Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It speaks of Doreen Gamboa Fernandez’s indelible legacy when, in a span of few months, we see a book of hers reprinted twice: first, by Dutch publisher Brill as part of its Gendering the Trans-Pacific World book series, and second, by Anvil, which first printed the book, “Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture,” in 1994.
Both reprints are reasons to celebrate. Fernandez’s works about Philippine food, culture, and history are almost out of print, with editions sporadically available only in specialty bookstores or during huge book fairs. While bits and pieces of her collections are available online, the pieces usually leave curious readers wanting. Simply put: Her work illuminates.
The first time I read Fernandez, I felt a warm and intelligent voice speak from the page. Here was a consummate storyteller and researcher who distilled delight in her words and reported about food and culture with such rigor and clarity. “Culture Ingested: Notes on the Indigenization of Philippine Food” was my introduction to her work, an essay included in her first collection, “Sarap: Essays in Philippine Food” (1988) which also included essays by Edilberto Alegre. The piece was (and still is) critical to my understanding of food and culture. It was inevitable to feast on more of her prose.
But to search for copies of Fernandez’s work today, before it was reprinted this year, is to participate in a breathless treasure hunt. I remember spotting my first copies of “Tikim” and “Fruits of the Philippines” in a book fair, holding on to them for dear life before I paid. In my mind, her words are canon; her teachings irrefutable. It cannot be helped — not after, in “Tikim,” she shared that story about Inteng, who prepared the best kinilaw aboard a boat in Sagay; not after she wrote about noche buenas both personal and communal; not when she exhausted all the sensory ways to write about mangoes; and certainly not after she clarified mistaken ideas about Filipino drinking.
My reverence is matched only by how potent Fernandez’s insights are. She pulls you in not just to eat, but to think about how we eat. Krip Yuson, in his introduction to Anvil’s revised and updated “Tikim,” writes how Fernandez “represents the compleat writer — curious and adventurous, giddy over research and scholarship, enamored of culinary and culture books as much as historians, chefs, restaurateurs, pioneers in food enterprise.” It’s the reason she has been cited as an inspiration by many food writers and given tribute in many of their books. Danton Remoto recalls how she was an enthusiastic observer: “She asked about the name of a fish she did not know, and then we listened to a vendor singing sweetly, to entice the customers to her table of freshly caught fish,” he wrote of Fernandez while in the market. “The next week, that vignette was already in her column.”
It has been a source of comfort whenever people remember Fernandez fondly, as there is nothing I would have wanted more than to have met her. (I must have been in sixth grade, not yet aware of her, when she passed away.) Fernandez, “of course, was not a saint,” writes Remoto, but her other friends and colleagues have shared that she was never mean, and not a purist. She has always radiated compassion and openness from the page. “Food, like language, is living culture, and as such changes with the times,” Fernandez wrote in “Tikim.” “The old ways are tested and true; the new ways are not necessarily betrayals, if they are appropriate and result in good food.” Rightfully so, Fernandez’s words would set the tone for genuine and exemplary writing about food.
Brill’s and Anvil’s reprints now come at a time when, as Ligaya Mishan declares in the New York Times, Fernandez’s work “is finding new fans.” Perhaps this presents the opportunity to reexamine her work in the context of pressing issues today: disappearing species, the politics of foodways, street vendor economy, or even gender sensitivity, among others, all of which find space in “Tikim.” Consistently, Mishan writes how Fernandez, “In documenting indigenous cooking traditions, performed “a quiet act of subversion …. She revolutionized Filipino food simply by treating it as what it is: a cuisine.”
Thus “Tikim” does more than just invite readers to ‘reconnect to cherished food’; it is, more importantly, “a call to action,” writes Aileen Suzara in the foreword for Brill’s reprint. In the face of ‘narrowing biodiversity, industrialized sameness, and a fractured and hurting climate and global food system,’ Suzara says “immense structural changes are needed.” Fernandez recognized the precariousness of our food heritage and the enormity of our potential loss even then, and today it is not enough to “simply hope these traditions survive into the future,” adds Suzara. “Just like in generations past, we all have a role to play.”
Fernandez did all of us a great service — by working hard to explore the multiple layers of Philippine food, culture, and history, she best explained what we mean by food that is ours. By infusing delight and rigor in her writing, she has inspired countless others to do the same. Her invaluable gift is to articulate our collective conscience about food, identity, representation, and power. It is up to us to listen to that conscience.
Perhaps my only complaint now is how she has so inaptly titled her book “Tikim.” When it comes to ingesting food and culture, Fernandez clearly gave us more than just a taste. She gave us a fierce, ravenous appetite.
The revised and updated “Tikim” is available at National Book Store and on the Anvil Publishing website.