Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz is in her 40s now, but she sounds like an eager undergrad on the phone. She gets understandably excited when she’s talking about food and healing—they’re the things she’s dedicated her life to.
Ruiz, who goes by the handle Kitchen Curandera on her website and on social media, is a chef and healer who lives in Phoenix. For most of her adult life she has been learning and sharing her knowledge of cooking and holistic healing methods, drawing from her Indigenous American heritage and the community of traditional healers in Arizona. She operated a restaurant in Phoenix for several years before the recession in 2008 forced her to close up shop and focus on other parts of her career. Since then, she’s been developing plant-based recipes, teaching cooking classes all over the Southwest and giving talks about indigenous foodways and how to revitalize them. She hopes to empower Indigenous Americans and other people of color to embrace healthful ways of eating that reclaim their ancestral foods rather than reinforce colonial diets. I’m a pretty big fan of hers. I talked with Ruiz recently about her career, “superfoods” and using food as medicine. Not included here is her assuring me that yes, she is planning on putting a cookbook together soon—so keep your eyes peeled for that.
Weekly Alibi: You said you’ve been cooking your whole life. Did you learn from your family?
Ruiz: Not really. My mom went back to college when I was in 6th grade and was in school full-time, and I had two siblings. So I was kind of in charge of cooking dinner. I’m almost 47 now so this was a long time ago. I couldn’t hop on the internet and watch YouTube videos on how to cook. I had to go to the library as a young person to take out cookbooks. Thank God I was interested in food! I would watch PBS on Saturday mornings. I would study the techniques and how they held the knife and learn what it meant to sauteé. All these things I totally learned on my own. By the time I was 22 years old I could hold my own in the kitchen.
How did the curandería aspect come into your cooking? Was that something your family historically practiced?
I’ve just always had that in me naturally. My great grandmother was a partera, somebody who would catch babies. And she also would mix up herbs and little potions for people when they weren’t feeling well. She was known throughout Old Town for what she did. We grew up watching that. My sister went on to go to midwifery school and became a midwife, and I went on to massage school and later to learn more about herbs. I’ve always been doing holistic healing. So it’s kind of using all this different knowledge from the East, and from here, the West—our own native medicine. I’ve combined them. I’m really grateful that here in my own community my elders recognize what I do as culinary medicine. It’s kind of complicated to use the word “curandera”—I don’t always introduce myself as a curandera. But if somebody introduces me as such, I have permission from my elders to say that I practice culinary medicine. In curanderismo there’s five branches of healing, and my community made me a sixth branch just so I could properly say what I do.
Your cooking is largely plant-based, right?
Correct. I haven’t eaten beef or pork in about 10 years. I used to be full-on vegetarian, actually for most of my adult life. After I had to close my restaurant I had to kind of reinvent myself in some ways. And so I decided to go back into plant-based cooking 100 percent. I really took it to heart and figured out which meat I still wanted to eat, but a lot of my dishes are pretty much meat and dairy free. That said, I tried elk not too long ago; I had rabbit in the spring. I’m really making an effort to only eat indigenous meat if possible. That kind of meat is usually hunted by a family friend or family member. So you know it wasn’t pumped up with hormones, for one thing. I also don’t like the idea of eating an animal’s fear.
I totally understand that. I know you probably get this question a lot, but what is it like being a woman of color in the largely white space of wellness and vegan cooking?
I guess I feel a deep responsibility as a woman of color, as a brown person more specifically—when I go out and teach or give talks to other people of color, I do my absolute best to never make them feel ashamed if they’re in any type of health disparity—if they have high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes—I never even bring those things up. Because I feel that as a group we’ve been shamed. These problems are systemic—I just try to help people learn how to eat better without making anyone feel ashamed of how they got there. Sometimes in the wellness community dieticians will go and tell people how to change their diet for better health, but they’re coming from a European-American perspective. A white perspective. I come with a message of “Let’s go back to eating more plants, like our ancestors did,” rather than, “We should be vegan.” I don’t tell myself or anyone that I’m vegan or vegetarian. On occasion I do want to eat a piece of turkey or a piece of elk. I think when I’m talking with other people of color, they can ask me questions differently than they can somebody who’s not a person of color. I also don’t use the word vegan because if I tell a group of brown people “we’re going to eat kale and avocados and a papaya salad” and we called it “vegan,” right away they don’t want to eat it. It’s presented as a very white meal, a very privileged meal. But if I said we’re eating ancestral salad … I have to be the messenger, and I try to come with a message of optimism versus shame. So I just tell them that if we want to reclaim our foods we have to be the tellers of our own stories. Because right now with things like purple potatoes and quinoa, we feel like they’re not our foods, even though those are our ancestral foods, they’ve just been marketed a certain way.
I think quinoa is kind of the ultimate example of the indigenous food that white people have come in and made trendy and now it’s suddenly only affordable for the Whole Foods crowd.
The people in the areas where quinoa grows, many of them now can’t even afford it themselves because it’s become such a valuable export. That’s what I always tell people when I’m working with the native community here on the reservation I tell them, “We have access to all of these foods, and if we don’t start eating them, they’re going to turn into ‘superfoods’ and then they’ll be inaccessible to us.” Once they get that label of superfood we’re going to lose control of that food. Because then it starts getting packaged and marketed and shipped far away, and suddenly we’ll find that we can’t afford it ourselves. We have to eat these indigenous foods not just for us, but for our community. Because if we don’t they’re either going to disappear, or somebody’s gonna come in, see the value, then buy the land to do it and totally take it over.
Are there any cool projects you have coming up?
I am still doing work with Partnership With Native Americans. And I’m excited because we finally got another grant, which means I’ll be going to Utah and New Mexico and possibly up to Navajo Nation here in Arizona. I drive this mobile food kitchen all over the Southwest, through all these tiny villages and reservations that are usually not exactly tourist destinations. I was already doing contract work with them, teaching here and there. And one day they told me that they thought I was the perfect person for this job. I literally have to drive this food truck and take it all over to different reservations. [PWNA] provides everything. I come up with all the recipes. And because I also forage, wherever I drive the truck to I take the people that have signed up on a foraging walk—usually with one of the elders of the community, because I don’t know the plants from all over there. I love going foraging because it allows me to learn more each time and also share what I know. So we forage, and then the following day we have a cooking class and it’s 100 percent plant based and it includes about 90 percent ancestral foods. We have a lovely meal together, clean up, pack up the truck and then depending on how far or how late it is we either find a hotel or drive back to Phoenix. It’s great. I’m driving this massive truck and it’s hilarious. I never thought at my age I would be doing something like this but it’s so much fun. I drove that thing all over Arizona the last time for six months until we ran out of grant money. It looks like this time I’m going to Utah and then to Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. It all depends who they have partnerships with in each community. Because we literally bring everything in this truck. It’s got a six-burner stove, a fridge, an oven, everything. We just got new a/c with part of the grant. It doesn’t work great, but it’s better than what we had before, which was nothing.