Mexican

What One Blogger Wants You to Understand About Mexican Food

April  3, 2017

At the end of last month, mitú, a digital media company aimed at amplifying Latinx voices, released a video about a blogger named Esteban Castillo. Castillo, a 27-year-old based in Southern California, is one of the more exciting food bloggers I've come across in recent memory. Since last year, he's been maintaining Chicano Eats, a blog with an aesthetic that's lively, appealing, and quietly subversive. It's a blog with recipes for Baked Crema Mexican Donuts and Mole Brownie Tarts. Castillo pairs photographs of these dishes with short vignettes, conveying where they fit within the fabric of his life as a queer Chicano man.

In the video, Castillo succinctly explains how he’s seen Mexican food presented by most of food media, a landscape he felt didn’t speak to him, as it implied that a casual dash of lime juice or the addition of avocado made a dish "Mexican." When I saw the video, I was pretty smitten with Castillo’s sensibility. Consider it a finely-calibrated, kind-hearted screw you to existing norms, relayed with sincerity. He wants to offer a reclamation of Mexican food, his family's own food, through his aesthetic—loud, bold, without apology.

Last week, I spoke to Castillo via email about the genesis of Chicano Eats, and where he hopes it’s headed with its newfound attention. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our correspondence. If you haven’t read Chicano Eats yet, I’d start now; you're likely to see a lot more of him. (It should go without saying that his Instagram is breathtaking.)

Crema Mexicana and Pickled Jalapeño Deviled Eggs and Spicy Matador. Photo by Esteban Castillo

MAYUKH SEN: I want to know more about your upbringing, and the role food played in it. What food did you grow up eating?

ESTEBAN CASTILLO: I grew up in Southern California, and growing up I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. We were raised in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, so we only ever had Mexican food.

My parents always struggled to make ends meet, so we never got toys for Christmas or lavish birthday parties. But my mom always managed to make the most out of nothing, and she always had a really great meal on the table for us, because food is the heart of our culture. Not only do we have many dishes tied to many stories and traditions, but food also shapes our identity as Mexicans. In our culture, recipes are earned. 

MS: When did you decide to start Chicano Eats, and for what reason?

EC: Chicano Eats is a project I had been wanting to start for a really long time. I started dabbling in writing about food when I was in college, where I was part of a bilingual Latinx newspaper, El Leñador. During my time there, I served as the Art Director and also had a food column where I showcased recipes from different parts of Latin America. It wasn’t until I started paying attention to who was blogging about Mexican food and how it was being talked about that my partner really pushed me to launch the blog.

Rum Coconut Tres Leches Cake and Mole Vinaigrette Chicken Tostadas. Photo by Esteban Castillo

MS: What are the fundamental ways in which the mainstream American consciousness, for lack of better phrasing, mischaracterizes Mexican food?

EC: I feel like the mainstream tends to reduce Mexico to a few ingredients: limes, jalapeños, avocados, and cilantro. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen white food bloggers add one of these to a dish and label it “Mexican.”

A good example is the Pioneer Woman’s recipe for a “Mexican Fruit Cocktail with Sweet Lime Yogurt.” When you take a look at the ingredients, you start to wonder what it is that makes this fruit cocktail “Mexican.” It’s easy to forget that Mexico is a beautiful country filled with different flavor profiles and influences from all over the world. These narratives being perpetuated by influencers start to erase our very own.

Sopa de Letras. Photo by Esteban Castillo

MS: Speaking from one brown queer food writer to another, I know it's easy to feel alienated or unwelcome in the food world. Is there a specific time when you felt especially marginalized because of these very aspects of your identity in the food world?

EC: I think we’re constantly marginalized in the food world as people of color. People don’t think politics and race come into play when it comes to food, but my white counterparts are more likely to be seen as innovators and more likely to be celebrated for introducing the same recipes our culture has been holding onto for centuries.

Lorraine Chuen summarized our griefs perfectly when she said the following: “White folks have the power to torment, often without consequence; but the special thing about White people is that they also have the power to make a trip to your home country for a month or maybe twelve, get inspired, and dictate when your previously unpalatable dishes suddenly become socially acceptable, trendy, and profitable in the Western world. And inevitably, with the popularization of certain ethnic dishes, comes erasure.”

Cara Cara Orange Mezcal Sour. Photo by Esteban Castillo

There are so many bloggers building their careers around a few experiences and trips they might have had without ever truly experiencing or being immersed in Mexican culture. Rick Bayless is a prime example of someone who has built an empire and has set himself as an authority in a culture that is not his own. 

MS: How do you want to counter these latent prejudices with Chicano Eats?

EC: I’d like to think I’m helping counter our marginalization by creating visibility and providing context and history behind authentic dishes—and also just by being myself unapologetically. If anyone ever happens to stumble on my blog, I want them to leave with a little more knowledge.

Chocomíl cupcakes. Photo by Esteban Castillo

MS: In a food media landscape that's saturated with so many pristine, clean-cut photographs shot in handsome test kitchens, your aesthetic is quite distinct—and appealing. Where did you derive inspiration from?

EC: To be very honest, I was very unsure of the direction I wanted to go with when I initially started the blog, and you can tell that by the first few posts I have up. It wasn’t until I started to introduce color that I started feeling fulfilled.

When I was in art school, I gravitated towards typography, works that came out of the Bauhaus. I was also very inspired by artists like Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy. In particular, Albers’ “Homage to the Square” has been so influential in how I approach and work with color.

El Vampiro and Tejuino. Photo by Esteban Castillo

I told myself I was going to limit myself to the colors in my logo—red, yellow, and blue—but I ended up introducing a fourth, orange, because I find it to such a sexy color to work with.

MS: Where do you see the project going?

EC: Chicano Eats is my creative outlet and I plan to keep introducing people to authentic Mexican dishes and their backstories—I also want to keep infusing traditional Mexican flavors into American classics as an homage to my identity as a Chicano. I also hope this blog leads to me opening my own design studio one day.

Follow along with Chicano Eats here.

28 Comments

janet May 11, 2018
idk, for a guy who is angry about mexican food cultural appropriation....it speaks volumes that he is using a mccormick taco seasoning mix. <br /><br />i for one am sick of people being angry over absolutely everything. we cannot even like food now, because pioneer woman or rick bayless have 'stolen' the culture and have no appreciation. give me a break!
 
Loves F. April 10, 2017
Great article / interview! Love Esteban's point of view and his blog. And also, these comments insane... clearly, based on the anger from these readers, Esteban needs to keep it up and not let those types of people (once again and again and again) try to silence a voice from the Latinx/POC/LBGTQ community. We need more articles like this, more food writers like Esteban, and more people in this community need to open their minds!
 
scruz April 4, 2017
j0rge, dear, that is not my channel. it is a mexican woman, who in spanish, cooks and gives her recipes to us all. esteban's blog is very stylish, clean and well done. he is cute. i'm glad he has found a partner in life. he has graduated from college. he gets to travel. he has enough money and time to do so. he should be happy and content. instead he is angry. there are so many other youtube channels and blogs done by people who have less in their lives that are uplifting. i'm here to learn cooking.
 
RanchoGordo April 4, 2017
It's interesting to read this article and then to read the comments. <br />I got no sense of anger from the article but the comments are quite heated. <br />
 
Thelma April 4, 2017
Exactly! The fact that everyone is focusing on one mention of Bayless or Pioneer Woman is ridiculous and missing the point all together. If folks really love food and cooking, let's celebrate the new voices who truly feel an affinity for their food and culture.
 
Ileana M. April 10, 2017
Agreed.
 
scruz April 4, 2017
i too won't be checking in as often. running angry gay ethnic anti everyone who is successful in a bitter attempt at more viewership/readership is not why i am here. there must be other hotline out there that i can look at. i don't need to know your gender/sexuality/political leanings to cook. i appreciate his authenticity but not the anger that is shown in this interview. adios, friends.
 
Jorge April 4, 2017
This after you plug your Youtube channel? Okay. Bye.
 
Kitspy April 4, 2017
Thank you for highlighting this beautiful blog. Part of learning about other cultures' foods is understanding and respecting their history and how these foods fit into peoples' families and lives. I found Esteban's commentary enlightening and insightful. I look forward to following his blog, with all its stunning photos. I'm living for the Rum Coconut Tres Leches Cake photos!
 
susan G. April 4, 2017
White bread America has come a long way in loving foods that are outside the palate it was raised with. If it takes a Taco Bell as a starting point, the door has been opened to want the real thing. Some of us want that 'real thing,' in our own kitchens, and I am grateful to the people who brought us to this point. The more sources - blogs, books, videos, etc - we have, the doors and kitchens open up to us and we can make them our own. Now, off to look at his blog and make that soup.
 
SKK April 4, 2017
Quit with the digs about Pioneer Woman - it undermines the message you seem to want to send. And I hear your anger.
 
RanchoGordo April 4, 2017
Anger? <br />So she made a very sloppy recipe and title. If you're working very hard to learn about and share Mexican food and culture, what do you think the correct response should be, if not this?
 
Timothy R. April 3, 2017
Why not just focus on the merits of his really good cooking instead of fabricating outrage to bring attention to his blog? Isn't that getting old as well?
 
scruz April 3, 2017
it's jauja cochina mexicana. maybe this time the computer won't change it.
 
scruz April 3, 2017
for a great youtube channel on authentic mexican cooking, look at jauja cochina mexica. wonderful videos and recipes. and no anger. just great cooking.
 
RanchoGordo April 4, 2017
Also check out Cocina Identidad, it's incredible.
 
Jorge April 3, 2017
Why do some of you white people defend Rick Bayless like he's your almighty patron saint of all Mexican cuisine? You flock to his defense as though he's being attacked. He's not the authority of Mexican cuisine nor will he ever be. Accept it. Has he helped introduce you to Mexican cuisine? Perhaps. But he didn't introduce me to anything new and he hasn't done anything for my culture. And for the record, I might feel less guilty about criticizing Mr. Bayless if his foundation gave back to the culture that he "borrows" his recipes from instead of organic farming. Tell me how organic farming is going to benefit the many cities in Mexico he's visited and "borrowed" his recipes from? Tic. Toc. Tic. Toc. So you can all talk about your celebrated gringos all you want but it doesn't change the fact that our society has many issues when it comes to deciding who can be the "authority" on ethnic food and who can't. Oh for the people who mentioned Bayless and his 40 plus years of love for Mexican cuisine and culture, there was also another name that started around the same time as Bayless, Zarela Martinez, a Mexican woman. PBS dropped her and stuck with Bayless who you now claim to be the "authority" of Mexican cuisine. So as you sit behind your computer thinking of what to say in response to my comment, I'll ask you this, "why do you feel the need to defend Rick Bayless so much?" Can't a person have an opinion about their culture and their food without having to have someone shove their opinion and views down my throat? It is after all, my culture we're talking about.
 
eleise April 4, 2017
I don't recall anyone claiming Rick Bayless is the patron saint of Mexican cooking. Nor did anyone claim he is THE authority, just one of many. I just think throwing someone who has benefited world knowledge of indigenous cooking under the bus, furthermore shaming him for profiting from his passion is wrong headed and borders on a type of creepy ethnic censorship. Do you understand the conclusion of your logic ends at a place where only people who fit into a narrow description based on birthplace and skin color should be considered expert and are worthy of carrying the mantel? This is fascist thinking, like it or not.
 
eleise April 4, 2017
Lastly, this is a public forum, open for comments. To accuse people who politely respond with their own opinions as 'shoving things down' your throat because it's 'your culture' is ridiculous. Just call a spade a spade; You don't like my opinion and I'm fine with that. Your strident attempt to shut people who disagree with you down is contemptible.
 
Jorge April 4, 2017
By the same token, one could argue that to deny someone the opportunity to be the authority of their own ethnic food because they happen to be Mexican is wrong. I mean that is your logic and therefore where they are born shouldn't matter. BUT guess what? It does. Our society is a racist society. the problem here isn't Bayless. It's the fact that we can't have someone celebrated just as much as Bayless who actually represents their own culture and Bayless as well. Yet if I ask you to name one Mexican chef who's been able to capitalize on Mexican cuisine the way Bayless has you would struggle to give me a name. Do you understand that there is a serious problem in our society that has a lot to do with this idea that white people are the ultimate authority of ethnic cuisine? So, please save your comments about how Bayless shouldn't be discriminated against because he's white. I don't need a lecture on racism from someone defending Rick Bayless. At the end of the day what he's doing is called cultural appropriation. I'm not trying to shut you down. I'm merely making a point. Let me know what else you'd like to say to defend Bayless cuz I'm sure you'll have plenty more to say in his defense. You should work for him. Shut you down? Who's trying to shut you down? On the contrary, I welcome your comments.
 
Jason0771 April 14, 2017
I remember Zarela's restaurant in NYC and her famous arroz cremoso. Delightful. But I don't remember PBS switching her out for Bayless. Let's see --I wonder if her son Aarón Sánchez could be this chef you're talking about. Oh wait --they had to cover up his tattoos the other night when he appeared as the Gingerbread Man on that other imperialist chef's show on Fox, Gordon Ramsey's Master Chef Junior.
 
eleise April 3, 2017
Rick Bayless doesn't throw lime on a dish and call it Mexican. He is passionate about Mexico and its food and is deeply knowledgeable about both. So is Diana Kennedy, another celebrated gringo who is a Mexican food expert. Identity politics have a place in food, but heart and common sense should have a much bigger place. We all benefit when knowledgeable people share their passion and laser focus.
 
Jason0771 April 3, 2017
I don't get something. Because Rick Bayless wasn't immersed in Mexican culture, according to your standards (he's white and now privileged), he can't represent Mexican cuisine and food that he loves? Did he take my food away from me?
 
melissa April 3, 2017
Here we go one more time<br />Everybody's feeling fine<br />Here we go now<br /><br />Yes yes yes here we go<br />'N SYNC has got the flow<br /><br />Bounce your head to the beat<br />We've got everything you need<br />Here we go now<br /><br />Yes yes yes here we go<br />'N SYNC has got the flow<br /><br />Here we go just one more time<br />And everybody is feeling fine<br />Here we go now<br /><br />Here we go, yeah<br /><br />If you want to party with us<br />Just feel free and feel the rhythm<br />Here we go now<br /><br />Here we go<br /><br />You know the party's here<br />Sing - a - long and have no fear<br />'N SYNC is here to make you people scream<br />Now the the time for us to reunite<br />Come on party people<br />There's a party going on tonight<br /><br />Tonight is the night<br />Everything is going to be alright<br /><br />Just get up, feel the flow<br />And here we go<br /><br />[CHORUS]<br /><br />Let's sing it one more time<br />Everybody's feeling fine<br />We got the skills<br />To keep this party pumpin' baby<br />Keep dancin' all night long<br />Until the break of dawn<br />Come on party people<br />There's a party going on tonight<br /><br />Tonight is the night<br />Everything is gonna be alright<br />Just get up, feel the flow<br />And here we go<br /><br />[CHORUS]<br /><br />[BRIDGE]<br /><br />[CHORUS]
 
melissa April 3, 2017
Thanks for sharing this! I have been wanting to explore Mexican food through a lens other than Rick Bayless -- this is a good place to start.
 
E April 3, 2017
Love this! And love learning about a new blog! Looks great so far at first glance, excited to pore over it later.
 
Whiteantlers April 3, 2017
Bravo to you and Mr. Castillo! I saw the "add one ingredient and make the dish 'ethnic'" b.s. back in the Betty Crocker days. Add curry powder and that made a dish 'Indian,' even if it was tuna casserole. Add soy sauce and slivered almonds and it became 'Oriental,' using pineapple made something 'Hawaiian' and so on. <br /><br />The blog is visually stunning. I thank you for the introduction and my thanks again to you and Esteban for being yourselves!
 
Matilda L. April 3, 2017
Thanks for introducing me to a new blog--I love the aesthetics and I love what Esteban Castillo says about being yourself and how that reflects everything he does.