Exploring the Social Life of Food

By Ted Aldwin Ong

For the past months, I have found myself more and more attached to the world of gastronomy, communing with the historical and cultural insights on Filipino food by foremost scholars like Doreen G. Fernandez, Edilberto N. Alegre, Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, Fernando N. Zialcita, and Ige Ramos, among others.

Their writings reactivated my fascination for hyperlocal as far as the study of gastronomy is concerned and encouraged me to look for the work of local scholars, cultural workers, researchers, and practitioners. I found plenty, and Iloilo has a lot of stories and materials like those being shared by PJ Arañador, Bombette Marin, and Mary Joy R. Sumagaysay. Hopefully, I will be able to share some of their discussions soon in this space.

One of the academic talks during the National Food Month offered an interesting dimension to gastronomy, entitled “The Social Life of Food,” by Dr. Clement C. Camposano, chancellor of the University of the Philippines Visayas.

According to Chancellor Camposano, “food, like other material objects, do have “social lives” (see Appadurai 1986), and doing their biographies by examining how they are culturally understood and/or put to use, or focusing on their trajectories from raw ingredients, to preparation or production, through exchange or distribution, to consumption, can disclose a wealth of cultural and historical data about the societies within which they are embedded.”

This particular point led me to read Arjun Appadurai’s “The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective” (Cambridge University Press, 1986), where Appadurai provided an illuminating intro to deepen our understanding of our foodways, the value of food, and food as a commodity mediated by politics; hence, the rich cultural narrative of our food and the trajectories that shaped their histories.

The popular La Paz Batchoy is a good example. According to Chancellor Camposano, “a bowl of batchoy is not just noodles, spices, and cheap animal bits; its broth is also thickened by stories about our relationship with Chinese immigrants, our deep ties to Mexico and the New World, and the everyday lives of the toiling masses. Its emergence in a public market, and not the kitchens of the local elite, speaks volumes about its democratic character.”

The democratic character of the batchoy shows the derivation of the Chinese, who fled from the poorest communities in China in search of a better life in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world. The struggle that they underwent to build a better future for their families and for the next generations also mirrors the Filipino diaspora of today, who are considered modern-day heroes because of their allotments remitted back home for their children’s education and to support economic activities.

The vestiges of scarcity and deprivation experienced by Chinese immigrants in the past centuries are also mirrored in the lives of the Ilonggos, making the batchoy a food with a strong sense of shared history with which emerged the Ilonggo middle class and the neo-elite Filipino-Chinese.

In the words of Appadurai, “we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories. It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things” (Commodities and the Politics of Value, 1986). In short, only by understanding the political and economic conditions that created its existence will we be able to fully appreciate the value of the batchoy to us Ilonggos.

I remember my paternal grandfather, who was a Filipino-Chinese, making a remark on the batchoy that my grandmother cooks for him, saying that the batchoy is a Filipino-Chinese ramen, far from being authentic, and he would usually make an irritating joke that his mother was a better cook than my grandmother, to which my grandmother would respond in vernacular, “Buhi-a to anay si mama mo para makakaon ka sang gusto mo” (resurrect your mom from the dead so that you can eat the type of food that you want. And all would break into laughter.

It simply reveals that batchoy is an adaptation of Chinese ramen, a product of a substitution of ingredients that are present or abundant in Iloilo. There is nothing wrong with it. It is a practice of cultural borrowing, said Doreen G. Fernandez, and she examined this matter in the paper, “Culture Ingested: Notes on the Indigenization of Philippine Food,” wherein she said: “The process of borrowing went on in innumerable Philippine households through many years. It was a conscious and yet unconscious cultural reaction, in that the borrowers knew that they were cooking foreign dishes while making necessary adaptations, but were not aware that they were transforming the dish and making it their own.”

“The process seems to start with a foreign dish in its original form (pancit, for instance), brought in by foreigners (Chinese traders, Spanish missionaries). It is then taught to a native cook, who naturally adapts it to the tastes he knows and the ingredients he can get, thus both borrowing and adapting. Eventually, he improvises on it, thus creating a new dish that in time becomes so entrenched in the native cuisine and lifestyle that its origins are practically forgotten.”

“That is indigenization,” points out Doreen Fernandez, “and in the Philippines the process starts with a foreign element and ends with a dish that can truly be called part of Philippine cuisine.”

The next time you gorge on a bowl of batchoy, receive a serving of sweet-creamy spaghetti, or have a pizza with Guimaras mangoes as the main ingredient, you now know why. These foods may have foreign origins, but they are very Ilonggo already—substituted, adapted, and indigenized—forming their social lives and shaping the lives of those who consume these dishes.