BOOK REVIEW: A LA CARTE: Food and Fiction

by Rose Churma

Filipinos have a special relationship with food. There is no gathering, event or meeting (even the ones via Zoom) that excludes the sharing of food.

When someone comes to visit, the first thing we ask is “Kumain ka na ba?” And, if the visit falls during mealtimes, we are quick to create another space at the dining table.

We also have difficulty throwing away food. It is a common ritual in my household for me to inspect plastic containers that clutter the refrigerator. We let mold accumulate first before we can dump it down the drain.

I also have difficulty using food as a cosmetic. No, I can’t waste a good creamy avocado on my face or squeeze a ripe kalamansi to condition my hair.

We view food as sacred. Food is life. It can’t be treated with disrespect.

This anthology is unique, in the sense that it combines food recipes with fiction whose main thrust is on food. The author, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, writes in her introduction: “We believe that stories reflect the soul and culture of people. So does food, so we thought that combining stories and recipes in one book would reveal Filipino culture in a unique manner…”

When the editors publicized the search for submissions for this book, they received serious stories on food and eating that bring back memories of families and friends and their complex relationships. The selected stories came from authors living in the Philippines, as well as the US, Singapore, Australia, France and Germany.

The 25 stories in this collection are preceded by related recipes of Filipino cuisine. The book was formatted like a menu with categories like appetizers, salads, soup, main dish to dessert (and items in between to create a full meal) with the stories falling under the appropriate sections.

One of the stories that caught my attention was Margarita Marfori’s Mango Seasons, her recollection of one special summer when an old mango tree was cut down.

The accompanying recipe is called “Green Mango Relish”, or the pickled mango of my youth where unripe mangoes are cut into pieces and soaked in vinegar generously spiked with siling labuyo, salt and vinegar.

The story paired with the recipe assaults the senses in another way but in a similar fashion as a spicy green mango—it shocks and lingers. The narrative describes memories that were triggered by the death of a beloved mango tree.

My choice of stories is based on the accompanying recipe of my favorite dish, which in this case is “Binagoongang Baboy” which is sautéed pork in bagoong alamang (salted shrimp paste).

The accompanying story is by Brian Ascalon Roley who teaches at Miami University of Ohio.  In Memory is his recollection of his Filipina mother and Caucasian father in a California summer camp in the ‘70s, his youthful experience of blatant racism and his parents’ reaction to it.

The third story is by Edgar Poma entitled Desperata, named after the narrator’s mother, an immigrant Ilocana living in Manoa Valley. Its setting is in Honolulu and is liberally sprinkled with pidgin terms and very rich in local color (although at times seemingly forced and contrived).

This story is paired with the recipe for “Cascaron”—a favorite dessert or snack popularized by Hawaii’s Filipinos. The premise of the story is interesting: a young NYC firefighter retrieves the letter written by the head of a publishing house in the World Trade Center’s rubble.

In the letter, he gives the go-ahead to publish a novel written by an aspiring novelist. The novel is an ode to the writer’s mom, Desperata. Years later the firefighter visits Honolulu at the invitation of the young writer.

At the end of the story, the visiting firefighter utters these unforgettable words: “I don’t think it’s enough for you guys to honor your moms by writing ‘bout her…—you gotta see her every chance you get while you still can and you gotta hold her in your arms.”

On the book’s back cover, Isagani Cruz of the Philippine Star concludes that “…it is not so much who writes as what is written that makes this book a must-read.”

I agree. This anthology is a 25-item banquet of food, facts, fiction, and fantasy. Enjoy!

 established a career in architecture 40 years ago, specializing in judicial facilities planning. As a retired architect, she now has the time to do the things she always wanted to do: read books and write about them, as well as encourage others to write.

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