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Cooking Up Dreams of Freedom

Recipes Out of Bilibid
George W. Stewart, Publisher: New York (1946)

While they were together at Bilibid they moved toward the light of survival by talking about food.  They set about writing down recipes they cooked in their minds, from memories of mothers far away.

One of the little known stories of World War II is the saga of a cookbook written by prisoners of war who were incarcerated in Manila’s Bilibid Prison. Bilibid was a hell hole during the Japanese era, the mortality rate was immense and the conditions were squalid.

Into this black hole went soldiers who served in the United States and Allied armies, to await their fate of execution, starvation, or transfer to slave camps in Japan. If the Imperial Japanese Army sought to keep their POWs alive, they did so with the merest thread of sustenance. They were fed with wormy, spoiled rice rations—the intent was to weaken them. Civilians fared slightly better.

Into this torment of despair were two West Point graduates, Col.  Halsted C. “Chick” Fowler  and Lt. Col. George “Czecho”  Dewey Vanture. They had been best friends at the Academy and met again in the first fighting at the Agno River at the beginning of World War II in the Philippines.  Both survived the Bataan Death March, and were prisoners together at a work camp in Davao.  For six weeks before their final separation, these two friends were both interred at Bilibid.

Czecho was transferred to Japan to work in a slave camp in 1944. He and 1300 other men perished in a “hell ship”, an unmarked  transport ship on December 13th that was accidentally sunk by Allied Forces.

While they were together at Bilibid they moved toward the light of survival by talking about food.  They set about writing down recipes they cooked in their minds, from memories of mothers far away. Their project took on wings and soon there were enough recipes to make a book. The recipes were transcribed in pencil on bits of paper that Fowler carried back to the US at the war’s end.

In 1945,  an emaciated and exhausted Fowler  sailed into San Francisco and went to his aunt, Dorothy Wagner, with the request : “ Could she write a book out of the carefully guarded scraps of paper?” Wagner did her duty, crafting a stunningly simple but poignant book from the recipes. Every recipe is preceded by a short biography of the contributor, and his ultimate fate.


The recipes are easy, the way a soldier might remember in a hurry. The recipes were parlayed with whispers in whatever snatches of conversation the soldiers might have shared when the Japanese guards’ backs were turned.  Every recipe’s introduction casts a stark contrast between the desperation of the prisoner, and the clean, clear memory of cherished food being made.

Some of the recipes’ ingredients lack sophistication—a far cry from the modern “foodie” culture that is so prevalent today. Yet, these lists of ingredients and instructions come from the careful mental reconstruction of dishes under inhuman and barbaric conditions. This book is an embodiment of hope during a desperate time.

The cookbook covers a span of cultures, including  the Pennsylvania Dutch, Mexican, Scandinavian, Welsh, Yorkshire, Scottish, French, Filipino, Swiss, Russian, Polish, Italian, Javanese, Chinese and Southern and Yankee favorites.

The following is an excerpt from the book:

Chinese Dish
Sweet-Sour Pork

The contributor of this and the following Chinese dishes was a Chinese mestizo, who had been a chef in a famous Manila club. At Fort Santiago, the most dangerously cruel of all the Japanese prisons, he was a fellow-captive of an American officer, a Commander in the Naval Reserve. Huddled in jack-knife fashion on the dank stone floor in so deep a gloom that neither could see the other, the two men carried on a broken conversation in whispers. Since almost the only subject they had in common was their hunger, they talked chiefly of food, and the mestizo repeated again and again in great detail the method of preparing the dishes he most valued. As the days dragged into endless weeks, the Commander learned the recipes by heart, and later, at Bilibid, he gave them to Chick.

2 lbs. fresh pork
1 cup molasses
1 cup ground peanuts
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 cups brown sugar
3 cups wine vinegar
1 lemon (juice and rind)
Salt, pepper

Select pork from the shoulder and cut into pieces suitable for serving. Rub thoroughly with salt and pepper. In deep fry-pan boil the other ingredients. Immerse each piece separately into the bubbling sauce for 15 minutes, then drop the piece into another saucepan containing just sufficient water to cover. The water should simmer, not boil. When the pieces have all been immersed and transferred to the second vessel, pour the remainder of the frying mixture into the pan of water, simmer a few minutes, stirring well, and serve. It is important that each piece be cooked separately and for a full 15 minutes.

Filipino Dishes
Chicken in Cocoanut

Contributed by Major A.N. Powell, U.S.A. Reserve, an American born and raised in the Philippines. His father, who had practiced law in Cebu since 1900, was past sixty at the outbreak of the war, but both he and his son volunteered for service, the elder man being commissioned a lieutenant-colonel, the younger one eventually attaining the rank of major. In his early days in the Philippines, Colonel Powell had made a hobby of native handicrafts, and he rendered invaluable aid to his fellow-prisoners by making bamboo bunks, kapok mattresses, dozens of ingenious alleviations for the injured and helpless. Both father and son were lost on the December 13th ship.

1 young chicken
1 large cocoanut
Salt, pepper
biscuit dough

Parboil the chicken (about 25 minutes), then disjoint it. Wish a sharp heavy knife (or a small saw) cut off the top of the cocoanut neatly. Pour the milk into a bowl and with a fork score and partially shred the meat that clings to the shell. Salt and pepper the chicken heavily, rubbing the seasonings into the flesh; pack the piece tightly into the cocoanut shell, add the shreds of meat and the milk. Replace the top and seal it with biscuit dough. Bake in a moderate oven 1 hour.


Contributed by Major Wade Cothran of South Carolina, a West Pointer who resigned in 1918 and became a resident of China and the Philippines.  He served on Bataan, and by General King’s orders on April 9th, 1942, at dawn he made his way through the desperate fighting of both front lines to deliver to the Japanese the final terms by which our forces agreed to surrender Bataan. He was lost on the December 13th ship.

1 cocoanut
1 cup sugar

Press the juice from the cocoanut meat, add the sugar and mix with the cocoanut milk. Simmer uncovered till the milk is reduced by half. (About 40 minutes). Set aside to cool. Serve on hot-cakes or biscuits.


Contributed by Major “Vic” Gomez, 91st F.A., P.A., another Filipino officer of Czecho’s command. He escaped execution by the Japanese Gestapo by fleeing to the hills of Northern Luzon with his family, where he served as a guerilla and later joined the American forces at Lingayen Gulf.

½ lb. chopped ham, pork, or beef
2 cloves garlic
¼ lb. bamboo shoots or bean sprouts
2 chopped tomatoes
Soy sauce, salt, pepper
1 bunch young onions
4 green peppers
4 hot peppers
2 sticks celery, diced
The meat must be chopped very fine, then browned in a well-greased skillet. Add the chopped vegetables and seasonings. Fry till medium-done. Serve on boiled noodles or rice.

© Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter

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