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Illustration of two women looking at each other while in the foreground, a molcajete containing peppers, tomato, and onion sits. Purslane leaves surround the molcajete. Yeti Iglesias

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My Mother, Her Verdolagas, and Me

Considered by some to be an invasive weed, generations of Mexican cooks have harnessed the power of purslane — including those in my family

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With the Turkish novela Amor Prohibido playing on my mom’s iPad, we settled into our kitchen roles. My mom led the way, as she sauteed diced tomatoes and onions. My two-year-old nephew, who already speaks better Spanish than I do, stood by my mom’s side asking to be carried. “Abu, alzar,” he said, motioning with his arms to be hoisted up. (“Abu” is short for abuelita.) My youngest brother, who’s keen on taking food and family photos, captured my mom’s tomatillo salsa resting on the molcajete where she had just ground the chiles and tomatillos. As my mom’s sous chef, I washed greens, removed limp leaves, and pulled stems.

It was a recent Thursday and we were cooking purslane, which we know as verdolagas, one of Mexico’s most “important edible succulents.” They’re earthy and lemony, and we steamed the purslane in one pan (no water necessary). We stirred in the sauteed tomato and onion and poured in a green tomatillo salsa from the molcajete for added flavor. I served the verdolagas in a bowl paired with sliced avocado, squares of queso fresco, and frijoles de la olla (Peruvian beans my mom boiled in a pot).

As writer Lesley Téllez notes, in Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, Kennedy refers to verdolagas as “curiously acid” and “very much an acquired taste.” They’re also considered an invasive weed, growing between the cracks on sidewalks and driveways; it’s found in turf grass and field crops across the United States. YouTube videos offer tips on how to eliminate and prevent its growth. But many are unaware it’s edible and that you can buy it at farmers markets and Latino grocery stores across Southern California, a testament to its importance in Mexican cuisine.

I find great comfort in these greens that my mom grew up eating in her hometown of Huanímaro, Guanajuato, in Mexico. This plant conjures memories of family who I never got to meet. My mom, along with my great-grandmother, would pull verdolagas straight from the soil in the fields in Huanímaro. Typically eaten with chunks of pork, my mom remembers eating verdolagas without meat. Once cooked, she’d scoop the bowl of greens — with tomatoes, onions, and chile — by tearing off a piece of toasty corn tortilla she’d fold and use as a spoon. “We should be eating this every day,” my mom says of the verdolagas.

Verdolagas are considered highly nutritious, “unusually high in omega-3 fatty acids,” which as the University of Wisconsin-Madison notes, are mostly found in fish and flax seeds. They contain significant amounts of vitamins A and C. Research also shows that “purslane has better nutritional quality than the major cultivated vegetables.” According to the Scientific World Journal study, verdolagas are known as “a power food because of its high nutritive and antioxidant properties.”

The verdolaga is a type of quelite — a word of Nahuatl origin encompassing a range of Mexican edible wild greens — like planta de malva, which was another staple in my mom’s diet. With my great-grandmother, who raised my mom from childhood through her teens, they’d eat raw malva after cleaning it and rolling it by hand like they would a tortilla.

This is nourishing cuisine that Chicanx authors Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel feature in their book Decolonize Your Diet, not as “so-called ‘super foods,’” but rather as a “whole food system of eating” that honors their grandmothers’ “knowledge of the medicinal value of their herbs and foods,” they write. “We embrace the idea of food as medicine.”

This notion is not new, but the concept has gained recent traction as public health leaders in the U.S. seek to integrate it into the health care system. Dipa Shah-Patel, who directs the Los Angeles County Public Health Department’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Program, moderated a recent discussion, titled “Food as Medicine: Generational Health Building,” to explore how to advance this concept with cultural relevancy and respect to Indigenous communities. “How can Indigenous culinary practices shape the future of food as medicine?” she asked.

In Decolonize Your Diet, Calvo and Esquibel promote recipes based on Mesoamerican cuisine and highlight ingredients like chayote, epazote, yerbaníz, and quelites. They wrote about how their grandparents “spoke fondly of finding and preparing quelites and verdolagas.” Their recipes include Verdolagas, Beans, & Butternut Squash Stew; Hibiscus Flower Tacos; Abuelitas’ Lentil Soup and Urban Farmer Calabacitas.” Esquibel — who died this February after suffering a stroke — and Calvo call on those of us who have been in the U.S. (“or away from the land for generations”) to reclaim our “culture’s food roots for both physical health and spiritual fulfillment.”

For generations, they wrote, “Our ancestors fed their families and communities by being clever, adaptable, and ingenious, and making use of different available ingredients.”

It’s about “decolonizing our taste buds” in order to “re-evaluate cultural heritage foods,” says Claudia Serrato, a culinary anthropologist and plant-based chef in LA. Promoting “culturally relevant food,” Serrato says, helps us “hold on to our identity.” Serrato, who was born and raised in East LA, considers herself “traditionally trained” and works with ingredients predating the colonization of the Americas. Through her food, Serrato reclaims her ancestral heritage foods from Mexico, utilizing “knowledge that is part of the generations before us.”

At the recent “Food as Medicine” panel, Serrato prepared a tisane containing mulberry, elderberry, sage, dandelion, mint, and lemon slices. She grows most of these herbs and flowers in her garden after replacing her grass with plants native to the region. Elderflowers, as Serrato reminded attendees, can be widely found across LA around Legg Lake in Whittier Narrows and going up the I-5 freeway near Dodger Stadium. The dandelion — which emerges from the cracks in her backyard — is not native to the region, but as Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman reminded her, it’s about giving it a new purpose, she said. Dandelion leaves are high in calcium, potassium, and iron.

“[It’s] rethinking how our landscape grows [and] how it protects us,” said Serrato, encouraging us to recognize the herbs and plants that grow outside our door. She thinks of her Zacateco grandfather, who — ashamed of the plant-based diet he was raised with in Mexico — began eating heavy carbs and meat once he came to the U.S. “He didn’t want his family to be affiliated with poverty,” Serrato tells me, adding that her grandfather associated meat with wealth. He returned to his former diet of cactus, quelites, and corn after he was diagnosed with diabetes.

For Serrato, these foods and ingredients shouldn’t be seen as “poor people food” or “everyday Mexican food,” she notes in a feature for the New York Times. This is “Indigenous nutrition.”

“My mind thinks about cultural pride,” Serrato told me. “Understanding that our foodways have survived … These are foods that our ancestors ate. It speaks to this whole other level of resilience to how closely tied we are to our cultural traditions.”

Back in my mom’s kitchen, I considered the 12 bunches I’d purchased from El Super and Super King grocery stores. Because most of the verdolagas at El Super were wilted, I grabbed just six bunches at 69 cents each. I found the rest at Super King, which offered a more fresh variety that cost about the same; the bounty cost just over $8.

It’s not every day that I get to cook with my mom this way. We usually show up on weekends and the food is ready to eat, like the chile rellenos I ask for on my birthdays — or, with summer arriving, nopales, corn on the cob, and carne asada prepared by my dad behind the grill. That Thursday, the kitchen was full. My brother had gotten out of work early and was there for lunch. Our dogs were there, too, waiting for food scraps. As we cooked, we helped my nephew sound out ver-do-la-gas. He’ll be saying it in no time.

I rolled up a tortilla, took a bite, and ate a spoonful combining each ingredient. I also devoured them in a taco, equally spreading the verdolagas, beans, avocado slices, and queso fresco for the perfect bite. Eating only took a few minutes, but the time spent in the kitchen was special. My mom packed leftovers in glass tupperware for me to take home. We hugged goodbye and she said, “Me la pasé muy bien.” I did, too.

Alejandra Molina is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, exploring Latino identity in politics, religion, entertainment and culture.
Yeti Iglesias is a colorful Mexican freelance illustrator.

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