Revitalizing Indigenous foodways

Decolonize our diet with a culinary anthropologist

Photo of traditional dishes such as salsa, mushrooms, and wild rice handmade by Claudia Serrato

Grandma Yaya always cooked four staple foods. There was sopa de fideo, a Mexican noodle soup, chayote, an edible plant she steamed with butter, nopales, a cactus salad — cooked warm or served chilled — and beans.

The simplicity in 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 Polytechnic State University Pomona–– her work centers on Indigenous foodways and has impacted her community. In her courses she often integrates the teachings of food and its influences.

“Food has always been the most pleasing and loving,” she said. She grew up eating home-cooked meals, comforting to the palette, and fresh food from the garden.

Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Serrato turns to her lineage rooted in Mexico as a connection to food.

“It goes back to my grandparents,” she said. Yaya in East L.A., and her paternal grandmother in Mexicali, Mexico, shared their affection through cooking.

Her food memories in Mexico run deep, mainly around poultry. Chickens would roam everywhere on her grandmother’s property. Looking over her shoulder she witnessed the practice that went into preparing the chicken –– the breeding, plucking, cleansing, and boiling of hot water. “I remember thinking, ‘oh dang,’ this is what we need to do to eat, but it was a part of my upbringing,” she said.

Photo of chiles, onions, garlic, cilantro, and  cashews

By 5 p.m. the chicken was ready and it wasn’t just for Serrato’s immediate family, but the entire neighborhood joined in. “My grandma fed everybody,” she said.

Serrato concocted her dishes as early as the age of five years old. Accompanied by a recipe book, she would wander off to the local grocery store, pick up ingredients and mimic her elders in traditional food tropes.

The way she identified food and built a relationship with it brought value and substance. “My mom would say if your little rice or beans fall, it’s going to cry,” she said. “I didn’t want my food to cry so I made sure my hands were always touching it. I became attuned to my senses early on.”

Using flowers and inventing random meals, Serrato’s imagination within the culinary arts began to soar, opening new flavors and textures.

Serrato is the eldest of three sisters. Denise Serrato, the middle sibling, recalls the earthy scent of roasted tomatoes and serrano chiles sifting through the house. “I grew up with a lot of salsas and these sauces became a part of our childhood,” she said.

“My sister, Claudia, makes an amazing bison stew,” Denise Serrato said. “In our way, collectively, we are connecting with our heritage through food.”

This shared activity has elevated Serrato’s impression of food, expanding within a socio-cultural context. “Today, this cultural relevance has helped me get to a place of truly wanting to liberate and decolonize my diet, my body, my taste buds, and my cravings,” she said.

Serrato is part of a Native food movement. Through academia — on a methodical, theoretical, and practical level — she applies past relationships with food as an avenue to help herself and others realize the healing power it can offer.

Photo of cultural anthropologist Claudia Serrato

Serrato returned to an ancestral traditional-based diet to counter foods she said were introduced through colonization. “My ancestors were plant-based eaters — also fish eaters –– depending on where and what time of the season. It was colonialism that introduced beef, chicken, pork, lamb, dairy, and wheat,” she said. “These particular foods are triggering for my body, and I never realized that before.”

For Serrato, fortifying Native diets allows her and her community to be the decision-makers. With food sovereignty, one can gather, forage, and harvest their food. It also supports other Native foods from tribal economies, allowing them to materialize their food system.

The tepary bean, derived from the Tohono O’odham Nation, was almost extinct but was revitalized. “For me, this is what the engagement is all about,” she said.

Though cooking has been an integral piece of her upbringing, these conversations were necessary and started with her family. It then extended into academic circles, non-profit organizations, and larger institutions throughout the nation.

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 for women of color to workshop around food justice, share recipes and push one’s food project into a reality. They received an artist grant from the city and used it to empower women to pursue their dreams and build bridges towards success. It ran for three years, up until the pandemic. “It was a beautiful experience,” Serrato said.

Serrato resides in Montebello –– her living room, airy and colorful, is lined with lush green plants. There are two corner bookshelves with Mexican artifacts, statues, and art placed around a fireplace. The sun is setting as L.A. lets off a warm breeze and beaming light. The shadows from the plants blend in with an Aztec wall tapestry that rests behind Serrato as she discusses the profoundness of her work.

You can often find Serrato in her backyard, a communal space where she shares laughs, discourse, and meals with her loved ones. It’s warm and inviting, with brightly colored stucco walls, cobalt blue and yellow and an extended wooden table that sits in the center for congregating. There are decorative red clay plates and bowls, including shiny tamaleras on display, and a gleaming outdoor kitchen as the focal point. There is, of course, an island for food preparation, and nestled in the corner, a deck with an awning for Serrato’s self-reflective time. It’s not hard to imagine Serrato, smiling from ear to ear preparing dishes for her community.

Inside her pantry, she has nuts –– pecans, cashews, walnuts –– grains, wild rice, quinoa, amaranth, and in her refrigerator, salmon and bison on stock, and a stack of blue corn. As a family, her daughter, Huitzuin, son, Indikah, and her partner gather for dinner. With an abundance of diverse foods, it always comes down to something simple at the end of the day. “When I cook, it almost feels like a warm hug from my grandparents,” she said.

For Serrato, it is about embracing “ancestral culinary memory” and nurturing the food and land the way it continues to do for us.

“As my elders have taught me, the food will go away, and if the food goes away, that means our culture and our memories go away. That means our traditions, our recipes, and our cooking technologies go away. I refuse to allow that to happen,” she said.