On Thanksgiving, I, like millions of other people across the US, sat at my Thanksgiving day table and promptly got into a fight with my conservative family members. Thanksgiving is one of the most hotly contested holidays in the US, despite what the ‘war on Christmas’ folks would have you believe. It is infused with hard core nationalism, Americans understand what it means to be an American based on the narratives fed to them about Thanksgiving. The shifting nature of identity means that this question is never officially ‘solved’ and fights almost inevitable.
The big fight at my dinner table was over the role of the US in the colonization of indigenous peoples. History documents that in spite of what the popular elementary school narrative tells us of happy Indians bringing the hungry (and innocent) Pilgrims food so they could live (implying that Indians wanted the Pilgrims there and in fact, signed off on the agenda of Manifest Destiny), Pilgrims actually committed genocide against local tribes and thanked God over great meals for his help in the genocide.
Discussing (or rather, fighting) with my relatives over this history is painful, but I usually considered it a good thing. It is the one time a year that ‘normal’ people outside the leftist organizing community I usually hang with actually discuss words like ‘genocide’ and ‘culpability.’ And yet, even as these conversations are sometimes productive, I often am left feeling uneasy with them. Everything we discuss is from ‘back then,’ back in the ‘olden days.’ Genocide happened ‘back then.’ Colonialism is over. The only thing left to do is to decide if Americans are good people in spite of our past, or if our past taints us forever.
The weird thing is that while we’re all fighting over what our past means to us as Americans, we almost never discuss the food we’re eating. It’s as if the food that we put into our bodies on Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the colonization that started 500 years ago, like the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce aren’t intimately connected to colonial violence, like the turkeys we eat today haven’t been deeply violated by the forces of colonization—and the macaroni and cheese many of us eat wasn’t brought to the US by a president that is famous for manifesting the destiny of an entire continent’s indigenous peoples.
This disconnect of the food of Thanksgiving from the narrative of Thanksgiving has the effect of positioning indigenous peoples and their needs and issues only exist in the US’s historical memory. That is, there are no indigenous peoples alive today and dealing directly with the vestiges of colonization—and colonization has nothing to do with non-natives. Colonization itself is something that was done ‘back then’ rather than something that is an ongoing process, and one that isn’t harming any of us, especially not through food.
Chicana authors Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel’s new cookbook, Decolonize Your Diet, is an effort to change that disconnect between history, colonization, and food. Part cookbook, part manifesto, Decolonize Your Diet is as much about recipes as it is about justice centered analysis of food and health. Or, as the authors say in the introduction, ‘We are living in the midst of a huge battle waged by multinational corporations that aim to control the seed supply through seed patents and genetically modified organisms. It is within these broader contexts that we issue the call to ‘decolonize your diet’ with full knowledge that what we need is a dismantling of our entire food-for profit system.’
It’s a pretty big declaration to start off a cookbook with, but it works. And it works largely because of Calvo and Esquibel’s insistence on an intergenerational analysis, or as they say, ‘We believe that food is a nexus connecting the generations.’ What this means is that the settler violence of destroying indigenous food sources is as much connected to the patenting of seeds by Monsanto today—just as the resistance of indigenous peoples to settler violence is as much connected to Calvo and Esquibel deciding to cook their own pot of beans for dinner.
And indeed, Decolonize Your Diet honors and respects the humble pot of beans and homemade tortillas to the same degree they do more ‘difficult’ chef-like meals, like Huaraches de Nopal, or Mole. Calvo and Esquibel say that “cooking a pot of beans from scratch is a revolutionary act that honors both our ancestors and future generations.” It makes sense, then, that Decolonize includes three different ways of cooking beans (on the stove, in a crock pot and in the oven) and multiple ways to prepare them. The Old School Pinto Beans and the Soldadera Beans are my favorite recipes in the entire cookbook, in part because they were so tasty, but also in part because they remind me of my grandmother.
But even as Calvo and Esquibel bring us dishes that our grandparents may have cooked and eaten, they also are very clear that many of the ways that people across the world have adapted food to negotiate the forces of colonizations have led to ‘traditional’ food that is not so healthy for us. They tell of how tamales were not traditionally prepared with lard as they are now, and very often contained fruits and vegetables rather than meat. And how the highly processed flour tortillas actually started off as the far healthier and nutritious corn tortillas. They even point out that sour cream and cheese are not traditional to pre-colonized societies in Mexico—that these things that are understood today as essential Mexican ingredients didn’t get introduced until after cattle was introduced by the Spaniards.
Calvo and Esquibel aruge that the introduction of (or more often, imposition of) colonizer’s diets on indigenous foods have often brought incredibly devastating health effects for the Latino community, including the big diseases that seem to plague especially the Latino and indigenous communities: heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. It made me wonder what the affects of colonization have been on food at our Thanksgiving tables–and if the traditional Thanksgiving meal would be considered so unhealthy if it came from decolonized methods of food growing, harvesting and preparation.
As usual, indigenous peoples are still bearing the heaviest brunt of ongoing colonization through food, whether its through the simply not having enough food, or the effects on the land of corporatized farming. But we are all literally eating the vestiges of colonization every time we eat. Our fights with our families can no longer afford to rest in history, not when things are as bad as they are. Calvo and Esquibel hope that their cookbook, “will inspire our readers to think critically about the effects of colonization on the food we eat and motivate them to get involved in their communities.” The day after Thanksgiving seems like the perfect day to start living out the values we were fighting about the day before.
Photo by Evan P Cordes, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license