Photo by Alicia Cho for Thrillist
When we think about “traditional” Mexican food, images of carne asada cookouts and street tacos al pastor might come to mind. But if we’re talking pre-Columbian times—before the Spaniards brought over pork, chicken, and beef—then the idea of “traditional” might look a little different. In the early days, plant-based eating was very much the norm among Indigenous Mexicans.
“All these dishes that are now seen as traditional, cultural foods, aren’t actually traditional at all if you really think about the essence and root of our cuisine,” says Jocelyn Ramirez, author of La Vida Verde: Plant-Based Mexican Cooking With Authentic Flavor, and founder of Todo Verde, a Latin American-inspired catering company based in LA.
Todo Verde’s new line of seasonings—which come in Al Pastor, Carnitas, and Tinga flavors—are designed to make the transition to plant-based eating more accessible. The idea is to transform vegetables, like jackfruit or cauliflower, with flavors that you’d associate with more familiar, Mexican, meat-based dishes.
Ramirez’s introduction to the world of veganism did not come out of a trend, but rather, a necessity. As a college professor teaching courses on social justice and civic engagement, Ramirez found herself increasingly passionate about food equity issues, which were directly aligned with what she was experiencing in her neighborhood and at home.
While Ramirez was dealing with her own thyroid issues, her father, who suffered from diabetes, was battling cancer for the second time. In addition, her mother was struggling with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. “I felt like the only answer that I could find, or the only resource that could provide an immediate sense of power, was changing the way that we ate,” she says.
So she sifted through her parents’ cupboards and started making regular trips to health food stores. The only problem was, those trips required long drives from southeast Los Angeles. And this is what led Ramirez to begin crafting a mission for Todo Verde in 2015, as a concept that would provide access to naturally good food.
She started small, selling superfood smoothies at her local farmers’ market, and eventually moved on to catering. “I knew I wasn’t going to be the solution, but if I could try to get folks to think about food in a different light, then that would be enough for me,” Ramirez says.
And now, with a catering business that also provides food demonstrations, cooking classes, and speaking engagements, Ramirez is hitting her stride. This summer, Todo Verde was chosen as the only vendor to provide concessions at The Ford, a 1,200-seat amphitheater in the Hollywood Hills. The chef has been offering up dishes like mushroom mole tacos, hearts of palm ceviche, and poblano mac and cheese.
The Todo Verde team is predominantly made up of women of color, all of whom align with Ramirez’s mission—they might have family members dealing with similar health issues, or are just wanting to incorporate a plant-based diet into their lifestyle. “I’m trying to create a shift in the way that we typically see kitchens function, which is mostly male dominated,” she says.
Along with Valeria Velazquez Duenas and Claudia Serrato, Ramirez, founded Across Our Kitchen Tables, an initiative to bring together women of color in the food industry. “Valeria, Claudia, and I, we each own our own respective food businesses,” Ramirez explains. “We would come together and ask questions like, ‘Did you have insurance for that? Who does your social media? Who made your website?’ And then we thought, we should really offer this as a resource for other people to get that intel, but also to just connect with each other.”
Ramirez herself is no stranger to challenge, developing her line of seasonings in the midst of a pandemic. “We went through probably a 100 versions of it,” she explains. “We really wanted to make something that felt really special, that had that umami richness. I didn’t want people who normally don’t eat plant-based to feel like they had to go to the store and find nutritional yeast, or mushroom powder, or black garlic.”
She goes on to explain, “The other thing that I was trying to navigate through, is that when you walk down a grocery store aisle, and you see a taco seasoning, it’s usually only flavored in mild and spicy. And if you think about tacos in Mexico, there are probably hundreds of varieties of tacos. So, I really wanted to get more specific.”
It’s all about making plant-based diets feel more exciting and less like a sacrifice. While Ramirez is proud of the way the vegan movement has become more mainstream, she can’t help but feel that it still operates on a binary. “It feels like you’re either vegan or you’re not. Or if you don’t do it a certain way, then we’re going to kick you out of the club,” she says.
But she’s hopeful about the future of plant-based lifestyles, and the ways in which her brand can facilitate these conversations: “I think we have to be a little bit more flexible about where people are—to make it an inviting, life experience.”