“What I ask of consumers is to be discerning and actually learn about what is going on out in the world,” said 43-year-old chef and food activist Neftalí Durán. Since moving to the United States from Mexico in 1997, the culinary guru has attempted to do just that: educate the public in matters of agriculture, sustainability and ecology, as seen through a gastronomic prism. Durán is also the co-founder of I-Collective, a group of Indigenous cooks, educators and activists seeking to raise awareness around Indigenous food movements. In this Voices in Food story told to Anna Rahmanan, Durán looks deep into the issues that have plagued the American agriculture system while offering solutions that he hopes will give rise to a fairer and more sustainable future.
It’s hard to describe Indigenous cuisine because it would involve putting all the ingredients and cultures of the world in a bucket. I am from Oaxaca, Mexico, and, for me in particular, Indigenous cuisine is the foundation of Mexican food and [specifically] involves corn, beans, squash and chili. It’s important that we keep the cuisine alive because Indigenous people care for 80% of the biodiversity of the world, although making up only 5% of the global population.
Although taking care of biodiversity should be a collective responsibility, it is sadly not a part of the colonizer’s culture and it doesn’t benefit capitalism. A specific example: In Oaxaca, we have over 100 varieties of heirloom corn that have been cared for by local communities and families for 10,000 years. The diversity of that corn is important and essential not only to the people of Oaxaca but the people of the world. But what we’re facing, especially in recent decades, is the corn market in Mexico being flooded with U.S.-subsidized corn that is cheaper. The consequences of that, along with policies like [the North American free trade agreement], are migration and the loss of community links. It’s all connected.
What I ask of consumers is to be discerning and actually learn about what is going on out there in the world. There are different things we can do: We can choose, if able to, to explore more local foods. But we also live in a global society and a global food system, so if you eat at a restaurant — especially a fancy Mexican restaurant — you’ll notice a trend of corn coming all the way from Oaxaca to here. It is great for us to be able to try it, but is it sustainable? Is it actually a good thing in the long run if you are taking corn that should actually be eaten by local communities there?
Another example involves mezcal, which is made from the agave plant. We have seen a huge mezcal boom recently. Based on the variety, the agave plant can take up to five, 25, 30 years to mature. We’re talking about a very delicate ingredient. What is happening right now is that most of the industry and mezcal companies are owned by people in the United States, which means it doesn’t actually financially benefit communities in Oaxaca. A very low percentage of producers are Indigenous people from Oaxaca.
Another layer to the story involves monocrops. People are usually growing espadin, [the most common type of agave, when making mezcal] because it takes the shortest amount of time to mature. But that is not good for the soil because if you’re clear-cutting fields to plant only one kind of agave, you are monocropping and therefore not using an Indigenous system. People can easily plant in-between the espadin, but that is not happening. Planting agave also requires water, which means that people are drilling wells deeper and deeper into the soil. The whole of Oaxaca is going to run out of water if it’s not running out of it now.
As a consumer, I want everyone to be aware that you can choose to drink mezcal but if you’re going to drink mezcal, I want you to at least consider supporting a local producer. And if you are going to continue drinking mezcal in the long run, know that there is an extractive system that is going to deplete the soil for future generations of Indigenous people in Oaxaca.
To help the situation, the U.S. government should stop plotting international markets with aid, which often comes in the form of food. Instead, the government should start investing in local food movements. Here is one thing that we have learned last year from the pandemic: The food system as it is right now, and it is for profit, doesn’t work and it is very fragile. If the society as a whole invests in local food systems, it is going to be better for everyone in the long run. There is absolutely no reason that there should be talks about running out of meat in the U.S. It doesn’t make any sense.
I am not going to say that I am happy with the government because, at the end of the day, it is a colonial government that doesn’t serve Indigenous purposes and Indigenous sovereignty. One of the only ways to measure President Joe Biden is to see what his priorities are when the farm bill comes around.
In Mexico, we still have people working for very little money and not per hour. In the U.S., there are at least some labor protection laws, although still not enough. A great majority of people that work in the restaurant industry here, that touch any food we eat, still don’t have enough money to buy food at the end of the month, so there is something wrong with this picture.
I think that we are learning lessons that come from pain. For example: The Me Too movement has been essential in actually talking about some of the vices of the restaurant industry. The pandemic itself has been essential in understanding the way we pay people that work in kitchens and how it is not sustainable. Every restaurant around the country is looking for workers and nobody wants to go back to work for [these] wages. Overall, as someone who has spent a lifetime in the restaurant industry, of course I am not surprised that a lot of restaurants are going to shut down. The fact that people from Oaxaca are the backbone of the restaurant industry in the U.S. and during the pandemic a lot of my community did not have any access to financial help ― it’s not going to work.
We are starting to see a shift and I don’t know if it’ll be a sustained shift, but companies recognize they need to do better when it comes to treating and paying people fairly and having restaurant chains that are safe to work for. That includes everything from safe working conditions to vacation time to fair wages.
The other thing that I hope is that the restaurant industry in the future will have a big influx of not just Indigenous people but also Blacks and other people of color, restaurateurs that come with a new mentality to shift the system. A good example of how the restaurant industry is shifting is the fact that the James Beard Foundation put out a statement [recently] recognizing racism and other things that are wrong with the system. Hopefully, there will be some shift in the future.