Food as Culture and Cure

My relationship with food has been one of nurturing, resilience, cultural connection and occasional indulgence. My earliest memories of food are tightly entangled with my childhood in México. My grandmother did most of the cooking during the week and on occasion on the weekend my mom would take me out to visit the zoo, a museum or to the park and we would eat out, usually pizza or seafood. On other weekends we’d go out to the farmer’s market and get street food. There was always a variety—fried fish, sandwiches, corn masa–based morsels like gorditas, sopes, huaraches, quesadillas—after all corn is sacred in México and forms the basis of our ancestral food.

My grandmother’s cooking was simple. Given that she had gout, we rarely ate beef or pork, and while she should not have eaten beans, she still made them for us and ate them while suffering the consequences. I recall eating an array of homemade soups, caldos, as we prefer to call them, rice, beans and stews. My favorite, mole de olla, is a luscious deep red broth with chicken or beef, corn on the cob, squash, green beans and rice.

Picking Up American Habits

When we moved to Chicago and lived with extended family that had already assimilated to American culture, the quality and freshness of the food we ate changed drastically. The markets we had been accustomed to in México were within walking distance, making it easier to get fresh food daily, whereas my aunts went to the market once a week and had to drive there. My aunts also took advantage of sales, which meant going to at least three markets to get all the food for the week, the cultural staples, and a surplus if there was a good sale.

Meat that was meant to be used later would be frozen, the only fresh vegetables were meant to be used during the week, and these were generally for the sauces that would accompany the main protein (pork, beef or chicken) on a dish. The rest of the groceries were processed food such as cereals, pastries, frozen waffles, frozen pizza, ham, cheese, pop, condiments, etc.

My intake of processed sweet, salty and stale food increased. There was an abundance of food, the fridge and pantry were always full and so was the freezer. In my teens I noticed I was putting on weight. It was then I joined the track and field team but did not change my eating habits.

In college I worked out at the local gym a few times a week, but my diet remained the same. Cereal and fruit for breakfast, sandwich and chips/popcorn for lunch, animal protein with a carb and a salad for dinner, and salty snacks. I really thought back then that I was eating a healthy diet, at least according to some of the popular trendy health and wellness magazines, and I stayed away from fried and fast food. I was of the mindset that if I worked out, I could mostly eat whatever I wanted.

The Reckoning

In my mid-20s I began to get a rash on my leg. I went to the dermatologist and was given oral antibiotics and a steroid cream. The rash cleared, but as soon as I was off the antibiotics it would reappear. Subsequently across the span of three years I visited a handful of dermatologists who offered the same protocol. The front desk office assistant at my last dermatologist appointment asked me as I was leaving what I was there for, I told her, and she said, “That is never going to go away. I have it, too.”

Shocked at the time, I’m now grateful she said that because that simple sentence drove me to research my condition and find alternative treatments.

These changes reconnected me to my ancestral roots by decolonizing my eating habits.

After researching, I found a functional medicine doctor who could help find the root cause of my symptoms. Before my first appointment I filled out an extensive questionnaire about my family’s health history and my own. She took time to listen to my symptoms, my concerns, and my story, and asked about sleep, stress, digestion, work, family relationships and mood. She recommended a clean diet that would help me clear out toxins from my body that had been accumulating from my poor diet and poor digestion. I embarked on an 8-week diet of vegetables, clean proteins, legumes and healthy fats, all supported with a slew of supplements.

This was the beginning of a journey I hadn’t planned. During this diet, I was cranky, irritated, and frustrated. Eating clean meant planning meals, cooking from scratch and finding ways to make it tasty. This diet was shocking to my entire being. I had to eat more vegetables, to which I was unaccustomed. I could not turn to any processed foods for shortcuts, and I was unaware of how I would feel emotionally during a cleanse.

Despite the challenges, I completed the 8 weeks, my skin cleared up, and my digestion improved. At the end of this experience, I was left with the decision of continuing these new food habits or returning to my old.

Driven by how this diet made me feel, I negotiated with myself, and reintroduced some of the foods I used to eat and kept most of the processed food at bay. I started to pay close attention to the food I consumed and my symptoms, and began noticing that I was allergic to gluten and dairy products. At first, I yo-yoed between omitting these foods from my diet, then in time bringing them back and suffering the consequences. Eventually I gave up dairy and gluten for good. I still experienced digestive issues and skin rashes, but not as severe.

Fast forward to the present, 15 years later, at age 44. My journey had begun by addressing my food habits, but we do not only consume with our mouths through our taste buds. We consume, digest, and process information through every sense organ, and after addressing my food habits, I embarked on bringing awareness to my behavioral, familial emotional and mental habits. What habits deplete or support and nourish my mind, body, and/or soul? These were and are curiosities that unfolded and continue to unfold today.

I now eat a clean diet, full of whole foods, mostly plant-based, low on animal protein, gluten and dairy. These changes not only taught me how to have better food habits, but also reconnected me to my ancestral roots by decolonizing my eating habits. The Mēxihcah people had mostly a vegetarian diet of corn, squash, beans and amaranth. I have modified some of the Mexican dishes that I grew up eating to replace meat with a plant-based protein or vegetables.

That mole de olla that I dearly love? I make it with mushrooms in place of meat. My experience also taught me how challenging it can be to change habits—it’s a dance, and you may go through negotiations with yourself, before you end up in a place of wellness.

Mazie Soto, MS, is ASA’s LMS manager.

Photo caption: Mole de olla.

Photo credit: Courtesy Mazie Soto.