New Cookbook Explores the Vegan Roots of Mexican Cuisine

For Dallas chef Eddie Garza, cooking without meat is about health – and about celebrating Meso-American cultural traditions.

By Reynaldo Leanos Jr. February 27, 2017 1:22 pm

It’s safe to say you probably know someone who doesn’t eat meat. Vegetarianism has been around for a long time. But over the past decade or so, more people are taking the diet and lifestyle choice even further by going vegan. That involves eliminating all animal products – including dairy and often honey. With the growing number of adherents, veganism has become a rapidly expanding industry.

A cookbook author from the Rio Grande Valley is jumping into the business by helping people go vegan while connecting to the traditional foods of their Mexican ancestors.

Eddie Garza is a renowned Dallas chef. But today, he’s visiting family in Brownsville and preparing a big meal. These are traditional Mexican dishes…with a twist.

“So today we’re going to be making enchilada suizas with a plant based chicken and we’re using some poblano peppers, some onions. And like a lot of enchilada suizas it’s all about the dairy element, so we’re doing a plant based cheese. And a Mexican red rice.” he says.

Garza is a lifelong lover of cooking, and has been a vegan for about 13 years. For him going vegan meant collecting – and creating – recipes. Lots of them. He recently compiled them into the !Salud! Vegan Mexican Cookbook. But it’s more than a collection of kitchen how-tos. Garza dives into the hidden histories of his ingredients. Take what he’s preparing for dinner tonight.

“Why is something called enchilada suizas? It’s not the kind of enchiladas they eat in Switzerland, right? It’s the kind of enchiladas that were introduced to Mexican cuisine by the Swiss immigrants who brought in dairies. And they were the ones who were responsible for introducing a lot of the cheesy dishes.” he says.

Garza’s fascination with cooking and food began when he was a kid. He spent hours in the kitchen with his grandmother. But his passion eventually turned into a problem.

“I used to be a very obese person. I was eating a lot of things that didn’t make sense for who I am, like if I go back and look at my ancestry.“ Garza says.

At his heaviest Garza was a little more than 300 pounds. So he started to reconsider his diet. And explore the Mexican diet of the past.

“The majority of the food that was cultivated in Mexico during the Meso-American times (was) corn, it was beans, it was squashes and chiles.” says Garza.

He says he quickly realized that those ‘traditional’ Mexican meals he grew up with weren’t actually that traditional at all. “A lot of the people who would come in from Europe into Mexico thought that the people in Mexico, had really beautiful bodies because they were proportionate. But then after the introduction of using a lot of lard, using a lot of pork, and other animal products certainly not the case in Mexico these days.”

In recent years the obesity rate in Mexico has surpassed that of the U.S. making it one of the fattest countries in the Americas. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates 67 percent of people in Mexico are obese. But the U.S. is right behind it. According to a 2014 report from the Journal of American Medicine about 42 percent of Hispanics in America are obese.

Garza decided to make healthier choices, and eventually became vegan. He says it’s helped him slim down. But it’s also helped him stay true to his culture. Now he wants to share the vegan Mexican recipes he’s discovered in hopes others embrace them too. Part of Garza’s vegan evangelism is sharing his creations with his family.

Tonight his grandmother mom aunt and cousins are all gathered around the dinner table. And his message seems to be getting through. Garza’s aunt Silvana Robinson says she’s adopted some of her nephew’s vegan ways – but she’s yet to fully convert.

“I’ve done a couple of dishes here and there. We try, we try really hard. We may go one, or two days without eating meat, but then it’s like ugh.” Says Robisnson.

One thing Robinson is doing is introducing more vegetables to her children, but that’s not always easy. “Christopher doesn’t eat too many vegetables, so that’s kind of difficult. But Nicki and I, we love salads, we love all types of vegetables we’re game.”

As dinner continues the family talks about what they’ve all been up to, they share memories and they share praise for the food in front of them. Garza’s 87-year-old grandmother Maria Soledad Benavidez is sitting across from him at the dinner table. She says she’s proud of her grandson’s culinary successes and how he’s not afraid to try new things. Like when he was little.

“He’d always see me in the kitchen and he’d ask, ‘may I help you grandma?’ And I’d say, ‘no, no it’s okay I can do it.’ But he’d respond and say, ‘But I can too’. So I’d let him join me.” she says.

As dinner the family begins saying their goodbyes and heads home. Garza begins the clean-up and says he’s happy to show his relatives how to create healthier Mexican food. But what he loves most about cooking are moments like these, when family comes together to share.
In Brownsville,