Bronx Chef Releases Cookbook to Build Community

By Vanessa Harrigan

Natalia Mendez, a celebrated South Bronx restaurant owner and community activist, held a launch party and panel discussion on February 9 at the CUNY Graduate Center for her new bilingual cookbook, Las Hermanas de la Milpa: Comienza con la Calabaza. Translated it reads Sisters of the Milpa: It Begins with Squash.

The Elebash Recital Hall was packed, with many people standing in the aisles to hear Mendez and the panelists speak in English, non-gendered Spanish and Mixteco, an ancient indigenous language, about their experiences volunteering and creating the book with Mendez.

“The book is not about me,” Mendez told the audience. “I want the community to appreciate the hard work that goes into cooking. I want them to see that the Earth is sacred, and we must treat it as such. Planting real food is how we can take care of the Earth.”

Natalia Mendez (left) with Camila Falquez serving her Mexican cuisine to attendees at her book launch celebration at the CUNY grad center.

Printed on rice paper and filled with photos, drawings, and illustrations, the book came to life with the efforts of a creative team that includes Natalia’s two children, illustrators Carolina and Marco Saavedra, along with artist Alexandra Delano Alonso, photographer Camila Falquez, designer Amanda Chung, and CUNY professor of Spanish and organizer Ángeles Donoso Macaya.

“I came here to support Natalia,” said attendee Vikram Singh. “I went to elementary school with her son, but I connected with them again through community work and mutual aid.” No stranger to community activism, Mendez transformed her restaurant into a mutual aid kitchen and sanctuary for those who were displaced and excluded from government assistance during the pandemic. During this time, while she was composing her book, Mendez also started a community garden on Bruckner Blvd. Mendez told the audience that the garden was “a radical act of love” meant to give displaced immigrants a place to remember home, and a way to take back land stolen from indigenous people. Mendez said that her dream for the community would be “to have a big stone oven in the Bronx that is also a school.”

Asked about any struggles with her community projects, Mendez said, “The community isn’t taking care of [the garden] the way they should. I wish they would appreciate it.” She hopes her book will inspire the community to take care of both the garden and themselves. After the discussion, the audience was invited upstairs for samples of her mole, guacamole, empanadas and chips.

Part two of her trilogy will be released in May and will be centered around corn and beans. Natalia’s restaurant La Morada is a bright purple storefront on 308 Willis Ave in the South Bronx, where you can get your copy signed.

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