- Doreen Fernandez, in "Why Sinigang"?
Last week marked National Food Day, an event to "bring Americans together to celebrate and enjoy real food and to push for improved food policies." This is a good day, but it is also a stark reminder that I live in a nation that spawned industrial agriculture, hundreds of food magazines, celebrity chefs, cronuts, series like Cupcake Wars, yet where we rarely lift the curtain to the realities of food.
Today has me reflecting on how language is a funny thing. Not so long ago phrases like "farm-to-table" didn't exist. The ubiquitous "foodie" wasn't a thing, and neither was the somewhat smug "clean eating." Before the rise of conventional agriculture and processed foods, foods were simply all those things, and more.
Food that is based on the seasons, land and place is traditional as can be. Yet using these new-yet-old labels often don't feel like the right fit when I want to talk about Filipino American foods. And why is that? Is it because what many now think is a "traditional" Filipino diet doesn't fit the profile - heavy on the meats, or with processed goods introduced by the American colonial period? Is it because vegetable-based dishes shouldn't sound like "alternatives" instead of, well, their own thing? What is a "foodie" about? In a time when hunger and inequity exist side-by-side with excess, is there a way to still celebrate pleasure?
I'm reminded of a conversation earlier this fall. In preparation for a culinary demo at Savor Filipino, I went out hunting for bittermelon and chilies at the Old Oakland farmer's market. That market feels like home. There you can find late peaches, grapes, and onions alongside produce that often cannot enter mainstream groceries but are staples in their own right: bulbous bittermelons, sweetish jujubes, dusky kabocha, and winged beans. Farm-to-table is the obvious destination for these foods. Of course these came from a farm somewhere. Of course this would make its way to a table, right?
On the way, I told my friend about the Filipino food demo I was planning for the event. Although I had some mixed feelings about the "farm-to-table" label, my chef co-presenter Dominic Ainza and I decided to use it anyway. We wanted to use it as an opportunity - not to bandwagon onto a trend but to reframe ancestral ways of eating as already in line with "new" food concepts.
She was thoughtful. "When I think of farm to table," my friend said, "Right away I think expensive. I think of trendy and costly, going out. I wouldn't think of home cooks and or of gardeners, but yeah, that's what it's about."
Dominic Ainza and I at "The Cook and Gardener" food demo
Living in the Bay Area, I've found that many people's first association with sustainable foods is tagged to high profile names like Michael Pollan or Alice Waters, and celebrated and costly restaurants. We rarely hear or see the workers of color whose intimate work make this a reality - in the fields, casting fishing line, and behind the kitchen door. Farm-to-table isn't much used to describe "ethnic" cuisine - unless, perhaps, it is turned into "upscale fusion" or taken out of context (see: $18 foie grass sunchoke tacos at __fill in blank__ new downtown joint).
Within the growing Filipino foods scene, I've sometimes heard our foods described as "fusion" when they include a locally grown or organic ingredient. I was struck that "antibiotic-free chicken adobo" was described as "innovated" for being antibiotic-free. Organic soy sauce was the "twist." I get it - sometimes we may need to point out intentional purchasing choices in order to lift them up. Sometimes, many times, it does cost more. There is also a pressure to use the buzzwords of the moment. Yet how is it that processed or chemically laden foods are now the invisible default, when they are the things our ancestors would recognize?
Before, we didn't need words like foodie, farm-to-table, fair food, clean or organic. If we could create our own language for how Filipino Americans relate to food today, I wonder what words we would use instead.
Even with my rudimentary grasp of Filipino languages, I've found that they mirror deep relationships to food. A rainbow of words are linked to shades of ripeness, sourness, softness, or tastiness. Linamnam. Masarap. Mapait. Maalat. Matamis. There are names for the distinct stages at which to use a coconut, beginning from translucent baby flesh and ending with dried husk. Rice cultivars were grown from darkest purple to shell white, their biodiversity rivaling corn in the Americas and potatoes in Peru. Our place names mirror seasons and the harvest. I always circle back to this memory, that my mother is from Pangasinan - literally, "the land of salt."
These edible words are reminders that food is at the soul of Filipino culture, and that within this original knowledge, land and tradition meet. They may not be new or trendy, but they are reminders of what once was and what can be.