Every life establishes connections with others along the way-but then there is that singular life which touches and transforms every life it encounters.
Such was the life of Doreen Fernandez, whose descriptions strain vocabularies and whose legacy strains belief. She died ten years ago and this year has been a long and rich period of remembrances of a life that was literary—and so much more—that this article will barely scratch the surface of Doreen’s impossibly diverse life.
From food to education to theater history, from mentor to foodie to friend, Doreen left an indelible mark.
She was born Alicia Dorotea Gamboa to Aguinaldo and Alicia Lucero on October 28, 1934 in Manila, though she would forever treasure Silay City, Negros Occidental as her hometown. She savored the written word early, earned her AB in English Literature from St. Scholastica’s College in Manila, and her MA and Ph.D from the Ateneo de Manila University, where she would go on to chair its English and Communication departments as well as sit on the university’s Board of Trustees.
It was at the Ateneo that she perfected her life-long devotion of transforming students. It was in one of her English classes that she encountered a freshman who would eventually become best-selling author and historian Ambeth Ocampo.
Ambeth remembers that Doreen encouraged him to write, and recalls how, when McDonald’s opened its first Philippine branch in Recto in 1980, Doreen drove to the restaurant and ordered 20 burgers, fries, apple pies and soda to bring back to school and had the students check if they were consistent.
“Her greatest legacy was teaching—both in the classroom and her writings,” Ambeth says. “I’d like to think that all teachers model themselves after teachers they liked; my teaching and writing owe a lot to Doreen. Without her I would have turned out differently. I don’t know if she would be proud of all that I am, but then all that is good is credited to her and all the flaws are my own.”
Writer and educator Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz was Doreen’s first cousin and a neighbor who would later write a children’s book about Doreen called “The Teacher” for The Bookmark, Inc.’s Modern Heroes for the Filipino Youth series.
Neni was repeatedly a recipient of Doreen’s renowned generosity, and agrees with Ambeth: “Doreen brought out the best in her students who never even dreamt they had the latent talents she had awakened and nurtured. Her unselfishness in sharing, her work ethic, her demand for high quality work—graceful language, impeccable grammar—was a constant. She taught them to be curious, to always pursue their interests, to be proud of Philippine culture-and how much there was to be discovered.”
This was reflected in Doreen’s little projects, like the newsletter she painstakingly edited for Christmas for the Santiago Lucero clan for 11 years. “And here we are on her tenth death anniversary, trying to complete an issue in her memory,” Neni says.
A passionate lover of jazz and Gershwin, Doreen met her interior designer and architect husband Wili Fernandez at a jazz joint called Café Indonesia in the 1950s and married him in 1958. (Wili would pass away in 1998).
It was with Wili that Doreen found herself surrounded by theater and food. Niece Maya Besa Roxas remembers that Doreen “really took an interest in, and nurtured relationships with, each of us. And yet she was always so careful to never make you feel like she was intruding.”
Though the Fernandez couple never had children, Doreen was effectively a mother to all she had taught and inspired, according to Maya: “I personally think that is one of the greatest compliments to her, and one of her greatest legacies. That mentorship, that caring and nurturing and understanding she lavished on her students and extended to many beyond the classrooms-fellow faculty, school employees, friends, families of friends, friends of friends, she had no prejudices. If you asked (for guidance, information, advice, help, aid, comfort, wisdom), or even if you didn’t, you would receive it. She had an incredible ability to touch lives. How could she not have been a teacher? She was inspiration herself.”
Even as she chronicled Philippine literature with “The Writer and His Milieu” oral histories with Edilberto Alegre, Doreen immersed herself in the theater and wrote definitely about Filipino theater history, the general public knew her best for her food column “In Good Taste,” which ran in the Philippine Daily Inquirer for 16 years. She wrote about dishes so well, readers would find themselves actually hungry after reading a column.
It was through the column that she influenced a whole plantation of food writers and helped shape the local food landscape as we know it today.
Food columnist Micky Fenix wrote about food alongside Doreen. “She was always curious, would eat quietly, and only gave her opinion when you asked for it,” Micky says. She adds that she followed Doreen’s ethos of writing only about restaurants she liked, eschewing vitriol or negativity in her words.
“She once said that when she wrote something negative about a restaurant, the owners and chefs said it was because her husband, Wili, didn’t design the restaurant. Besides, she said a restaurant requires a lot of money to set up and she will not bring a business down like that. I have followed that dictum.”
Though she was diabetic (she never forgot to take her dose of insulin) and had a kidney transplanted, she didn’t let that get in the way of her enjoying food. She invited others and liked eating with a group.
Writer, artist and Bale Dutung restaurateur Claude Tayag was one of her companions on out-of-town trips and observed that Doreen would taste a little from her companions’ dishes and liked good seafood. “She had a characteristic way of expressing ecstasy at the table, not with words, but by humming a song and swaying her head from side to side.”
More importantly, Claude says that Doreen was immensely influential: “Doreen was a generation ahead of her time. She paved the way for the popularity of literary output with food history and culture as new fields of interest. This can be seen by the flooding of local food lore books, cookbooks, glossy food magazines and food bloggers. Most importantly, she opened our eyes to the appreciation of our own cuisine.”
Another regular eating companion was World Wildlife Fund CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo “Lory” Tan, who was also Doreen’s publisher when Tan headed The Bookmark, Inc., publishing Doreen’s pioneering books on culinary culture like 1988’s “Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food” and 1994’s “Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture.”
Lory recalls Doreen as a joy to work with as an author: “Pleasant. Painless. Prompt. Positive. Clear minded. Dependable. Generous. Always open. Rarely judgmental. Well-exposed. Broad-minded. And, very, very intelligent.”
He recalls fondly his favorite collaboration with Doreen, the 2000 book “Palayok: Philippine Food Through Time, on Site, in the Pot,” which Lory says was a Doreen project all the way and “a timeless work.”
Ever the worker, Doreen would actually leave two books unfinished after her passing, a book about indigenous Filipino food and another about Wili’s designs. “This one we still hope to see through to publication somehow,” Maya says.
Despite her various medical conditions that would occasionally land her in the hospital, Doreen would always bounce back-she seemed invincible, even when she was already in a wheelchair.
So it wasn’t surprising that, after a recent and lengthy hospital stay, Doreen flew to the United States in 2002, visiting San Francisco before traveling to New York. It was there that she fell ill, her body finally succumbing though her spirit never wavered. She passed away on June 24, 2002. She was 67.
Ten years later, and the world of food in the Philippines has never been more vibrant. She would have loved that—her fingerprints are everywhere. Micky and several others—Doreen included—had been putting together a food writing contest but when Doreen died before the contest could get going, they named it the Doreen Fernandez Food Writing Awards, a way to recognize the best work from aspiring food writers.
To commemorate the contest’s ten years of existence as well as the decade since Doreen’s death, Anvil Publishing released “Savor The Word: Ten Years of the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award,” a collection of the winning pieces edited by Micky Fenix, Maya Besa Roxas and Felice Prudente Sta. Maria.
“Savor the Word” features selected essays by Doreen, recipes by chef Mol Fernando and the work of now-established food writers like Margaux Salcedo and Ige Ramos.
At The Museum at De La Salle University, one can see some of the over 400 works of art that comprises the Wili and Doreen Fernandez Collection, including works from Fernando Amorsolo, Carlos Francisco, Vicente Manansala and H.R. Ocampo.
At the Ateneo, Doreen’s legacy is celebrated as well by the ongoing exhibit “The Writer and her World” at the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings, showcasing all the awards, achievements and encounters that couldn’t fit in this essay.
Perhaps the invisible things are the greatest part of Doreen Fernandez’s legacy, how she has changed everyone she met through her boundless generosity. As Maya Besa Roxas remembers: “Touching lives. Though her work in cultural studies was significant and pioneering in incredibly important ways, many other folks can and will research and write books. But I believe her generosity, encouragement, gentleness, integrity, and genuineness are deep and lasting.”