An Authentic Mexican Dinner for Climate Change Awareness
As a native Texan turned Midwesterner by four cruel winters and cheese curds, I’ve forgotten the taste of authentic Mexican food. Sure, I’ve had elotes from Rogers Park, pickled cauliflower snuggled into my Pilsen bean burrito, and greasy tortas and gorditas, but oh, how I’ve missed those days of cochinita pibil, fried snapper, and grilled chayote with chilis. Fortunately, the Aztecan gods detected this unacceptable absence of Mexican food in my life, and shaking their magical corn ears with fearsome might, blessed me with the fortune of attending a fundraising dinner for Carbon Castaways, a documentary by brothers Aaron and David Soto-Karlin.
Carbon Castaways: Climate Change and Carbon Colonialism
Carbon Castaways “documents the difficulties at the heart of sustainable development and the unwavering pride of Mexico’s indigenous people in their daily struggle for land, ancient traditions and the right to join the globalized world at their own pace.” In particular, the documentary explores California’s carbon deal with Chiapas, a tropical city in Southwest Mexico with a large indigenous population. So what exactly went down in this deal? Well, in an effort to be more environmentally conscious, California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) proposed a plan that essentially allowed the state’s heaviest polluters to buy carbon credits from Chiapas to compensate for their pollution. This plan did not bode well for communities dependent on the forest, especially indigenous farmers now faced with potential land conflict, eviction, and the loss of their livelihood.
Although they’re politically sexy, forest carbon deals rarely play out well for the indigenous communities since many of these deals are developed without prior free and informed consent. Gullible natives sign contracts in English, and wind up getting shot by armed forces for “trespassing” on their own land. Aljazeera contributor Manuela Picq writes:
“Displacing peoples and destroying forests is at best a form of land-grabbing and at worst carbon colonialism. It dispossesses farmers from their land, violates indigenous rights to self-determination over their territory, and disrupts ancestral relationships between peoples and forests. It destroys indigenous cultures and monocultures destroy biodiversity.”
With the help of his filmmaker brother David, Aaron Soto-Karlin created Carbon Castaways “as a tool for social change and forum for integrating those most affected by climate change into the global policy discourse.” But Aaron wasn’t that white man who marched into an indigenous village with his film crew to produce an Oscar-worthy documentary. Before any camera started rolling, he performed a year of community service and community organizing to gain the trust of the community. For their fundraiser dinner, Aaron and David collaborated with Chef Nancy Garces-Grabowsky, a native Mexican who not inherited some serious culinary chops from her family’s matriarchs, but who also participated in peace campaigns for indigenous communities in Southern Mexico.
Chef Nancy and the Fundraising Dinner
Nancy is the owner and founder of Wisely Fed (a branch of Tree of Lifestyle), using her educational background in nutrition to create customized meal plans and diets for clients. With her nature-loving, scarf-a-flowin’ yoga spirit, she totally reminded me of Pocahontas. Maybe it was because she was cooking delicious food, but I immediately liked her after our initial introduction. With her adorable Mexican accent, disarming smile, and gracious disposition, she paced about the kitchen in a flowy green dress and a sparkly pink sash.
Located at Company in Evanston, the event was small and intimate, mostly friends and family members of the hosts (aka Jewish mothers, adorable sister-in-laws, and liberal journalist friends). Despite being the oddball, I never felt excluded as everyone was extremely friendly and curious about my writing endeavors. Instead of bullshitting over small-talk, I had serious intellectual conversations with David and Aaron about anthropology, modern colonialism, and race. By the time we had essentially concluded that the world was a cruel place marked by ruthless injustice, I was positively starving (because nothing whets the appetite like human oppression).
As rich aromas wafted from the kitchen into the dining space, I sipped on tazcalate, a chocolate drink common in Chiapas. Compared to sexy Oaxacan moles and scrumptious Guadalajaran tortas, Chiapas cuisine is quite underrated for its impressive level of complexity. The region is particularly known for two aromatic herbs: hoja santa (often used to wrap tamales) and chipilin (actually categorized as a weed in the US). Our enormous tasting menu consisted of:
- Vegetarian saffron tamales stuffed with olives and pine nuts, baked in Hoja Santa leaves, served on a plantain leaf with ancho chile and sesame seeds
- Roasted beets with caramelized onions, wild honey, queso fresco sautéed in sesame oil
- White fish ceviche marinated in grapefruit and mint vinaigrette, blue corn tostada, fresh oregano and cilantro
- Theobrama Soup: roasted cacao infused with rice milk, toasted peanut, and pumpkin seeds garnished with cinnamon stick
- Vegan Squash soup with toasted chipilín bread and sautéed carrots
- Roasted lamb marinated in cacao sauce, pomegranate seeds
- Rainbow trout with mango sauce
- Grilled nopales, black beans, and watercress with lemon dressing and oregano, chia, queso azul
- Roasted corn with hearts of palm, spinach, and Simojovel dressing (wild honey, guava, Anis)
- Flan de café, fragrant Rosa Petal glace
- Mamey ice-cream with baked coconut and cotton candy
- Tazcalate: Corn, cinnamon, rum cacao, zest of axiote
- Zapote water
- Chiapas coffee
I admittedly have a natural aversion to subtle flavors (the more onions, garlic, and chilis you can throw onto food, the better), but Nancy’s dishes left me want for naught. Stuffed with the briny olives and earthy pine nuts, the savory tamale completely revolutionized my palette. The bittersweet ancho-chile mole paired so devastatingly well with the aromatic plantain leaf that I literally had to hold back tears of joyous wonder. The theobrama (cacao) soup tasted like salted chocolate soup—not overly sweet with just the right hint of peanut. And it didn’t taste like melted Ghirardelli or Cadbury’s crap; this chocolate was savory, earthy—almost volcanic. The chipilín bread, a dense mound of heaven stuffed with pepitas, also left my tastebuds in fantastic bewilderment. This rosemary-like herb added an incredible level of depth to the honey, whole-wheat bread, which was further enhanced by coarse salt on its thick, warm crust. I also had my first bite of grilled nopales (prickly pear), which tasted like green beans with the sticky texture of okra.
The meticulous use of spices and herbs truly impressed me in that the flavors actually complemented one another. The sesame oil with roasted beets paired incredibly with the cilantro, and even the black beans, often bathed in the ubiquitous mix of lime juice and cumin, carried a delicious herby undertone. The savory mango sauce, sautéed with chicken juice and yogurt, tasted divine with the lemony, smoky trout. Oftentimes chefs throw garnishes and random herbs all over the fucking place, either because it’s trendy or because it’s aesthetically pleasing. But every component Nancy utilized made sense, resulting in spectacular dishes that tasted traditional yet modern, simple yet complex. As someone who has consumed a fair share of different foods, I can confidently say that Nancy’s technique and level of flavors rival some of the best chefs in Chicago. Because the secret to extraordinary food isn’t a fancy culinary degree—it’s love, and a lot of it.
Toward the end of the night, I hung out with Nancy and the filmmakers in the kitchen, liberally snacking on roasted almonds and pouring ourselves extra servings of squash soup. As we laughed, talked, and ate over roasted lamb and pomegranates, I suddenly became rather philosophical. Because somewhere in Chiapas, an indigenous family was probably eating something very similar to our meal, probably also enjoying the company of their friends and family. But unlike my rich-ass suburban self, they’re stuck in some political and economic shithole. In any case, I shalln’t dwell on pity—instead, I’ll strive to learn more about foreign policies regarding developing countries, about climate change, about different cultures across the world with complex histories and rich traditions.
For a Guernica interview with the Soto-Karlins on carbon trading in Chiapas, click here!
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