Revitalizing Indigenous Eating Habits – Annenberg Media
Grandma Yaya always cooked four staple foods. There was sopa de fideo, Mexican noodle soup, chayote, an edible plant that she steamed with butter, nopales, a cactus salad – cooked warm or served cold – and beans. .
The simplicity of these dishes carried Claudia Serrato and became synonymous with her identity. As a culinary anthropologist, scholar, and professor at the University of Washington and California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, her work focuses on Indigenous eating habits and has had an impact on her community. In her classes, she often incorporates the teachings of food and its influences.
“Food has always been the nicest and most loving,” she said. She grew up eating home-cooked meals that are comforting to the palate and fresh from the garden.
Born and raised in east Los Angeles, Serrato looks to her lineage rooted in Mexico as a connection to food.
“It goes back to my grandparents,” she said. Yaya in East LA, and her paternal grandmother in Mexicali, Mexico, shared their affection through the kitchen.
His culinary memories in Mexico run deep, mainly around poultry. Chickens roamed all over her grandmother’s property. Looking over her shoulder, she witnessed the practice that followed in preparing the chicken – raising, plucking, cleaning, and boiling hot water. “I remember thinking, ‘oh damn’, this is what we have to do to eat, but it was part of my upbringing,” she said.
By 5 p.m. the chicken was ready and it wasn’t just for Serrato’s immediate family, but the whole neighborhood joined in. “My grandmother fed everyone,” she said.
Serrato cooks his dishes from the age of five. Accompanied by a cookbook, she would go to the local grocery store, pick up ingredients, and imitate her elders in the tropes of traditional cooking.
The way she identified food and built a relationship with it brought value and substance. “My mom would say if your little rice or your beans fall off, it will cry,” she said. “I didn’t want my food to cry, so I made sure my hands were still touching it. I learned to listen to my senses very early on.
By using flowers and inventing random meals, Serrato’s imagination in the culinary arts began to soar, opening up new flavors and textures.
Serrato is the eldest of three sisters. Denise Serrato, the middle sister, recalls the earthy scent of roasted tomatoes and serrano peppers that run through the house. “I grew up with a lot of salsas and these sauces have become a part of our childhood,” she said.
“My sister, Claudia, makes an amazing bison stew,” said Denise Serrato. “In our own way, collectively, we connect to our heritage through food. “
This shared activity elevated the impression of Serrato food, developing in a socio-cultural context. “Today, this cultural relevance has helped me really want to liberate and decolonize my diet, my body, my taste buds and my cravings,” she said.
Serrato is part of an indigenous food movement. Through academia – on a methodical, theoretical, and practical level – she applies past relationships with food as a way to help herself and others realize the healing power she can offer.
Serrato reverted to a traditional ancestral diet to counter the foods that she said were introduced by colonization. “My ancestors were plant eaters – also fish eaters – – depending on the place and time of the season. It was colonialism that introduced beef, chicken, pork, lamb, dairy and wheat, ”she said. “These particular foods trigger for my body, and I had never realized this before.”
For Serrato, enriching indigenous diets allows him and his community to be the decision makers. With food sovereignty, we can pick, forage and harvest our food. It also supports other foods indigenous to tribal economies, enabling them to materialize their food system.
The tepary bean, derived from the Tohono O’odham Nation, was nearly extinct but has been revitalized. “For me, that’s the purpose of the engagement,” she said.
Although cooking was an integral part of his upbringing, these conversations were necessary and started with his family. It then spread to academic circles, nonprofits and large institutions across the country.
In 2017, Serrato co-founded a network, Across our Kitchen Tables, with Jocelyn Ramirez, author and chef of Todo Verde, and Valeria Duenas. This culinary hub was designed so that women of color can work on food justice, share recipes and make their food project a reality. They received an artist grant from the city and used it to empower women to pursue their dreams and build bridges to success. It lasted three years, until the pandemic. “It was a great experience,” Serrato said.
Serrato resides in Montebello –– his airy and colorful living room is bordered by lush green plants. There are two corner shelves with Mexican artifacts, statues, and artwork set around a fireplace. The sun is setting as LA releases a warm breeze and radiant light. Shadows of plants blend into an Aztec wall tapestry that rests behind Serrato as she discusses the depth of her work.
You can often find Serrato in her backyard, a common space where she shares laughs, speeches, and meals with loved ones. It’s warm and inviting, with stucco walls in bright colors, cobalt blue and yellow, and an elongated wooden table that sits in the center for gathering. There are decorative red clay plates and bowls, including shiny tamaleras on display, and a sparkling outdoor kitchen as a focal point. There’s, of course, an island for food preparation, and tucked away around the corner is a patio with an awning for Serrato’s self-reflection time. It’s not hard to imagine Serrato smiling from ear to ear cooking food for his community.
In her pantry, she has nuts –– pecans, cashews, walnuts –– cereals, wild rice, quinoa, amaranth, and in her refrigerator, salmon and bison broth, and a stack of corn. blue. As a family, her daughter Huitzuin, her son Indikah and her partner get together for dinner. With an abundance of different foods, it always comes down to something simple at the end of the day. “When I cook, I almost feel like I am warmly hugged by my grandparents,” she said.
For Serrato, it’s about embracing “ancestral culinary memory” and nourishing the food and the land as it continues to do for us.
“As my elders taught me, food will disappear, and if food disappear, that means our culture and memories are disappearing. This means that our traditions, recipes and cooking technologies are disappearing. I refuse to let that happen, ”she said.