"My existence is my resistance": "Chicano Eats" author Esteban Castillo on the politics of food

"I really wanted to see someone that looked like me," Castillo says as his divine Mexican-American cookbook debuts

By Joseph Neese

Executive Editor

Published July 4, 2020 5:38PM (EDT)

Esteban Castillo (Photo provided by Harper Collins)
Esteban Castillo (Photo provided by Harper Collins)

This is part one of a two-part interview with Esteban Castillo.

"Chicano Eats" is one of the most colorful and joyous celebrations of food I have ever read. That being said, I wept as I turned the pages of Esteban Castillo's debut cookbook. I wish this Mexican American boy from Alabama would have had this important work to read as a child. Like Castillo, I grew up watching every move my abuela made in the kitchen. His recipes connect me to my culture. 

Castillo, who also inherited the joy of food from his grandparents, wrote the cookbook to his younger self. It's a text which also would have made an impact on his life.

"I remember there were just times where I would go home, and there were times where I would be in the shower," he tells Salon. "And I would just scrub my skin and just wish for the melanin to just drain from my body, because it was just such a different time."

RELATED: Serve these crunchy potato tacos from Esteban Castillo with a big pile of lettuce and queso Cotija

"I feel like it's important for these kids that are growing up now to be able to have people to look up to, who look just like them, who are just as queer, who are just as brown, because you don't know what kind of impact you're going to make on their life," he adds.

Castillo's cookbook shares the name of his blog, which he launched shortly before the 2016 election. On Election Day, a man was elected president who launched his campaign by calling Mexicans "rapists" and criminals. As a Mexican-American chef in the era of Trump, Castillo views his work as inherently political, a form of protest which allows him to reclaim his own narrative.

"My existence is my resistance. Food is political, and I'm reclaiming that narrative, especially in the blogging space. Because prior to launching the blog, I felt like it was a very white-dominant space, and a lot of those people were the ones sharing our stories," he tells Salon. "And I really wanted to see someone that looked like me speaking for us, and sharing our stories and giving us a platform that we deserved and needed."

RELATED: This recipe combines mac and cheese and queso fundido into one dish with so many layers of flavor

When Castillo recently appeared on "Salon Talks," we talked more about the current reckoning over race in the food industry. He also previewed his new recipes, and shared helpful tips for how to shop for ingredients like tortillas and host a Mexican-inspired dinner party. To learn the answers, you can read the Q&A of our conversation below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.



Esteban, you actually started your blog at a very interesting moment. It was a few weeks before the last presidential election. We have a president now who started his whole campaign by calling Mexicans "rapists" and criminals. Is food political? And is politics present in your work?

Definitely. I launched the blog maybe two or three weeks before the election, and I had no idea that it was going to end up turning into something completely different — into a political statement — because food is political. Honestly, when Trump was elected, it sort of took me back to how I used to feel in elementary school. Here in California, when I started school, a lot of our classes were bilingual, because so many of us spoke Spanish.

And I think it was halfway through elementary school when they banned that. And I remember if we would ever speak Spanish in the playground or in classrooms, there would be punishment for that. And it sort of took me back to that mindset, "Oh, my gosh. It makes me uncomfortable to be brown in this time, because we have a person in power who doesn't really think that I should exist."

RELATED: Purchase a copy of "Chicano Eats: Recipes From My Mexican-American Kitchen"

So for me, my existence, it's like they say, "Mi existir es resistir." Because prior to launching the blog, I felt like it was a very white-dominant space, and a lot of those people were the ones sharing our stories," he tells Salon. "And I really wanted to see someone that looked like me speaking for us, and sharing our stories and giving us a platform that we deserved and needed.

When you did decide to start the blog, I read that you had been caught you off guard online by a pozole recipe, which actually used salsa.

There was a white blogger who had made pozole, and they used a jar of sweet salsa in there. It was picked up by a really big publication. For me, that raised a red flag: "Hey, these publications aren't looking to us for our expertise and to our stories. They're looking elsewhere, and why is that?" And I think that's a conversation that we are having again now, with everything that's been happening.

With what's happened at Bon Appetit and other publications in recent weeks, that's a conversation we've been having here at Salon. But I wanted to draw a distinction, which I believe is important. What you're saying isn't, "Don't enjoy Mexican food. Don't cook my food. Don't whatever." It's about where the expertise comes from. Correct?

Yes. Too often, we're not given the space to shine and to show what we can do. Here in the U.S. especially, I feel like a lot of white chefs are applauded and given a platform for doing the same things that people of color are doing and have been doing. And when you look at their work, a lot of them are seen as innovators, and we don't really get that chance to shine. You know? I think that's what gets left out of the conversation, as well.

I feel like a lot of the different stories behind the dishes and the culture ends up getting left out. It's OK for anybody to make Mexican cuisine as long, as they are acknowledging the roots, and the history and the beautiful culture behind it.

How did you go about adapting certain Mexican ingredients that you couldn't find in an American grocery store?

I feel like when it comes to Chicano cuisine, I feel like the cuisine speaks to our backgrounds, being both Mexican and American. When I was growing up, I would go to Mexico, and my cousins would tease me. They would make fun of me for speaking English. To them, I wasn't Mexican enough. But then here, in the U.S., I would speak Spanish, and to other people, I just wasn't American enough. And I think this applies to not just Mexican-Americans but a whole bunch of different first generation kids: We deal with this issue where we just don't feel like we fit in anywhere. It was really after I really learned to accept that I'm from both places at the same time that I started thriving, and I feel like a lot of the recipes in the book really reflect that.

As an example, instead of using chips, you may use a Dorito. What makes Mexican-American food different from Mexican food?

Honestly, I think it just depends on the influences. As a Chicano, we're all scattered throughout the U.S., so we all have different influences. Another Chicano chef might have more Asian influences than me growing up with Central Americans. All these substitutions are going to vary, depending on the chef and what influences their background.

The first chapter of your book discusses the essentials. One thing you talk about, specifically, are chilies. It might come as a surprise to them chiles do not only make food spicy but also provide a certain depth of flavor. 

I feel like Mexican food is sort of seen as really spicy. And when I was developing the recipes, I didn't realize just how often we cooked with dried chilies. It's not always to give a dish spice, but it gives an extra layer. Oftentimes, it also gives them some added color, as well.

In terms of tortillas, if you're going to shop for a tortilla outside of Mexico, do you have any tips? I know some pre-packaged tortillas, for example, have a lot of additives in them. 

Look for a local tortilleria, first of all. A lot of places luckily now have local places that are making fresh tortillas. Do some research, and see if there's any places out there. But also look at the ingredient list. I feel like a lot of the mass produced tortillas have just so many additives, to where they taste kind of sour. So definitely look for brands that are making smaller batches. And like I said, see if there's any local tortillerias, which surprisingly there are a lot.

There are some really great ones here in New York. There's one I love out in Williamsburg.

Check out your local restaurants, too. A lot of them will sell masa or will sell you tortillas. You just have to ask.

Do the detective work! In the book is, you write about making chile rellenos for your husband. Your mom didn't have the recipe written down. It was in her head. Can you talk about that magic of making those chile rellenos and how that made you realize that food was your thing?

Yes. When I moved up to Humboldt, which was about a 12 hour drive from Southern California — while still being in California — I was isolated from mi familia and I got really homesick really fast. So I would give my mom a call every now and then and try to get recipes out of her. But she would just say, "Add a little bit of this or add a little bit of that." That's how she grew up cooking. She grew up from standing there with my grandma and watching her go through the motions.

When I would give her these calls, it would just leave me super confused about what she was saying. So it wasn't until I actually got into the kitchen and just started putting my hands to work that it just felt natural. I had done the same thing that she did. There were days where I would just sit by the kitchen, and I would just watch my mom cook. And when I got into the kitchen, everything just felt super natural.

You've been in front of food for your entire life. Your grandparents made tacos and queso and sold them. And you have a great memory that you share in the book. One day, your mother couldn't find you. She finally found you leaning over a pot of pozole. How has food been a part of your life since the very beginning?

Growing up, my parents always told us the same stories over and over. I used to get really annoyed as a kid, because I would just be like, "Mom, tell me another story. Tell me something different." And it wasn't until I got to college, where I really started cherishing these stories, because that's what really tied me back to them and really just kept those memories alive.

There was a story that she always used to tell me about . . . Just to give you guys some background, my parents moved here in late '80s. After having me, my mom and I ended up going back to Mexico for a few years while my dad established some roots.

While we were in Mexico, everybody was setting up for a party, and I ended up disappearing. That night, they were going to be making pozole, so there was this big olla pozolera, which is this big pot in which they were going to make the pozole. My mom looked over, and I was in there. I tried running away, and as I was running, I fell out and I cracked open my head. I still have that scar on my forehead to this day, and I've just always thought about how being in the kitchen has been etched into me since I was little.

Cooking connects me to my Mexican American culture and some of my earliest childhood memories with my grandmother in the kitchen and my mom who passed away a few years ago. What are you feeding when you cook?

For that same reason, honestly. Like I was saying earlier, I had a different experience growing up than my siblings did, because my parents were undocumented until I was 21. So I got to go to Mexico by myself a lot of the times. Sometimes it would be with an uncle or an aunt, but most of the time I was sent by myself. And I spent so many months every year just hanging out with my abuelitos.

On my mom's side, my grandparents have always cooked for a living. In the springs, my grandpa would go off to Cuyutlan, to the beach, where he was a sea salt miner. He mined salt every spring, and then when he wasn't doing that, he actually had a taco cart that he would park outside of el jardín, or the little town square. And he would sell tacos de abogado every night. After he had an accident and had to retire, my grandma stepped in. She would make fresh cheeses every single day, which she would go off and sell all over Colima.

And then during the weekends — which she still does — she opens up her backyard. And she sells tacos de papa, or these fried potato tacos. She sells pozole, and she sells sopitos. So she literally opens up her kitchen to our community. And because I've spent so much time with them, I feel like I've embraced the food in a different way. I feel like I view food in a completely different manner. For me, it's not just about nourishment, but it's more about nourishing people's souls through food the way that they do.

I read in the book that you like to throw a dinner party.

Who doesn't?

Do you have any tips for people at home? If they grab a copy of your book, and they're going to invite people over for dinner, what would be your recommendation?

A really good tip is to always find things to make where you can prep them in advance, so that you aren't spending the entire night in the kitchen. I feel like that often happens with my parents. They're hosting Thanksgiving or something, and my mom spends most of the day in the kitchen. So, I feel like prepping in advance and making things that you can either make in the Instant Pot or a slow cooker will really just free up your time.

Especially making cocktails in big batches — that really helps out a lot. I feel like I really tried to do that with a lot of the botanas, which is the appetizer section. It's bunch of really easy, small bites that you can make for friends, for when you're having these get togethers just to make her life easier.

Speaking of cooking in advance, in the essentials section of the book you have sauces, salsas and canned jalapeños. All of those are very simple recipes, but they're also the basis of a lot of more complex dishes. How does mastering these sauces really open up your doors in the kitchen? And those are the kinds of things you should have ready on hand, too. Right?

The essentials features different rice recipes, different bean recipes. I have three different barbecue sauces. We have salsas in there, and then we also have a mole recipe. And I feel like it's really important to master those because, at least when I was growing up, my mom was able to make meals out of them a lot of the times.

My parents didn't have a lot of funds to work with, so they often had to make something out of nothing. And for us, having a pot of beans on the stove simmering every other day was really helpful. So for me, it's really important to master those so that you can always have something in the kitchen.

Also, when I was writing the book, I was writing it for my younger self, who was just learning to cook. These are all of the recipes that I wish I knew how to make when I was calling my mom.

Back to your mom. She was relaying family recipes to you, but they weren't written down. There is a tradition in Mexico and other places in Latin America where recipes are passed down orally. Now, you're documenting them. What does it mean to you to be the person who does that? And why is it important to do that?

There was a lot of pressure, first of all. There's a lot of pressure to get it right. But I think it's really important, because there's a lot of kids who are first-generation, who end up getting stuck not learning a lot about their culture. And I feel like it's really important for them to have these resources to look back into. It's certainly true for the blog. It was really interesting to see just how many people were coming up to me and letting me know that, "Hey, your recipes are really helping me out."

I didn't grow up speaking Spanish. I didn't grow up with a lot of Mexican culture, because my parents really wanted me to assimilate, so I lost all of this. And I feel like it's really important for us to have those resources for these other generations.

When I read your book, I teared up. This is a happy book that is all about joy, but I had never seen anything on a page that truly told an experience or story similar to mine. There it was, the Chicano experience.

We're in the midst of a reckoning in the food industry as a whole. Certain people get to share their voices, and certain don't. Why is it important for more voices like yours to be shared widely?

It's honestly just like you were saying, "It's just so important." If I would've had that growing up, it would have made such a huge impact in my life. Going back to the election and how it made me feel, I remember being in the fifth grade. And I remember there were times where I would go home, and I would just wished that I wasn't brown anymore because of how I saw people treating others and treating my parents. And my dad, specifically, who has been working in construction most of my life, I got to hear all of the comments. My dad never got to understand what people were saying about him.

So for me, it was really ingrained in me. So I remember there were just times where I would go home, and there were times where I would be in the shower. And I would just scrub my skin and just wish for the melanin to just drain from my body, because it was just such a different time.

I feel like it's important for these kids that are growing up now to be able to have someone to look up to, who looked just like them, who are just as queer, who are just as brown, because you don't know what kind of impact you're going to make on their life.

Click here to purchase a copy of "Chicano Eats: Recipes From My Mexican-American Kitchen."

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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