A Conversation with History Scholar Alex Orquiza
|...if we measured the square footage within business areas in the Philippines devoted to American style fast food chains as opposed to those featuring Spanish foods, you would know who won the food wars in the Philippines.
Alex Orquiza’s dissertation, “A Pacific Palate: exchanges in food, nutritional science and cuisine between the United States and the Philippines, 1898-1946,” examines how Filipinos reacted to American food policies. While the actions take place in the Philippines, it is also an American history story analyzing the everyday tangible effects of empire at the periphery. The study explores reforms in schools, advertising, the new English-language popular literature, and the different consumption patterns in Manila and the provinces. Using approaches from anthropology and comparative transnational empire studies, it differs from previous histories of the Philippine-American exchange in its extensive use of Tagalog and Bisaya sources and its goal of analyzing the Filipino middle class alongside the Spanish- and English-speaking ruling elite.
Many of us still look at Spain with nostalgic eyes and claim that we borrowed many foods from THAT colonial power (rellenos, paellas, chorizos, afritadas, etc.). However, if we measured the square footage within business areas in the Philippines devoted to American style fast food chains as opposed to those featuring Spanish foods, you would know who won the food wars in the Philippines.
Alex first came to Cendrillon (our restaurant in SoHo from 1995-2009) around late summer in 2008 following the advice of his dissertation adviser, the eminent anthropologist, Sid Mintz, that he go and see me. Sid became a good friend through other notable academics in NYU and he knew that I had much contact with the most important Philippine food scholar, Doreen Gamboa-Fernandez.
Amy Besa. Photo by Miko Lim.
I was personally excited at the thought of knowing someone who was going to devote a good number of years, legwork and brain power doing serious study on the American influence on our food. I had written a short chapter about it in our cookbook, Memories of Philippine Kitchens (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2006). My chapter, entitled “The American Influence: Transformations,” albeit brief, expounded on my personal theory on what the Americans did to institutionalize and ingrain a taste preference so thoroughly in the Filipino psyche during this period in Philippine history that we feel the repercussions even more deeply today. Considering that Spain had us under her yoke for 350 years and America only 50, why are we so enamored, bedazzled and bewitched still of all things American especially with its food?
|Alex’s findings give us big, bold clues as to why Filipino food remained in the shadows too long compared with the growing Filipino population in the US.
In every type of forum imaginable that deals with Philippine food, no one asks why Filipinos love fried chicken, hamburgers and fries. The one question that is constantly asked by both Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike: Why is our food not mainstream in the US and for that matter, wherever Filipinos have settled? The question does not even ask why our love for American food is not in the least bit reciprocated. Filipinos themselves are oblivious of their taste preference. I guess it reflects upon how this worldview accepts American food as a default—that it is loved and eaten everywhere, it is a universal food and no one even questions why we eat it all the time.
But life has its many surprises. Alex’s findings give us big, bold clues as to why Filipino food remained in the shadows too long compared with the growing Filipino population in the US. The Americans wanted it that way for they saw no redeeming value to it. And in my opinion, it is because of gross ignorance on their part and a desire to make the Philippines a receptive market to their products and goods NOT that there is something inherently inferior in our food.
Alex and I conducted an email exchange of ideas and questions triggered by his research findings not only in the libraries but also out in the marketplace both in the US and the home country and how our food is presented and viewed by both Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike.
AMY BESA: Alex, can you briefly describe what your research is about?
ALEX ORQUIZA: I'm a first-generation Filipino-American from the San Francisco Bay Area now finishing my PhD in the Johns Hopkins department of history. For the better part of the last three years, I've been researching the changes and American influences on Filipino cuisine during the American Period. I came to this project because I've always been interested in the intersection of food and history. I had originally intended to do a dissertation about the disproportionate representation of Southeast Asian restaurants in the US. There are a ton of Filipinos in the country, yet there are few Filipino restaurants. Alternatively, there are almost no Thais, but you can find Thai restaurants everywhere. But as an historian, I sought the answers in the past and am convinced that the colonial legacy of the Americans in the Philippines still resonates today in Filipino food.
Amy: Tell me more about your approach or mindset when you decided you were going to pin down every source available in both the US and in the Philippines that would be relevant to the Philippine-American food exchange from 1898—1946.
|Not surprisingly, most of the accounts written by Americans described a distaste and little interest in trying Filipino food.
Alex: My weird 18th-century approach to the project, with the "rigor and discipline" you cite, really comes from two places. First, I'm an historian by training and appreciate work that can be supported with evidence. There are not many cultural historians working on the Philippine-American exchange in the first place, and because of the destruction of the archives in Manila during World War II, very few works that cite archives and original resources. The only way to write this story is to chase down every little bit of minutiae—menus, advertisements, school syllabuses, diary accounts, and letters—that I could find.
Secondly, I recognized that so much of the historical research on the American Period in the Philippines was focused solely on Manila. Perhaps it's a function of the fact that much of the scholarship, and many of the scholars, is based in the National Capital Region. But Manila is not representative of the rest of the provinces. I wanted to find these regional stories, compare them against each other, and find explanations for the differences in the food histories of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao during the 20th century.
Alex Orquiza. Photo by Miko Lim.
Before I left for the Philippines, I spent six months researching in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC for American records on food. Not surprisingly, most of the accounts written by Americans described a distaste and little interest in trying Filipino food. There were, however, some exceptions with Americans impressed by fiestas, the variety of produce, and a real fascination with lechon.
So when I arrived in the Philippines, I was very excited to see that Filipinos oftentimes reacted the same way to American food. It took a whole lot of advertising, educating, and instruction to convince Filipinos to eat like Americans—and it wasn't always successful. So I just went in with an open mind, realized I needed to spend double the amount of time I had intended in the archives, and ended up seeing the country through its university and provincial government libraries.
AMY: I always describe you to others as someone who is both an insider and an outsider to Philippine society having been born and raised in California, but choosing to focus on Philippine foodways for your dissertation. Can you expand on that? Where are you most at home, here in the US or in the Philippines?
ALEX: I really believe that the reason why I was successful in finding so many sources was because of my status as a Fil-Am. As you said, I am "an insider and an outsider to the Philippine culture." My dad is Nuevo Ecijeño and my mom is Ilocano, so right off the bat, I instinctively wanted to conduct research outside of Manila. I quickly enrolled in intensive Tagalog instruction when I arrived and over the course of my research, was happily speaking Tagalog with colleagues and librarians who immediately respected me as an American-trained Fil-Am interested in immersing myself in non-American viewpoints on Philippine history. I grew up surrounded by titos and titas in one of the most densely Filipino communities in the United States. But that is not the same thing as the Philippines. After two years, I definitely have my moments when I will tell my Fil-Am friends that the differences are just more than we realize. Being a Fil-Am really prepares one just a small fraction for the Philippines.
|I am still asked WHY Filipino food is not mainstream in the US. For most people, mainstream means that it should be as ubiquitous as the Thai and Vietnamese restaurants that litter the landscape.
That being said, I feel equally at home in both countries. My mom and dad live in California. But I have so many relatives in Manila that holidays there are actually more exciting than here. I love that new friends are so easily made in the Philippines and take our reputation for hospitality very much to heart in the States. I definitely want to return and teach again at UP Diliman in the future. I recognize that my career as an American scholar affords me more fellowship opportunities than my colleagues in the Philippines. I've only been able to do this thanks to funding from Johns Hopkins and the Fulbright Commission. When I see how much my colleagues in the Philippines believe in my project, I truly feel indebted to all those who helped me there. It would be foolish to stay in the US and not to give back.
AMY: What do you think is the mindset of restaurateurs in Manila that feature Filipino food? I think what they produce in their restaurants would be a Rorschach test on how they feel about Filipino food.
I ask this question because you discovered through your research how the Americans who were in the Philippines during the colonial period showed nothing but disgust for the Filipino food they encountered. I somehow feel that the legacy of having our food so disparaged and dismissed easily lingers on to this day.
I am still asked WHY Filipino food is not mainstream in the US. For most people, mainstream means that it should be as ubiquitous as the Thai and Vietnamese restaurants that litter the landscape. I always respond that we should NOT compare ourselves to these other cuisines and how they have proliferated in many cities. This feeling is so ingrained that I am convinced that people like to wallow in their misery. And when we break through this glass ceiling, they are so blinded by this “victimhood” that they can't see the great strides we have made in moving our food forward in this country.
ALEX: My restaurant view of Manila is admittedly small because, as a grad student on stipend, I was penny-pinching and did not break my bank at the “sosyal na sosyal” places. So I spent the majority of my money eating at “turo turos,” to be honest. But I'll give you a few vignettes instead to let you know how much I'd rather be eating kinilaw in Dumaguete or lechon in Cebu.
I was dragged unwillingly to Abé in Fort Bonifacio one night by a bunch of Americans on a Saturday night. I wanted to take everyone to the Pasig dampa but was outnumbered because my American dining companions were told that Abé was "the place" to go for Filipino food, which was shocking to me because, while I respect what they're doing at that restaurant by cleaning up presentation and it's a beautiful space, it's pretty far removed from how many Filipinos eat. Anyway, while we were there, my American companions unfortunately voiced their views of Filipino food as "something overcooked with rice" or "pork with pork." As the only ethnic Filipino there, I certainly was upset and spent most of the evening talking to the waiters in Tagalog about how disappointed I was in dining with such closed-minded people.
|Most Filipinos are still satisfied to equate the best meals with buffets in hotels in Makati.
Luckily, most Americans are not this bad and many of the Americans I dined with in Manila would rather go to the Cubao dampa than Abé. But there are a few places that I got excited about while I was there. Reyes Barbecue, which is a chain, made a remarkably good inihaw na pusit. Within UP, Chocolate Kiss served a pretty great sinigang. Binalot tries to follow along the ethos of baon packed individually in a banana leaf. For someone who didn't want to spend more than P250 per meal, I was a very happy camper with the amount of dining options.
But it's that high price point that worries me. The overwhelming majority of higher-priced restaurants in the Pinas are still not serving Filipino food. The pride and drive to create, say, a Danny Meyer empire of making really well-made, well-marketed Filipino food still hasn't hit the industry in Manila. Most Filipinos are still satisfied to equate the best meals with buffets in hotels in Makati. An intimate, local, and proud restaurant that we could recommend to our expat friends visiting Manila still escapes me. Which is why I still tell my friends to just go to the dampa.
AMY: Finally, do you think your research can contribute towards dealing with this mindset and provide a “satisfying” explanation to the aggrieved Filipino regarding this perceived slight by the American diner to our food?
ALEX: I think my research could help explain why this colonial mindset still exists for sure. I don't think I realized it was so pervasive when I was growing up in California because, to be honest, I grew up surrounded by it. Most of the older Fil-Ams I knew were so interested in showing they had made it in the US that looking back to the Philippines was a low priority. I didn't know a whole lot when I first arrived in the Philippines myself just because it's not something we first-generations had much experience with, no matter how many summers we flew back to visit our families. I know things have changed and there's a larger number of balikbayan who spent more time in the Pinas than kids born in the US like me. But even then, the knowledge of what the Americans did in the Philippines is under explored in American academia. In the Philippines, it is looked at critically and receives a proper post-colonial critique. However, not enough of that story is taught to Fil-Ams and if they are exposed to it, it's at the university level in the few Filipino American history courses in the country when it should be a large part of the American history survey or curriculum. I'd put it this way: the British education system spends a lot more time talking about their legacy in India, the Caribbean and Africa than we do. While it was only 50 years, the American Period in the Philippines still has incredibly resonant repercussions simply because, well, the reach of the US is still so strong in the Philippines. That may be a controversial viewpoint for many, but it's undeniable.
ALEX: My turn to ask you questions:
Why are some restaurateurs still obsessed with this idea of bringing Filipino cuisine to the mainstream?
(Note: At this point, I did not get the chance to answer Alex’s questions via email, but I will answer them here.)
|When you talk to people whose food has been mainstreamed like the Chinese and Indians about how their food is represented in these restaurants, they always say that the food is no good and does not compare to home cooking.
AMY: Food is so much intertwined with identity and self-respect. This is why I feel so many Filipinos want a “restaurant they can be proud of, something to showcase their food and culture” because if you accept their food, you accept them, too, in the social context of the US. The problem is that, just like adobo and its limitless variations, everyone has his or her own idea of what that place should be. So the quest goes on because many Filipinos believe that they are the only ones who know what a true Filipino restaurant should be. It is good that such pride exists and a demand for a good Filipino restaurant is bottomless. But the downside to this is the “crab mentality” and knives are ever ready to stick it into anyone who deigns puts his or her stamp on the food that does not match their own.
ALEX: What are the disadvantages of mainstreaming Filipino cuisine so that it's as ubiquitous like Thai or Vietnamese?
AMY: You know the saying “beware of answered prayers.” Everyone wants to see a proliferation of Filipino restaurants around just like Thai and Vietnamese restaurants which sprout all over the place ad nauseum. When you talk to people whose food has been mainstreamed like the Chinese and Indians about how their food is represented in these restaurants, they always say that the food is no good and does not compare to home cooking. The restaurant industry has really suffered a huge decline in the past couple of decades and it is caused by twin factors of people demanding good food for cheap prices and soaring prices of food, gasoline, kitchen supplies everywhere. Most businesses are forced to use shortcuts (packaged mixes, cheap cuts of meat, frozen fish), hire inexperienced cheap labor and cut costs wherever they can. If people want to have many good Filipino restaurants around, they should put their money where their mouth is: they should be willing to pay the price of what it takes to build one and keep it going.
ALEX: Do Filipinos in the US play an active role in introducing Filipino cuisine to other Americans?
AMY: Of course, they do and the more enlightened they are about our history and how our lives are affected on a daily basis by what happened a century ago, the better we will be for it. One cannot define a good strategy in promoting our food in this country without that understanding. Where do you start? You can see the results of people who try based on assumptions that are all over the map. The worst is the assumption that our food is brown, oily and stinky and so we must surreptitiously pass it on to the unsuspecting American just in case they might like it and then we tell them it is Filipino if they like it. I get horrified when I see posts like this on Facebook.
Sometimes it is good to have a discussion about this with people who have no emotional stake in the subject matter. It happened earlier this year when I had a meeting with Leslie Stoker, the President of my publisher, Stewart, Tabori and Chang. She was quite excited that the head of the London-based Sales Department of their holding company had specifically picked out Memories for a revised and updated edition because of its sales potential. In this day and age, the publishing world is no longer run by its editorial board, but rather it sales department. So if Sales says this book is a seller, we need to have it updated to reflect the new restaurant, Purple Yam (the first edition ended with a chapter on Cendrillon recipes), then it will have a much longer life in print. Sales had deemed it to be THE Philippine cookbook that people go to and wanted to take the opportunity to increase its sales all over the world.
At that moment, I felt some pride in what we had accomplished. To stoke the fire, I said, “Yes, this would be good for Filipinos because they feel that their food is largely ignored here and abroad.” Before I could add to that, Leslie looked at me and said, ”Well, it is because we do not know enough about it. That’s why we need this book to solve that problem.”
Well, that pretty much shut me up. How simple! Our food is not mainstream because people do not know about it and we need more books like Memories to educate people about it. So much for the hand wringing and gnashing of teeth.
I really had a good laugh after that. And I proceeded to rid my mind with all that baggage. This is really what we should all do in the new year of 2012. Throw out all the baggage and start with a fresh look because our food is good. People will love it when they learn about it. We wish all of you a year of happy and healthy eating. And eat that Pinoy food with love and relish it because there is nothing like it in the world.