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September 1, 2020
How Do You Decolonize the Taco?

Writer Javier Cabral and chef Jocelyn Ramirez talk jackfruit carnitas and why “calling in” can be an act of love.

As the journalist and the taquera come together on Zoom on a bright Los Angeles morning, the conversation moves easily from horticulture and plant-based tacos to slightly meatier topics: “casual” racism, call-out vs. call-in culture, and the moving target of all subjects: the long-term health of restaurants and food trucks in America’s greatest food town, Los Angeles.

Javier Cabral and Jocelyn Ramirez were each born and raised in LA—Javier in the San Gabriel Valley and Boyle Heights, Jocelyn in South Gate—and they have grown into two of the city’s most prominent figures in food and media. Cabral is the editor of independent food and culture publication L.A. Taco and associate producer of Las Crónicas del Taco, a series on Netflix chronicling the cultural history of the taco. Ramirez is a chef and founder of Todo Verde, a plant-based and community oriented catering company inspired by her Mexican and South American roots serving the Eastside of LA. A fixture at local farmers’ markets, Ramirez was ready to open her first brick-and-mortar location this year before the pandemic. She’s also the author of La Vida Verde, a pioneering book filled with plant-based recipes and ideas with links to Mexico and beyond.

As part of a new series of conversations that we’re publishing on TASTE, taking inspiration from Andy Warhol’s Interview, we’re asking leading voices in food to sit down and have a conversation about the topics that are most important to them. We feel really lucky that Cabral and Ramirez accepted our invitation to talk on August 18. The conversation tackles LA’s economic recovery, Javier’s vision for L.A. Taco, and how Jocelyn’s plant-based ethos comes to life in creative ways. 

JAVIER: Hi Jocelyn, it was good to see you in your community garden.

JOCELYN: Yeah, my garden is on the same block that Javi lives on in Highland Park, so we see each other all the time.

JAVIER: Yeah, or as we call it, “Highland Parque.” It’s definitely an interesting neighborhood because, outside of Boyle Heights, it’s pretty much ground zero for gentrification. It’s been on the news a lot for the families that are moving in here and for the residents that have been here, and so the neighborhood is wrestling [with that] right now, but there is this community garden, right off the main road, and Jocelyn has a plot of land there. I walk every day, and I see her raised bed thriving. How has gardening been, Jocelyn? As someone who abides by a plant-based lifestyle, what made you want to pick up gardening and planting your own food?

JOCELYN: Gardening is something that is deeply rooted in my family—for lack of a better term. And growing up with my grandparents around meant that they lived on a big plot of land in Canoga Park [in LA], and they grew tons of food. When they migrated here, they brought a lot of that tradition with them. And so, growing up, that meant we were picking all the time—my grandfather would throw us up in his fig tree to grab all the figs. Or we would cut down caña and chew on the sugarcane. We would go get chiles from the garden and bring them in to my abuelita so that she could make a salsa. So for me, it’s just part of the daily routine.

When I started Todo Verde, I just got so busy, it created a disconnection in terms of having enough time to care for these plants—because it really is a commitment to these plants and making sure that they feel nurtured, and that they, in turn, nurture you. So when COVID happened, it really disintegrated all the projects that I was working on with Todo Verde in a matter of a week or two. And I was left there thinking, “What the heck am I gonna do with my time, with my life, how am I going to pivot my business?” I feel like those plants nurture me more than I nurture them. I’m there every day, and honestly, I don’t know where my mental health would be if it wasn’t for that garden plot.

JAVIER: I’ve enjoyed some of the fruits of your labor. You gave me some kale and some sorrel, which was awesome. I know that you released a cookbook. How did you cope with that, as a first-time author, not being able to go on the book tour and still releasing this cookbook in this “once-in-a-hundred-years” thing?

JOCELYN: I mean, I was super disappointed in the whole process. Because, as you know, it’s so much work to get a book off the ground. It’s so much on the back end to get to the point where you have a book that you realize—alright, this is a project I’m working on that’s actually going to get published. But when it finally came out, on April 14, I didn’t have anything planned anymore. I was just like, okay, it’s finally coming out, maybe I’ll do an IG Live if I feel like it, because I feel kind of heartbroken about it. And there was just this immense amount of excitement and gratitude. It came out about a month after COVID really hit, especially here in LA, and I think that people had consumed so much content around coronavirus and were already in a mindset of “Okay, I think we can only take so much of this, we want to be happy about something, we want to see good news,” and then this book came out, and people were just so enthusiastic about it—sending tons of pictures, DMing, already working on the recipes. I was shocked!

JAVIER: If there’s one dish that I think I’ve seen you kind of grow into and become celebrated for, it’s your jackfruit carnitas taco. What does that taco mean to you?

Food is a very polarizing issue, because some people just don’t want to think about what they eat, and they don’t understand that food is political. 

JOCELYN: That taco means a lot. That taco, for me, is this in-between—finding this path of decolonized foodways, but also being somebody who lives this life of post-colonization. Because it’s emulating a pork carnitas taco, and pork is something that was brought to this land post-colonization. It’s trying to find that in-between balance of what people want to eat and what will also help them become more plant-based. Tacos are something that people have been eating for generations and generations, although they didn’t have the carne asada and the carnitas and the things that a lot of people eat nowadays. They likely had more guisados, flor de calabaza, more things that were plant-forward, I would say—and so I’m trying to create this opportunity for people to explore that way of eating.

But if what they’re eating all the time is carnitas and asada and all these things, then what will help bridge that gap? I think jackfruit plays a really important role—for one, it’s an amazing substitute for pork or chicken. It has the texture, and it’s an ingredient that, once you start working with it, you’ll find is really easy to create several dishes. It’s also literally a fruit—so low on the processed-foods spectrum. It’s not like Beyond Meat or these other highly processed meats, it’s a fruit that’s been cut down and jarred. Jackfruit is an ingredient that should be highly celebrated. It grows in Mexico, so I can only imagine, if colonization had never happened, would we be eating jackfruit tacos anyway, you know? Maybe. Perhaps.

JAVIER: I think we’re tiptoeing around the topic that L.A. Taco has really embraced and grown on. Food is a very polarizing issue, because some people just don’t want to think about what they eat, and they don’t understand that food is political. And that’s something that we try our best to explain and break down via, for example, the amazing taqueros or people like you who take a stand on these issues and uses powerful terms like “decolonize foodways” and “decolonize food.” How important is your philosophy of politics and food? Do you make decisions on the things you eat based on who’s the owner, or where did it originate from? At what point do you just chill and eat something, or do you go, like, “Nah, I can’t eat that because blah blah blah.”

JOCELYN: Oh my gosh, Javi, I’m so critical about everything. My partner, he’s not vegan, he’s vegetarian. And he ordered some Nutella, and it came in, and I said, “This is mostly palm oil! Do you know how terrible palm oil is for the planet?” And then I made him watch a video. And it was these monkeys, and their habitats are being broken down because they’re growing palm trees for this palm oil. And so he’s like, “I’m never going to eat Nutella again.” I think, for me, it’s really important to be critical, because there are so many of us. And we are literally messing up this planet. So, to segue, one thing that I’ve seen L.A. Taco do specifically is this “calling in” culture—of hey, there’s this beloved taqueria, who people all over LA love, but there’s this sense of anti-blackness within the culture of that company or that small business. And so it’s like, “Hey, we love what you’re doing, but we need to have a conversation about this.” So I think that L.A. Taco has done a lot of good work, and it doesn’t feel like calling out, it feels like calling in.

JAVIER: Jocelyn, yeah, it’s tough right now. It’s never been harder to cover food. Because people are just on their phones and computers all day, so there really is a lot to process and think and say. There’s a story we published, “This Is Bigger Than Carnitas,” [reporting on] a taquero, a carnitas specialist—I’m sure you know it—Carnitas El Momo, in LA, who was taking a stance on All Lives Matter and personally attacking all the comments that were trying to educate him, without being inflammatory or too offensive. And he would just take a stand, and was just like, “All lives matter, all lives matter.” And that was brought to my attention through several people, and we reached out to him, because he’s actually a partner with L.A. Taco—and he just kind of doubled down on his stances.

The L.A. Taco story was written by Laura Tejeda, an Instagrammer who was taking the time to write all these really nice responses to people and just educating. So I reached out to her and said, “Hey, would you want to write about this? Because you were there taking a stand, not in a reactional way but in a very educational way.” And she was like, “I’ve never written anything before, but I’m down.” So she wrote something, and it turns out that she was a professor or professor’s aide at Cal State LA and ended up doing a really good job with calling him in. We just informed the public, our taco-loving readers, about the situation, because this is a bigger issue in Latino communities that’s really hard to talk about and really awkward—the casual racism, or the deep anti-blackness that can come off in systemic but also not-so-overt ways, and this was the case with El Momo.

It’s polarizing content, because the old-school Latinos who are a little bit more open-minded are going to be like, “Okay, L.A. Taco, I see where you’re coming from,” and then the [even] more old-school Latinos are like, “No, this is freedom of speech and blah blah blah.” And then they’re going to double down. So it’s super complex. In the end, it was a really popular story, and I definitely got a lot of people who were supportive of that. I’ve never received so much support, because it’s tough to talk about these things, especially right now.

JOCELYN: And Javi, you talked about how it could feel polarizing for people to really get into these stories, and right now, I feel like there is a lot of cancel culture that’s happening. It feels like people are just getting bashed, and everybody’s quick to say, “You’re canceled, I’m never going to purchase anything with you again,” and all that. How do you find that fine line where you could have that conversation and find some sort of mutual understanding? You know, an example was the whole Sqirl thing that happened. And everybody was like, “Canceled. Sqirl is canceled forever.” So with L.A. Taco, can it help to bridge that gap where people don’t just immediately cancel folks in the food scene but could help keep the conversation going?

The old-school Latinos who are a little bit more open-minded are going to be like, “Okay, L.A. Taco, I see where you’re coming from,” and then the [even] more old-school Latinos are like, “No, this is freedom of speech and blah blah blah.”

JAVIER: That’s a tough question. But I think the answer to that is just finding facts, and facts that haven’t really been covered before by other publications. So, in that Sqirl case, I knew that Sqirl was about to release their second cookbook, which was focused on jams, so I reached out to Jessica Koslow, I reached out to her agent, I reached out to the publisher. And I was like, “Hey, is the book still coming out?” And again, that’s another approach that I’ve taken with L.A. Taco, kind of taking these local food issues that have national appeal. And I think that whatever happened here was going to set a precedent, because if the publisher decided to move forward, it propels the whole “any press is good press” notion. And to everyone’s shock, it still went forward. And we just published it—the headline was essentially, “Sqirl cookbook is still moving forward with the release date.”

People always ask, “What’s the difference between being a journalist and a Yelper?” And that’s the difference right there, doing the due diligence to reach out to both sides before you jump into this conclusion in all caps that will be retweeted a thousand times. It requires a lot of moral restraint, because it’s so easy right now in cancel culture to publish these sensational headlines, and they’ll get viral, and, you know, that’s how publications get by, by clicks. So there’s a fine line. I’m always a believer that you’re as good as your last story, so just keep on finding other big ones. And you don’t have to be so negative or so viral—so clickbait-y. That’s the word.

JOCELYN: It’s cool because L.A. Taco is all about nurturing and building community in LA. You actually work with these folks over however long it takes, and you’re building up people, and you’re exposing the great things that they’re doing. That’s what I really appreciate about L.A. Taco.

JAVIER: And it’s a lot of work, to be honest! People always ask, “What’s the difference between L.A. Taco and one of these bigger food publications?” And the difference is, I seek out young writers, new writers that haven’t written anything on a professional level before, and invest in them—invest time in them, invest resources, invest money in them, to hear their perspective.

I get invited to USC and these other colleges to do Zoom conversations about journalism, and I start there, I plant the seed there. And I’m like, “Hey, if someone beats you to your story, or if someone beats you to your idea, don’t get discouraged, because that person is going to have their perspective, but your upbringing shifts your perspective, and you’re going to have a completely different one.” It’s kind of like when you give the same recipe to two different people. It’s probably going to taste the same, but there’s going to be little differences. One is going to be soupier, spicier, a little saltier, the other’s going to be not so spicy, a little bland. So that’s kind of what L.A. Taco does, and it’s a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding. I think this year, so far, we’ve published about two dozen new writers. A lot of them are in their twenties or even younger, and they’re all from different backgrounds—and that requires saying, as an editor, “Okay, I can write about this, but this other person can do a much better job. So just give it to them, and relinquish control, and hope for the best.”

I talk too much, so I’ll let Jocelyn finish. Jocelyn is an actual taquera, who actually owns a business. So, Jocelyn, what are you predicting about the future here in LA? What do you want to do, and what are you envisioning?

JOCELYN: It’s such a tough situation. I was really close to signing a lease for a location in Lincoln Heights in March that I had to step away from because I can’t afford to pay for all the construction costs without having any clarity about this situation that we’re all living through right now. I feel like I’ve come too far to make one lousy misstep that’s going to crumble everything. The future seems a bit uncertain for everyone in food, but I also have this sense that if you are doing something that many people throughout the city love, it doesn’t matter if you take a pause, or come back later, or close your shop now but come back in a smaller location. I think that people are becoming a little bit more open-minded about what food and eating out in Los Angeles means.

The fact that people are open to [eating] al fresco, and the fact that more and more people are eating fine dining out of to-go boxes is a really interesting direction. Because it doesn’t have to feel as complicated, you know? Delicious food is still just food, in whatever receptacle it comes to you in. So I almost wonder if we will see some of these restaurateurs that were so anti–street vendors become street vendors. We just don’t know what the future will hold. They’re sitting on these thousand, two-thousand, five-thousand-square-foot spaces and paying tons of rent—how long can that last during this time? The future of food, for me, feels like it needs to come back to what’s most important: the community and the people that are bringing this food to you, and they’re doing it out of pure love for the food and for feeding community.

Matt Rodbard

Matt Rodbard is the editor in chief of TASTE and author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, a New York Times best-seller, and Food IQ: 100 Questions, Answers, and Recipes to Raise Your Cooking Smarts.