Understanding Food as Medicine With Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz
Author and chef Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz shares her knowledge of holistic foods and remedies from her adobe kitchen.
By Kim Hill | Photography by Nicky Hedayatzadeh
Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz was only in her teens when she first recognized food as medicine. A Xicana with Tewa ancestry, Ruiz grew up in Phoenix but made frequent trips to visit family in New Mexico, where her great-grandmother first took her to forage for the plants she used in making herbal remedies. Back in Arizona, aunties and cousins owned vegetarian cafes, where Ruiz observed “the vitality of nourishing food as medicine in their communities.” At home, however, she began to connect her own family’s meals, heavy on processed foods, with the number of extended family members diagnosed with diabetes and other food-related diseases. “I didn’t know anything about diet at the time,” Ruiz recalls, “but you know how we say, ‘trust your gut?’ You can’t have a good intuition when your gut is full of processed foods. Thankfully, I made that correlation decades ago.”
As an adult, Ruiz honed her cooking skills running her own restaurant at the same time she was diving deep into curanderismo, a set of traditional beliefs, rituals and practices utilizing knowledge of foods, herbs and cultural remedies in a holistic approach to wellness. “People often ask how I made the jump from chef to curandera. I didn’t jump anywhere. Using the kitchen in healing has always been a part of my practice. They go hand-in-hand.”
The “kitchen curandera,” as friends have lovingly called her over the years, has gained a broad following, from presenting cooking demonstrations at the National Museum of the American Indian to sharing her work as an indigenous food activist on Hulu’s “Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi” and in national publications such as Food & Wine magazine. She offers workshops on medicine-making and one-on-one healing sessions. Ruiz works with tribes, sharing recipes and practices using indigenous foods, and teaches classes on post-partum wellness. On Instagram (@feliciacocotzin) she inspires her 33,000 followers on topics ranging from the use of fresh herbs in dishes to her obsession with PBS cooking shows when she was a teen.
Ruiz is further sharing her knowledge in a new book, “Earth Medicines: Ancestral Wisdom, Healing Recipes, and Wellness Rituals from a Curandera” (Roost Books). Recipes and lifestyle practices from indigenous traditions worldwide draw on the power of water, air, earth and fire. In chapters organized by each of these elements, Ruiz has arranged the recipes and rituals into subsections. If you’re looking to nourish your body, for example, you might try the Nopales Medicine Water. Want to feed your spirit? La Guadalupana Cones uses Mayan copal (tree resin) in an incense blend. In the book, Ruiz writes that the upper Sonoran Desert “holds one of the most edible and medicinal landscapes of North America.” Working with the land, she writes, has allowed her to come full circle not only in her professional career but also as a person reclaiming her Indigenous roots. “My work, which has changed over the course of my life, has always been rooted in traditional healing ways, beginning first with food,” she writes.
Her goal for the book is to help people become their own kitchen healers. “You don’t have to become a chef or herbalist,” she says. “It’s about reclaiming the kitchen for healing foods and remedies just like we did long ago.”
Even the “Earth Medicines” title speaks to her desire to connect to people everywhere. “I didn’t want to equate the book to any exact tradition or culture. It doesn’t matter to me if you are Greek or from East Africa or Xicana like me. I want people to understand we all come from rich traditions, all of which are rooted in earth-based medicines.”
Ruiz shares her recipe for Goddess Glow Oil, a jojoba-based facial and body serum that provides deep hydration and promotes skin suppleness. “It’s a nourishing and protective blend for playing in the sun and is perfect for after-sun care to replenish the skin,” she says.