I was tempted to write about love (sad, happy, fleeting, eternal, and virtual of course!) as we Filipinos often take the month of hearts quite seriously. We’re enamoured with Valentine’s Day much more than Hallmark ever hoped for. But I decided to put that on hold. Instead I want to focus on another great love of Pinoys around the world: one whose absence has not only made the heart grow fonder, but also left a great yearning in our tummy — food.
It’s not new, really. Every true-blue Pinoy possesses the I-love-food-and-I-love-talking-about-food-even-when-I’m –eating gene. Yes, I truly believe that J.R.R. Tolkien came into contact with Pinoys and was inspired to create the Bilbo’s and Frodo’s this world now knows.
But I believe that our fascination with food goes beyond our lust for gastronimical exhilaration. Why it’s so significant for Filipinos at home or abroad lies in the fact that when you talk about food in the Philippine context, you must also talk about hunger.
Food and storytelling
Food – both as a basic need and social tool – is common to all cultures. The degree we relate to it might vary from one people to another, but its ability to stir up memories remains the same. They way a certain dish looks, smells and tastes summon memories of places, people or events. The way a dish sounds wile it is prepared and cooked also mixes with voices in the past. The way we feel inside and out – when we’re sad or happy, when it rains outside or when the heat is unbearable – also affects the way we yearn for food.
For us Filipinos, food is a major ingredient of our psyche and also plays a prominent social role. You can always taste it in memories of family, friendships, work and relations. Its aroma seeps through the very fabric of our lives: in art, stories, songs, business, celebrations, struggles and even death.
The greatest display of our food-loving nature is the ‘Fiesta’. It was originally done in celebration of a town’s patron saint, but in modern times has acquired other meanings. For some, it’s a time to show-off one’s social status: the more lavish the food is, the higher you are in the social ladder. Some families would even take a loan way beyond their financial means just to be able to throw a lavish celebration in their homes. Despite these negative traits, the fiesta is nowadays accepted as a barometer of a town’s hospitality, and is a time for families and relatives to be reunited. For example, students studying in the cities would go home to their hometown on this special day with their classmates to take part in the family celebration.
Fiesta is also a time for sharing and generosity, where everyone is invited to eat and have their fill. This is the reason why a typical fiesta table would boast of five or more dishes, deserts, fruits and drinks, in quantities made to last the whole day. Eating usually begins from 11 a.m. and can last all the way to midnight.
However, amidst this abundance of food in our memories, the other reality for majority of the Filipinos is the abundance of hunger.
A recent survey conducted in the Philippines showed that about 2.8 million families had nothing to eat at least once in the past three months. Almost 700,000 families (about 3.5 million people), 4.2 percent of the population, reported experiencing severe hunger, which was defined in the survey as going hungry often or always in the past three months. About 2.1 million families, 12.7 percent of the population, experienced moderate hunger or hunger once or a few times in the same period.
A new enterprise has also arisen from this growing hunger: the “pagpag” sidewalk vendor. “Pagpag” means to shake off the dust or dirt, and in this enterprise it means leftover food that is scavenged from garbage cans, shaken to remove dirt, fried with tomatoes and onions in leftover cooking oil or boiled in water with some vegetables. Afterwards, it is sold as a P10 meal. Many very poor families eat this to assuage pangs of hunger. Or else they subsist on rice and “toyo” [soy sauce] or “patis” [fish sauce]. These are the families that often experience extreme hunger.
What this points out is that not only physical hunger ravages Filipino society. We are also famished for justice, equality, pride, freedom and prosperity. We yearn for real change and development.
As migrants, we are hungry for the familiar; we long for the comforting sounds, smell and tastes of our homeland. We yearn for equal chances and the chance to build our lives anew. There are so many things that we miss. Food is our way of connecting to our land and we will always have this deep longing to taste once again the dishes that shaped our identity.
This is why food would be a most natural instrument for summoning memories and telling stories. It gives birth to satisfaction but is also hunger’s kin; it symbolises our hope and heartaches; it can be equivalent to abundance, but also an ironic symbol in a land filled with poverty.
Women, food and stories
As nurturers of the family, the Filipino women have a special relationship with food and cooking. In poor families, mothers would be the first one to go hungry because they have the smallest share or often give their share to their husband and children.
As an interactive media professional and as a storyteller, I’m fascinated with how food can be used to stimulate interactivity. My experience in Pinay sa Holland has given me the chance to see how food, storytelling and new media can come together in a natural way.
The women of Pinay sa Holland all cherish a special relationship with food being mothers, wives, nurturers and home-managers themselves. They love to cook it; they also love to eat it. Part of their women’s day get-together would always include a visit to a favourite restaurant — eat-all-you-can, preferably. And then, in the midst of feasting comes not only the sharing of flavours, but the stories as well.
We are thinking of developing an interactive project that would involve food and stories to support our educational and heritage goals. Such a project would fit the group’s motto: the personal is political. If you know individuals or organisations that would be willing to investigate the possibilities of this project, please contact us.
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