NARDO traded rice from their farm for the Mangyans’ cassava. The Mangyans flashed a big appreciative smile. They wore elaborately embroidered albeit extremely worn out robes, walked on bare feet and carried baskets on their back. They clearly did not care much for money, shoes or other material things, and were in bliss with the few sacks of rice that would be a welcome break from the cassava they ate everyday. Sacks of rice carried piggyback style, they trekked back happily to the mountains of Bulalacao, Mindoro.
Nardo, meanwhile, was ecstatic with the cassava. He was going to make cassava cake—the best in town. He remembered how, as a little boy, he used to watch his grandfather cook this and how his grandmother’s face lit up as she complimented the old man. He hoped his girlfriend would look at him with the same love and pride. He peeled off the cassava’s skin, grated the contents, and then pressed it to separate the juice. The meat was then mixed with three different kinds of milk and some dayap rind, set on a round baking pan and covered with a sweet, thick milk mixture. This was heated in an oven and pulled out after a few hours. “Lolo would have been so proud,” Nardo thought, looking at his masterpiece. The top, smooth and golden, would make even the most skeptical of Spanish critics appreciate the thin layer of milk flan. And many a grandmother would be pleased with the slightly rough yet gooey texture of the cassava underneath.
Nardo went to town and sold over a dozen orders. Then he dropped off a couple at the home of the woman he was seeking to marry, delighting her mother. Another llanera went to the parish priest. Then he went home, happy and amazed at the joys that had come from a simple trade with the Mangyans.
* * *
I like to think that food writing is like the story above: a sharing of experiences, culture, and most of all, a love for food. Indeed, food is like love: It is a universal language, a cultural bridge.
On the one hand, food writing is nothing more than shared stories. In fact, I read once that there is no such thing as food writing. It’s just writing. And the subject is food.
Writing on food is also an archiving of flavors and cultural history. It seeks to reflect both the habits and habitat of a people. The great late Doreen Fernandez called herself a food anthropologist. Hence, just like any kind of GOOD writing, it requires the following: research, research, research.
The value of research in food writing is especially emphasized by veteran food writers like Inquirer’s own Micky Fenix and Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, co-founders of the Doreen Fernandez Food Writing Awards that seek to discover and hone food writers. Sta. Maria’s book for example, “The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes 1521-1935,” which won the Gourmand World Book award in 2008, has research that spans centuries, as its title states. It exposes readers from the 21st century to the food culture of our forefathers, such as being quiet during meals or cooking using pots, or what the menu was on the Philippines’ first ever Independence Day.
But good FOOD writers are not just writers but also possess a love and passion for food. They must be gourmands. They must be able to distinguish between the taste of basil and mint and understand how dayap rind changes the flavor of a cassava cake. They must know the season when mangoes ripen, which towns in which Mindanao provinces produce the best durian.
It is quite a tall order that requires not only knowledge through reading but through exposure as well. The best writers are those who have lived. So food writers must do their best to travel and experience the many flavors of the world.
It will also help much if these writers know their way around the kitchen: to understand that the fish is tough because it is overcooked, that hot chocolate is thicker when left in the pot longer, that creating eggs benedict is not an easy task. As the pianist would better appreciate a concerto, knowing how difficult it is to learn Bach or Mozart or Tchaikovsky, so would the cook better appreciate a really fine meal and have the wherewithal to dispute a lousy one,
The food writer must also be adventurous, willing to sample the eye of a pig (it tastes like the yellow part of a balut! Yum!). Or the balls of a cow. Or the petals of a flower. Or the meat of a snake. It’s fascinating. And delicious.
The food writer can’t be a snob. Ya gotta be cowboy. Because some of the best discoveries of unique flavors are in humble corners and not flashy establishments. Diwal fresh from the shores of Capiz; bulalo from a hole in the wall in Tagaytay; the best pandesal made by a 70-year-old man in a small home in Sta. Maria, Bulacan. On that note, may I also push for a little jeje pride, like for Chippy, Chickenjoy and greasy burgers from Burger Machine. Call it a cultural influence.
Finally, the good food writer writes from the heart. As Sean Connery’s character said in “Finding Forrester”: “The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”
Like good food, the recipe to good food writing includes love. •