Whose Food do we Preserve?
[Ed. note: Graciously accepting our invitation to be Guest Editor for the 36th issue of OUR OWN VOICE is Amy Besa, co-author of Memories of Philippine Kitchens: Stories and Recipes from Far and Near. New York, NY: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006. Romy Dorotan and she are preparing a new edition of the book. In this issue, Our Own Voice features two essays from their revised edition.]
Today there is an urgency to preserve the food of the previous generation. The urgency that my generation feels towards preservation of heirloom recipes comes not only from nostalgia, but the realization that modern times present new challenges on the issues of food. The world just counted its 7 billionth person (only symbolically since we have surpassed that number several years ago) and the pressures on feeding the ever growing world population is felt not only by governments but also the environment. How long does it take to grow a cow? How much does it cost to feed chickens, pigs, goats and raise fruits and vegetables? Nature takes her time because what she produces provides our bodies the much needed nutrition and sustenance to make us grow to be healthy individuals.
But when the world no longer has the luxury of time, space, earth and water, market forces push food manufacturers to produce foodlike substances that mirror the satiating effects of real food filling up the empty and hungry bellies of poor people of the world. Packets and sachets of artificial flavors loaded with MSG and its countless versions under different names have proliferated in local markets all over the Philippines. A visit to the local market in Romy’s hometown of Irosin, Sorsogon this summer showed me that valuable real estate in the public market is now devoted to packaged flavor mixes with brand names like Magic Sarap and Lucky Me all attractively designed with bright colors promising to brighten up the flavors of home cooking when provisions are meager. These packaged mixes have become a crutch assuring the home cook that he or she no longer needed to develop culinary skills to produce a flavorful meal. All one had to do was open one of those magic sachets and voila! All the goodness of home cooking from the western kitchens of Nestle and Knorr are now on your table!
It is a race against time because the old cooks who have the knowledge of cooking real food are now in their twilight years and will soon be buried with their recipes. The marketing geniuses of manufactured faux food move fast armed not only with money to advertise and promote their products but also with research on the human propensity to develop cravings for specific flavors and aromas. These multinational corporations totally control the food world in the Philippines making it impossible even for enlightened food practitioners to survive in this industry without their support and advertising pesos.
So what does a David do in this situation against a Goliath of the food world?
We ask people to remember what real food tasted like when lolas or lolos cooked in their ancestral homes in the provinces. Go to that baul or long forgotten trunk and search for handwritten recipes and bring them back to the modern table. We tell people to interview as many old cooks in their hometown (usually in the local dialect) and translate and bring them back to us. All these food memories belong to all of us. We have a right to preserve our culinary heritage.
And most important of all, we must bring these dishes back to the table again along with their cooking techniques and cooking equipment. We should not look at these food memories as museum pieces to be archived and relegated to dusty shelves. We must cook and eat them again and develop a palate that appreciates all the fruits, vegetables and bounty of the seas that nature freely gave us.
The benefits are plentiful. The road to culinary preservation also leads to a healthier lifestyle and a deeper understanding of how we can be better stewards of the earth.
So the next time you open that bottle of bagoong, patis or suka, think of all our ancestors that ate and enjoyed these same simple pleasures of life. And when you look for rice, get the heirloom kind that some farmer still grows somewhere in the rice terraces of the Cordilleras. Think of how they prayed to the rice god to preserve their harvest and granary. And how their wives and daughters keep those treasured grains underneath their beds to make sure that they can plant them again in the next season. Just think that if we took all those traditions away from the original families that started them, how much poorer the world will be without all those stories that each grain of rice could tell.
And the storytelling had begun. We start with these two heirloom recipes of dinuguan (blood stew of pork innards) and chicken kinulob (native chicken slow cooked in a blackened claypot) from Bulacan; go south to the Visayas where we recreate two old Cebuano recipes: patotim or duck simmered in tuba lined with sugarcane in a claypot and a doughnut like snack called binangkal from a recipe preserved by a Stockton, California family. We also include a meditation on the making of a banga, the old style water cooler made from clay, a dying art in one of the barangays in Bacolod, Negros Occidental.
This is the path that leads to “ang sariling atin” or food that was always ours. Kain na!
New York City, December 2011