Julián Castro is a former San Antonio mayor, HUD secretary, and presidential candidate. Now he’s a political commentator, and he hosts the podcast Our America. When he sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, he made hunger one of his key campaign issues. This week, Secretary Castro joins us to discuss food policy, the power and limitations of boycotts, and what he thinks will be different under President Biden. But first: he gets the true Sporkful treatment when he and Dan discuss his DIY iced tea sweetener, his favorite hot sauce, and the politics of sharing nachos.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Sun So Sunny" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Hot Night" by Calvin Dashielle
- "On the Floor" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Gust of Wind" by Max Greenhalgh
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Dan Pashman: Now, you're from San Antonio. What city or town in Texas, besides, San Antonio has the best tacos?
Julían Castro: Oh, that is a very good question. It's not Austin. Austin and San Antonio have this running battle about who...
Dan Pashman: I know.
Julían Castro: I don't even know_I honestly, Dan, I don't even know why Austin is part of the conversation. If I had to pick a second city, I'd probably say something like, you know, Laredo or even Houston. I grew up eating a lot of Tex-Mex and my favorite breakfast taco was a bean and cheese taco on a flour tortilla.
Dan Pashman: Well, speaking of flour tortillas, I reached out to José Ralat, who is the taco editor of Texas Monthly magazine, former guest on our show. And this is his question for you. Where do you stand on lard versus shortening in flour tortillas?
Julían Castro: I really don't care, to be honest.
Dan Pashman: Oh, no.
Julían Castro: I don't think I spent a second in my life contemplating which one is_I don't even know the difference!
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Julián Castro is a former presidential candidate, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, and mayor of San Antonio, where he was born and raised. Today, he’s a frequent guest on news shows, and he has a podcast, called Our America, where he talks with a wide range of leaders about how to address issues like immigration, poverty, and more.
Dan Pashman: We don’t often talk food policy here on our show, but this feels like a good time for it. We’re inaugurating a new president this week, there’s a new congress coming in, there’s an opportunity for some new policies. When Secretary Castro ran for president, he put a big focus on hunger in America. I wanna know why he thinks hunger persists in the richest country in the world. We’ll discuss that, and other issues of food policy and politics, later in the show.
Dan Pashman: But we’re gonna start off a little lighter, cause if you’re gonna be a guest on The Sporkful, you gotta get the Sporkful treatment, right? Secretary Castro grew up with his twin brother Joaquin, who’s now a congressman from Texas. Their parents split up when they were 8. Their father, a math teacher, stayed in the picture. But in the house it was Julián and Joaquin, their mother, who was a Chicana activist, and their grandmother. Because their mom worked a lot, their grandmother was the primary cook
Julían Castro: The day before my brother and I were born, she entered a Menudo cooking contest, like a cook off. You know, your listeners probably may be familiar with Menudo. It's basically this this stew of tripe and, you know, hominy and some other vegetables, put together_it’s sort of a low cost Mexican soup, and very popular.
Dan Pashman: But like a pretty classic comfort food?
Julían Castro: Yeah, yeah. Has a lot of taste, a lot of spices in there.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Julían Castro: So they had a cook off, I think on September 15th, 1974. My grandmother entered it and she won three hundred dollars and she actually used that money to help pay the hospital bill for the birth of my twin brother Joaquin and me. She always passed on that story to me and to my brother with a nice hearty laugh. And she would often talk about growing up, eating arroz con pollo, or you know, chicken and rice, or menudo, or you know any of these Mexican/Tex-Mex staples that that you find in in South Texas.
Dan Pashman: What is the key to making great menudo?
Julían Castro: Uh...
Dan Pashman: I'm not asking from a culinary perspective, just like from an eater's perspective, like for you eating it, what makes a great one?
Julían Castro: Well, I think it has to have, for me, enough spice and enough salt. Like, I've had some of either_whether it's Menudo or other type of food that just doesn't have enough kick to it. You know? I find myself having to put in Tabasco or Cholula sauce or whatever it is.
Dan Pashman: Quick aside here, walk me through your hot sauce game? Are there certain hot sauces you travel with? How do you work that out?
Julían Castro: I wish I had it with me here. I found in the last year this...this sauce that is a hot sauce but it’s black.
Dan Pashman: The actual liquid of the sauce is black?
Julían Castro: Yeah, yeah. The liquid of the sauce is black.
Dan Pashman: Now I’m gonna Google it.
Julían Castro: It has this like..uh, smoky taste to it that is really great.
Dan Pashman: Is it El Yucateco Black Label Reserve Chili habanero hot sauce?
Julían Castro: Yes! Yes! That's it. That's right. That hot sauce, out of all of them, is actually my favorite.
Dan Pashman: All right, I'm going have to check that out. El Yucateco is the brand of hot sauce that they have at my local taqueria, but they don't have the black label. So I may have to mail order some of this. Now, as many people know, you have a twin brother. How are your tastes in food similar and how are they different?
Julían Castro: Well, he and I have this little sibling rivalry. And so he's probably gonna take this as me jabbing at him. But I think I have a healthier diet these days than he does. See, we grew up eating, you know, high fat, high calorie, high cholesterol, high everything foods that tasted great. And drinking like six Cokes a day. I used to go into_when I was in high school, in the morning, I'd pop a couple of quarters into the soda machine and get a Cima Red. I don't know if folks remember that it wasn't Big Red, it was Coke's red product, and also like two donuts, sugar glazed donuts. That was my breakfast, you know, when I went into school. And but through the years, like, I gave up regular soda, then gave up diet soda. My vice is iced tea these days.
Dan Pashman: Now, that does not count as a vice.
Julían Castro: Well, if you drink_you should see how much of it I drink. I mean, I drink more than_I probably drink more than a gallon a day. Yeah, no. I drink too much.
Dan Pashman: But I mean, like that's your caffeine. That's your caffeine fix for the day.
Julían Castro: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: All right. And is it like loaded with sugar? Is it sweet tea?
Julían Castro: I use, you know, I may be one of the few people that you'll ever meet that mixes Sweet’N Low and Equal to produce a taste that is better than Sweet'N Low or Equal individually.
Dan Pashman: Interesting, is that a proprietary blend?
Julían Castro: I thought of_you know, I said I should like, you know, make this_make it a purple label instead of the blue and the red, you know, whatever. But I just drink a lot of it.
Dan Pashman: Now, I understand that your first date with your wife was over nachos.
Julían Castro: That is true.
Dan Pashman: Now, I'm sure your wife's great and all, but let's spend a little time talking about these nachos. Break it down for me. What was on them? How were they layered, et cetera?
Julían Castro: Yeah. So this was May 26, 1999, which was our first date. And we went to a restaurant_actually, an iconic restaurant. There are a lot of folks who visited San Antonio that will know the place I'm talking about called Mi Tierra, they're known because they're like super festive. They have Christmas decorations up like all year. So we sat down and it was time to order and she didn't order anything. And soon as_ this is the first time that we've gone out. So...
Dan Pashman: So wait the server comes over and says, "What would you like?", and she says, "I'm not going to eat anything."?
Julían Castro: That's right. So, I mean, you know, as a guy. What are you_OK? The person that you're on your first date with doesn't want to order anything. What does that tell you? Right away, you're thinking, OK, this person wants to get the hell out as they can, you know? So I didn't think it was going very well. So I had to order something that was not like this full on meal, you know, that made it seem like we were gonna be there forever or something.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Julían Castro: So I ordered these bean and cheese and and beef nachos, that are really great, tasty.
Dan Pashman: And so your thought process was, this is kind of an appetizer. So it would be like it would be awkward for me to order a whole big entree, if she’s ordering nothing.
Julían Castro: Yeah. Like if she really wants to get out of here that badly, then, I mean, ok. I guess? Lemme order these nachos, it’s sort of in between, you know?
Dan Pashman: Right.
Julían Castro: But I ordered the nachos and you know we started talking and during the conversation, eventually, she picked off of my plate and ate some of the nachos and ...
Dan Pashman: And so...and in the years since, did you ask her why she didn't order anything?
Julían Castro: Yeah! I think she said that she wasn't hungry. I mean, which is a valid reason, I guess. But, you know?
Dan Pashman: Right, right.
Julían Castro: It all worked out.
Dan Pashman: Clearly, it did. But it does occur to me like nachos are a tough food for a first date. I’m curious to get your thoughts on this, Mr. Secretary. I think that sharing a plate of nachos with another person or a group of people, there's a lot of_the whole situation kind of becomes a microcosm of society.
Julían Castro: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: You have the the people around the table, who are the citizens, and you have the pile of nachos, which is the resources available to the citizens. Now, it's not going to end up equal. Like, you pull one nacho and the cheese may just be connected to other nachos. You might not have even meant to do that.
Julían Castro: People end up having more than their fair share, yeah.
Dan Pashman: So should there be some kind of societally agreed upon rule, a law_in air quotes_to guarantee a fair distribution of the resources amongst the citizens? Or should it just be like, whoever gets the most gets the most? And, you know, sometimes life isn't fair. Some people are better at nachos than others.
Julían Castro: I mean, you bring up a good point. You have folks, also, that want to be very considerate of others. Right? So they want to make sure that everybody gets theirs before they take their own, like, that's laudable. I don't know. I think that if you...if you were part of a group and you went like on group dinners consistently, and you have that one guy, or a couple of people that are doing that all the time, then you probably would need to establish some sort of ground rules for your group. What I hate though, is when that happens and you're the one that got the short end of the stick and you end up paying the same amount like, "Oh, now, let's split it up equally," the bill.
Dan Pashman: Almost as if like like if you make much less money than somebody else, but yet they're taxed at a lower rate.
Julían Castro: Yes. Yes.
Dan Pashman: Fortunately, that would never happen.
Julían Castro: Not in any sane country, no.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Julían Castro: I mean, the other way you could do it is everybody could just split it up. Right? But that would probably be too much of a mood ruiner.
Dan Pashman: You could. But look, I mean, like if you were running a restaurant, you could call_you could say, like, we're going to have these nachos and instead of one big pile, we're going to bring it out on five plates. You each get a small portion.
Julían Castro: You'd ruin the group dynamic there, right? Like, there's like an adventure quality to it, right? Like digging in there?
Dan Pashman: But see, that's such an interesting ide_I want to build on this because like in theory, the restaurant could play the role of, like, government.
Julían Castro: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But what you're hitting on is the idea that there may be some merit in forcing people to co-exist and work it out.
Julían Castro: Hmm.
Dan Pashman: And that sometimes gets messy.
Julían Castro: Yeah, no doubt. No doubt.
Dan Pashman: But there's also something beautiful about a group of people coming together and sharing a plate of food, even if it isn't perfect. Is there something beautiful about the messiness of our government?
Julían Castro: Oh, well, yeah. I mean, I think there's always something beautiful about self governance, as opposed to autocracy, or being told by on high how everything is going to be. Yeah. I mean, and I think, you know, obviously, in a more serious context, we're having this whole conversation right now in our country. Which is sometimes you do have these messy even dangerous moments in self-governance and the question is, how do you get back on track but also preserve those things about it that are precious and are worth keeping and of course allow individual freedom and agency without giving that over completely to one person or one small group of people.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, our conversation continues in this more serious direction. We’ll discuss whether boycotting companies whose politics we oppose is effective. And why hunger is such a persistent problem in the US. Then later we look ahead a bit, to President Biden’s administration. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. A while back, before COVID, my daughter Becky and I set up a stand in the middle of our town, to perform an experiment. We put up a big sign that read:
CLIP (BECKY PASHMAN): “Free ice cream for science”.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Free ice cream for science. And then what does it say underneath that.
CLIP (BECKY PASHMAN): “Try two kinds of ice cream, answer two questions about the ice cream, enjoy."
CLIP (Dan PASHMAN): And we’re doing a scientific experiment here, is that right?
CLIP (BECKY PASHMAN): We are!
Dan Pashman: Our experiment was inspired by the work of Charles Spence, who studies the hidden factors that influence our eating experience, from the color of the plates to the background music, and much more. In last week’s show, we hear from him, and Becky and I reveal what exactly we were testing.
CLIP (BECKY PASHMAN): OHHH, so I get it you were tricking them!
Dan Pashman: That episode is up now, it’s called “Free Ice Cream for Science!”, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Now back to my conversation with Julián Castro. Last year, the CEO of Goya made news when he told President Trump, “We're so blessed to have you as our leader.” Secretary Castro joined people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Lin Manuel Miranda in calling for a boycott of Goya. As I told the Secretary...
Dan Pashman: I'm certainly not going to defend the CEO of Goya, but I do wonder about the effectiveness of boycotts like this. Like, setting aside overtly political companies like Hobby Lobby or Chick fil A, on the right, Ben and Jerry's on the left. Most companies try to stay publicly neutral.
Julían Castro: Sure.
Dan Pashman: But a lot of their CEOs are politically active. Many of these companies donate hundreds of thousands of dollars through PACs. And I'm sure if we dug into those records, a lot of us would be turned off by the political work of some of the companies that we patronize. But most of those things don't make the news in the way the Goya CEO's comments did. And you wrote a piece for CNN.com warning CEOs that Americans’ purchasing decisions are increasingly informed by their politics. So, you say companies should consider the damage done by “buddying up to a bigot”. But when something like this happens with Goya and there's talk of a boycott, is the lesson that companies learn that they should act differently or just that they should be better at keeping their political work a secret?
Julían Castro: That's a good question. You know, and there are ways to keep their political work secret because you have these super PACs and so forth, where you don't have to disclose who's behind it. But look, the political is the personal today, because for so many people in the country, the decisions that are made by these policy makers, and supported through contributions, they are intimately and negatively affecting the lives of so many people. And the reason that I spoke up about Goya, and their CEO, was because I found it offensive that here is a company that is profited off of the very people that Trump has spent his political career demonizing, other-ising, inciting harm to. I think about the El Paso shooting that killed 22 people in 2019. And to me, the pointedness of that was just too obvious to let it go. Also, the other thing I would say, in the context of companies is, if you're going to try and convince me about buying your product with how it makes me feel_Right? Because a lot of advertising is not about the actual quality of the product. It's, "Oh, how does it make you feel?".
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Julían Castro: Well, you know what? Your politics actually make me feel a certain way. And maybe more importantly, I know that putting money in somebody's pocket, you know, and what they're doing with it, is furthering policy in this country that is either, I think, beneficial or harmful.
Dan Pashman: So switching gears a little bit on the policy front, one of the issues that was a major focus of your presidential campaign and where I know you've been very active is on the issue of hunger. Why does this persist? I mean, obviously, I know that there is a tremendous amount of inequality in our country and that has only grown in the time of COVID. So I'm sure that that is part of the explanation. Um, but is there another part of the explanation_because that seems the obvious part of the answer. Is there a less obvious explanation for why hunger persists in the richest country in the world?
Julían Castro: At the end of the day, I don't think that there's a good reason. Of course, there are explanations. You know, we have not done a good enough job of creating a strong social safety net in our country, even though we have the resources to do that. During the 2020 campaign, one of the big policy discussions was around universal basic income, for instance, some way to assure that people would have at least some rudimentary means or basic means to provide for themselves.
Dan Pashman: What are your thoughts on that idea? Do you support UBI, Universal Basic Income?
Julían Castro: Yeah, I mean, I said during the campaign that I believe that it absolutely should be piloted, and figured out. The point of contention that I have with with that version of UBI was that it was mostly to the exclusion of these other initiatives or programs. And I think that if you're just talking about giving people a thousand dollars, you know, a month, that compared to the other availability of programs now, that that that's really, I think, in some ways you're going backward. But if you could keep in place these programs, sharpen them up according to need, and then have a UBI on top of that? Yeah. I mean, I think that eventually the United States will move towards something that looks more like that.
Dan Pashman: And in terms of programs like WIC, which provides money to help feed pregnant women, new mothers, and especially, children or food stamps, which the USDA says 44 percent of the money for food stamps goes to feed children. And there's been a lot of research that shows that that these sort of social welfare programs around hunger and feeding people, that the overwhelming majority of the money goes to people who need it and is used the way we want it to be used. Is there ever a waste or fraud? Yes, that exists, but that those are a relatively small portion of the cases. And yet that concern over waste and fraud is often used to slash and burn these programs. There's something about this idea that someone else might be getting away with something, and I don't know if it's more true for Americans than people in other countries are, or this is just a natural human thing. But this_like people will oppose a program that they themselves would benefit from just because they're worried someone else might get away with something.
Julían Castro: Look, everybody wants to make sure that if your tax dollars are spent, that they're spent as well as possible and as effectively as possible. But like you say, that was magnified way beyond what it actually is. Also, they exaggerated in people's minds the amount of money that people actually get. I mean, to listen to these, some of these politicians, you would think that they're getting two thousand dollars a month or something. And that's just not true. I mean, if it's a couple of hundred dollars, that's a lot for a lot of people. So it's not anywhere near what somebody could actually live on.
Dan Pashman: Right. So how do we combat this idea, this intense preoccupation that people have on waste, fraud and abuse as a reason to cut all these programs? What's the answer to that?
Julían Castro: Well, I mean, I think that there are different parts there. That, number one, right now, more people than have in a long time, more Americans probably see the value of these programs. Because over and over, I think the number I saw was 40 percent of families that are accessing food banks right now, this is the first time that they've had to go to a food bank. So, you know, it's that old notion that when people suddenly_the middle class suddenly feels poor than they_ you know, a lot of people have more sense that, hey, we actually need a social safety net here. But this pandemic has shown us that the social safety net we have in place is not_was not nearly as well prepared as it should have been.
Dan Pashman: So we talked a bit about the people who may vote for policies that would make it harder to feed people who are hungry. I want to talk for a minute about the politicians who might do the same. You'll notice, Mr. Secretary, my questions on this issue are along the same lines because it's just so hard for me to understand why... why this is so hard. You know, I mean, like of all the issues, you would think that we could all agree that there shouldn't be any hungry children in America. So I want to play a clip for you of Michelle Obama, who was of course very active on food policy. This is her speaking in 2017, soon after the Trump Administration moved to roll back health standards for school lunches. This isn’t the exact issue of hunger but I think it points to the larger concern.
CLIP (MICHELLE OBAMA): And this is where you really have to look at motives. You know? I mean, you have to stop and think, why don't you want our kids to have good food at school? What is wrong with you? [APPLAUSE] And why is that a partisan issue? Think about why someone is OK with your kids eating crap. Why do you_why would you celebrate that? Why would you sit idly and be OK with that? Because here's the secret. If somebody is doing that, they don't care about your kid.
Dan Pashman: So thoughts?
Julían Castro: Well, very well said by Michelle Obama, of course. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But so what is wrong with these politicians, who would vote against legislation, who would cut funding for school lunches for kids, who don't have enough to eat, who would cut programs that feed kids?
Julían Castro: I mean, I think there are a lot of reasons. I think one of them, you know, for the politicians, they don't see the people they represent as being in that boat. Secondly, a lot of them have never had that problem themselves, of relying on free or reduced lunch. So, you know, they don't have any personal experience with it. I mean, look what look how many people it took to finally see Donald Trump for what he was. It took them personally being in danger in the United States Capitol to wake them up. Never mind everything that he's done over the last several years.
Dan Pashman: Right. It wasn't until the guns are pointed at them.
Julían Castro: Yeah. But unfortunately, you have policymakers that are like that. They're distant from it. They don't think that's their constituents. I think, oftentimes there's a racial angle to it. They think that the people that are on these lunch programs are all kids of color. They think, also, that there are a lot of times they think they're immigrants that are freeloading off of the school lunch programs, and there's an animus toward them and that. And for the constituents, a lot of times, I think again, they've been lied to.
Dan Pashman: So I wanted to make a little bit of a turn to the more optimistic here.
Julían Castro: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: President Biden_Wow, I think that's the first time that I said it like that.
Julían Castro: Sounds good. That's the sound of hope.
Dan Pashman: You know President Biden. You've worked with him. With regard to these issues we've just discussed, what do you think is going to change now that he is coming to office?
Julían Castro: I think America's going to get back on track. You know, it's going to take a while. But look, you have somebody here, he has relationships developed over almost 40 years in the Senate. He knows the ins and outs of that. Also, I think especially now because of what happened at the capital, more people are are ready for his message of unity. I'm also pleased that he's sticking firm to things like the two thousand dollar stimulus check for Americans. I mean, there are a lot of people facing eviction right now. There are people without a job, folks who are in dire straits. It gives me confidence that he's also surrounded himself with a team of people that are very competent that are gonna to do a great job for America and and do it with a heart.
Dan Pashman: This is obviously not the most pressing concern right now. But have you eaten with President Biden? Have you guys shared a meal ever?
Julían Castro: You know, I actually have. In fact, the first time that I met him was at former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's steak fry.
Dan Pashman: Oh, that's like a famous political event, right?
Julían Castro: Yeah!
Dan Pashman: Yeah, yeah.
Julían Castro: The steak fry like that was when Harkin had it, that was like the place to go, you know, and it signaled who was coming, and who might run and all that. So I was invited to give a speech there. And the other person that was invited was Vice President Biden. So he and I shared steak that day. And it was the most unique event because, you know, your chair is a bale of hay.
Dan Pashman: [laughs] Oh wow.
Julían Castro: You're sitting on hay having steak and chatting with Senator Harkin.
Dan Pashman: What's President Biden like to eat with?
Julían Castro: Uh, he has great stories.
Dan Pashman: I can imagine.
Julían Castro: You know, a very, very easy talker. Yeah. Obviously, he's seen a lot. And, uh, and, you know, I have no doubt that they're going to have some great meals there in the White House, and a lot of, hopefully a lot of joy in the years to come.
Dan Pashman: I think so, although I must say, the one thing that worries me a little bit is that I have read that President Biden is a big fan of angel hair pasta.
Julían Castro: Ah, is that not one of your favorites?
Dan Pashman: Ahhh, come on, Mr. Secretary. We can do better than angel hair. It goes from, like zero to mush in 30 seconds. You know, I mean?
Julían Castro: Too thin?
Dan Pashman: Yeah, much too flimsy. It's...yeah. That's not_ we need a more tooth-sinkable pasta than angel hair, I think.
Julían Castro: Yeah. You need to write him an email or something.
Dan Pashman: Can you get word to him? Tell him there's a guy with a really important issue that needs to talk to him?
Julían Castro: He'll see you right after the inauguration, right?
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Julían Castro: See you in his office, invite you to the Oval Office right after he's sworn in.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Julían Castro: This has to be heard.
Dan Pashman: First hundred days! I went in in the first hundred days.
Dan Pashman: That’s former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julían Castro. When he’s not running for president, he has a podcast, Our America, from Lemonada Media. On Our America, he talks to guests like Bernie Sanders, Stacey Abrams and Elizabeth Warren, about how issues like poverty, race, gender, and immigration status intersect to shape our America and its possibilities. You can find Our America, wherever you listen.
Dan Pashman: Make sure you check out last week’s episode, where my daughter Becky and I take to the streets to perform a science experiment. You will never think about the weight of your cutlery the same way again. That one’s up now it’s called “Free Ice Cream for Science!”.
Dan Pashman: You know what I had for dinner tonight? Two hotdogs. They were incredible; hot dogs are incredible. Of course, if you followed me on Instagram, you would already know that. Who else is doing something so incredibly forward-thinking, as posting pictures of their hotdogs on Instagram? I think i’m the first one. So you’re really gonna want to follow me there to get all that other groundbreaking content. On Instagram, I am @TheSporkful.