescription.
I think decolonization is often framed, and in many ways is, this really difficult process. It’s not just going to be buying a cookbook and letting that lead you. It’s a long journey. But the way that you talk about it is so full of joy, and you put a lot of weight on things like cravings and community. So I would just love for you to talk a little bit about the importance of joy in decolonization.
We don’t have enough of it. I feel like humans are in such a state of despair and suffering. We live in a hyper-capitalist society, things are just moving so quickly. Activist work is usually against something big and monstrous, and it increases this idea that we have to be out there with our swords, battling this dragon.
For those activists that did deal with some deep, heavy pressures of society like Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the approach was non-violence. Right? And so find peace in your movement. Because violence plus violence just creates more violence.
Yes, there’s anger. Now how do we heal? How do you heal from this so that you don’t perpetuate violence in how you cook, in how you transmit energy, in how you forage and care for plants?
I understand that my body and my taste buds are that last frontier. To be able to defend it means that I’m not just healing myself, but I’m healing a nation of plants, of humans, and the next generations to come. It starts off personal, but then when you begin to feel the effects, it becomes a responsibility. It’s like, “What are you going to do with this knowledge?” You can’t just bank it and put it up on a bookshelf. This is the kind of knowledge that has a practice.
This deep decolonial work is also communal work. It builds relationships with people, with land. It becomes a bridge-maker. We bridge into our ancestry, we get to build relationships with our grandparents and the spirit world. We’re transcending. We’re moving beyond borders, beyond dimensions even. This speaks to a larger matrix of healing, cosmologically, planetarily, because when we shift, everything’s going to shift with us.
And so I find joy in that. I don’t have to fight the system aggressively. I can fight it peacefully, and that’s warming to my soul, to my spirit.
It’s so amazing, in this time, to remember that work can be joyful. I think we’ve lost that idea, that the work of building a new world can be joyful.
Yes, yes, yes. And I do, I find so much joy. It’s my element because it’s where I feel the most peace. That’s why I’m 100% committed to this work.
I mean, if there’s any prescription to come from this call, maybe it’s to do the work that brings you the most peace.
Yeah! And to see the kitchen as a healing space. It’s where I do my magic.
This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 08: Rhythm with the headline “Feeding the Revolution.”
Nature is an elaborate orchestra of interconnectedness, in which timing is everything.