A Writing Nook

William Faulkner’s writing desk. Note the can of Scram Dog Repellent next to the Underwood portable typewriter.

For a long time, I dreamed of having a writing nook. Not a room of my own, which I would never have been able to afford anyway, but a nook of my own, a space big enough for a table and chair, preferably next to a bookcase big enough to hold the dictionaries, books, and file folders I needed.

All through high school, I shared a desk with my three sisters in the small bunkbed-lined bedroom we all slept in. The desk, darkwood and glass-topped (with red felt under the glass), was the type commonly seen in offices, and may indeed have come from my parents’ office back when they had one.

We had a time-share system in which one sister studied while the other did chores. Following the practice of our neighbors and friends, we arranged our baby and family photos on the red felt under the glass, only to find that the photos could no longer be peeled off the glass without ruining the pictures.

In college, my parents bought two conjoined bureaux des dames, which sounded a lot fancier than they looked, being constructed entirely out of plywood and fake leather and devoid of marquetry. The good news was that two of us could now use the writing desks at any one time; the bad news was that the other two sisters still had to await their turn between chores.

I wrote my first publishable short story at the age of seventeen on one of the writing desks during my time share, but I never felt that the desk was mine to use, to sit at for hours on end, scribbling away happily. I couldn’t even leave notes and paper on the desk because the sister closest to my age was a stickler for tidiness.

In graduate school, I finally had the chance to work at a desk. The one I liked best belonged to my friend Andrew, who was away doing archival research in Spain and Holland the year that I was writing my dissertation and who lent me his desk, among other things. The desk was huge and gray-black modern, and could accommodate a computer and printer, with room to spare for piles of notes and open books.

My bedroom in the apartment I shared with two other graduate students was my first solo bedroom. It had a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that looked out into a patch of woods, green in the summer, brown and white in the winter. But I remember very little of the time spent writing in such a nice room. Finishing the doctoral program was the imperative, and slogging through tons of readings and papers and a dissertation on a series of deadlines was not my idea of fun. By then, writing (and even reading novels) had already begun to feel more like a chore than a vocation.

Once in a while, I wrote short stories, but they were written largely during the odd break between hours and hours spent spewing out academese that even then I was already starting to hate. These bouts of fiction-writing were intense, invariably brief, and as the academic-writing period became more and more protracted, particularly after I started working in the university, the urge to write fiction flickered, grew fainter. There was a six-year stretch during which I wasn’t able to write any fiction, and I despaired of the thought that the trickle from the faucet had been shut off completely.

Instead, I trawled the internet for pictures of writers’ rooms, fantasized about the perfect writing nook. I envied Charles Dickens his book-lined Victorian study, majestic rosewood desk, and windows that afforded him a vista of trees and rolling hills; dreamed of the white-frame windows next to Hilary Mantel’s desk that showed the straight line at which the blue of the sky became the blue of the sea; and imagined myself seated at Virginia Woolf’s plain wooden desk, grain visible, in the middle of a room in a rustic cottage, mere steps away from the door that led to a green field.

Jane Austen’s writing table

But the pictures I was most drawn to were those of Jane Austen and her tiny table, fit only for an ink pot and sheet or two of paper, and Roald Dahl and his brown wing armchair, the scroll arms of which held up the writing board on which he composed his slyly subversive stories for children.

In Austen’s Persuasion, the protagonist Anne Elliott speaks of women living “at home, quiet, confined,” and it was a source of wonder for me that Austen could delve with grace and precision into the lives of these women on the twelve-sided table she worked at next to the window that opened out onto the outside world. As for Dahl, cramming himself and his writing ledger into the cushiony depth of an armchair was exactly what I thought someone like him would favor over a standard desk.

William Faulkner’s desk wasn’t big, either. A gift from his mother, the table held a lamp and an Underwood typewriter and whatever book he needed at hand, plus a can of Scram Dog Repellent that Faulkner used to drive dogs away from his climbing rose bushes. Faulkner taped the outlines for the chapters of his books onto the walls of his back office. Faulkner modestly called his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi his “little postage stamp of native soil,” and created a map of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County–a little postage stamp that delivered such a capacious, expansive understanding of the world.

Kerima Polotan memorably painted a portrait of herself turning a baby over her knee as she hit the typewriter keys and strove to meet her writing deadline.   There was Shirley Jackson, too, who came up with the idea for “The Lottery” while toting child and groceries up the hill to her house, and wrote the story in one sitting.

I ended up making a nook out of the dining table of the apartment and, later, house, I moved into. On that corner of the dining table, next to the sliding doors, the concrete, carless garage, the garbage bin, and the planter that screened the house from the street, I spent a feverish summer writing twelve of the stories that now make up a second collection called Demi-gods and Monsters: Stories, to be published by the University of the Philippines Press. In contrast, it had taken  more than twenty-five years to collect the stories I had written into my first book, Recuerdos de Patay and Other Stories.

None of the new stories was written in the perfect writing nook I was finally able to create for myself. We now have a study upstairs, equipped with an old narra desk with side drawers a tad too low because it had been constructed for people who were on average shorter than we are nowadays. There is also a bookcase where I can finally put my dictionaries and file folders and books. And yet, all the stories I have written this past year were begun and completed at the same dining table downstairs, the laptop computer having to share the space with toast in the morning, grilled fish and miso soup at lunchtime, and hot pot, stirfries, and boiled vegetables at suppertime.

It is a cliché to say that people write when they want or need to, that they will write in whatever space they find themselves. I finally had a perfect writing nook, only to realize that it wasn’t a nook I was yearning for all these years, but the will and courage to write.

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A True Ghost Story

My favorite real-life ghost story is the one recounted by veteran activist Cesar Hernandez Lacara (1910-2000) in his memoir Sa Tungki ng Ilong ng Kaaway: Talambuhay ni Tatang [On the Tip of the Enemy’s Nose: Auto/Biography of Tatang] (Metro Manila: Kilusan ng Paglilinang ng Rebolusyonaryong Panitikan at Sining sa Kanayunan, 1988). This incident occurred in the early 1940s, around the time of the Japanese Occupation.

“May isang kwento akong di kapani-paniwala laluna sa mga Marxista at Leninistang materyalista. Isang gabi noon sa gubat na yaon sa Cabiao, marami kaming naroon sa daang papasok sa kinalalagyan ng aming mga kasama. Makitid ang daang ito, talahib at mga punungkahoy ang nasa magkabilang tabi. Siguro’y mga ala una na ng umaga, nakagwardya kami sa daan, na ang distansya naming sa isa’t isa ay mga 10 metro lamang. Nakatayo kaming lahat, bawat isa ay may baril. Kung bakit nakita ko na sa mismong harap ko ay dumaan ang isang malaking tao, parang Amerikano ang laki, maputing-maputi, na nakasuot-pari na itim ang kulay. Pero noong kasalukuyan itong nagdaan sa harap ko ay di ko naman naisip na patigilin. Tinanong ko ang susunod na gwardya, sabi niya ay wala raw siyang napansin. Hindi ko malaman kung ako’y nakatulog na nakatayo o kung tulog lamang ang aking dugo, pero palagay ko’y di ako tulog. Naalala ko tuloy yaong pamangkin kong kasama ko minsan na naglalakad sa kalsadang malaki. Maliwanag ang buwan, marahil ay alas 8 lamang ng gabi. Nauuna lamang ako ng isang metro sa bata. Nang matapat kami sa isang punungkahoy sa tabi ng daan ay biglang sinigawan ako ng bata, nasasagasaan ko na raw ang yaong malaking puting aso, samantalang wala naman akong makita.

“Kinabukasan matapos kong makita yaong parang paring Amerikano, nag-umpisa na ang reyd ng Hapon sa kagubatan ng Cabiao.” (pp. 104-105)

[I have a story that won’t be believable especially to Marxist-Leninist materialists. One night in the forest over in Cabiao, there were a lot of us on the pathway leading to where our companions were camped. The pathway was narrow, with thatch grass and trees growing on both sides. It might have been one o’ clock in the morning. We stood guard on the pathway, some ten meters apart from each other. We were all standing, each bearing a gun, when I saw a big person–tall as an American, very white, and wearing black priestly garb—pass right in front of me. It didn’t occur to me to stop the person as he passed me. I asked the next guard, and he said he didn’t notice anything. I didn’t know whether I had fallen asleep while standing or whether I was just not alert, but I thought that I wasn’t asleep. Then I remembered my nephew [or niece: pamangkin can refer to either boy or girl] with whom I once walked down the big road. The moon was bright; it was only about eight o’ clock at night. I was about a meter ahead of the child. When we drew near a tree by the side of the road, the child suddenly shouted that I was running into a big white dog, even though I didn’t see anything.

[The next day after I saw the one who looked like an American priest, the Japanese began their raids in the forest of Cabiao.]

A stalwart revolutionary, Tatang had come to Cabiao in 1927, when he was seventeen years old. Located south of Nueva Ecija, Cabiao is adjacent to Arayat, Pampanga to the southwest and San Miguel, Bulacan to the southeast.

West of Cabiao was a three-thousand-hectare forest, in one part of which Felipe Buencamino, Jr.—crony of Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon and scion of the Buencamino family whose most prominent patriarch, also named Felipe, has gone down in history for having been called a “traitor” and almost (but not quite) slapped by General Antonio Luna at a cabinet meeting of the Philippine revolutionary government under Emilio Aguinaldo for endorsing the American proposal to “grant autonomy” to the Philippines—had carved out his Hacienda Buencamino.

Tatang describes the magnificence of the Buencamino home in San Miguel, Bulacan, and contrasts it with the inhuman conditions under which the hacienda workers lived and worked—the latter squelched together like sardines, their stifling quarters lacking electricity, running water, kitchen, and washroom. Accidents happened in the hacienda and sugar central, and cost some workers their lives.

Tatang worked at a variety of jobs and would later be involved in organizing the workers’ strike there in 1930. He would also be active in the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas and Hukbalahap movement.

Tatang was, in other words, the last person on earth one would imagine encountering a ghost.

As Tatang tells it, he sees a tall, pale-skinned man dressed in what appears to be black clerical clothing pass right in front of him. Because the person is tall and white, he takes him for an American. He questions whether he had seen the “American” in his dream, or whether it had been a vision spun out of his dulled senses. But he thinks he had not been asleep. This incident then reminds him of the big white dog his young nephew or niece said Tatang had run into when they were walking down a road one night, even though Tatang himself hadn’t seen anything.

A tall, foreign-looking man in priest’s robes–what better embodiment of that dreaded mythical creature, the pale-skinned kapre (often depicted smoking a cigar while lounging atop a big tree) or, in the case of the big white dog, the shape-shifting aswang?

Tellingly, the term “kapre” derives from the Arabic kafir, literally, “one who covers the truth or covers something”,  but most often used as the word for  “infidel” or “unbeliever” (meaning, in this case, the anti-Muslim Spaniards who embarked on the Reconquista).

Bear in mind that the hacendero in Tatang’s time was a Spanish mestizo, a kind of “monster” who, if American intelligence reports were to be believed, liked to organize “stag parties” in his hacienda, the most “dissolute” being one where important guests–American and Filipino–were obliged to remove all their clothes, leaving only their underwear, and the “girl supply is virtually unlimited”: a veritable pimp, indeed, in both the political and sexual senses.  It was said that the American film star, Douglas Fairbanks, took one look at the festivities, bid his host an abrupt farewell, jumped in his car, and left.*

A good Todos los Santos to all!

________________________

*Thanks to Mike Pante for sharing with me the archival documents relating to “The Who’s Who in Manila.”

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Rizal’s Simoun: What’s in a Name?

Eugène Fromentin (1820-1876), “Le simoun”

Ever wondered why Jose Rizal chose such an unusual alias for Juan Crisostomo Ibarra in El filibusterismo? This French painting gives us a clue. Simoun is not one of the three men in burnouses. Simoun is the powerful desert wind these men are faced with.  The word “simoun” is French and derived from the Arabic word meaning “poisonous wind.” I explore the meaning and significance of Rizal’s choice of Simoun as Ibarra’s nom de guerre in my essay “Did Padre Damaso Rape Maria Clara?: Reticence, Revelation, and Revolution in Jose Rizal’s Novels,” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 65.2 (2017): 137-99.

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On Cooking an Egg (Properly)

Overcooked egg

A few years ago, I bought a cookbook called Kulinarya: A Guide to Philippine Cuisine (ed., Michaela Fenix, Anvil, 2008). Gorgeously photographed by Neil Oshima, Kulinarya is a distillation of the wisdom and know-how of six of the country’s top chefs: Glenda Rosales Barretto, Conrad Calalang, Margarita Forés, Myrna Segismundo, Jessie Sincioco and Claude Tayag (who also served as food stylist for the volume).

Included are recipes of such Filipino standard fare as dried beef tapa, pork barbecue, kinilaw na tanguigue, kaldereta, tinola, bulalo, pinakbet, cripsy pata, kaldereta, pan de sal, halo-halo, and an enticing assortment of ensalada, sinigang, adobo, relleno, pancit, merienda (snacks), and desserts.

In one of the essays in the introductory section, entitled “Working Towards World-Class Cuisine,” the authors state that the mission of the collaborative Kulinarya Project is “to inspire world-class preparation and presentation of Filipino food.” The aim of the recipes, according to the book, is to “define tradition, not reinvent it.”

The book emphasizes the importance of using quality ingredients—liempo with evenly distribued fat-to-meat content, lechon that uses native pigs, prawns weighing at most 50 grams, 500-gram bangus for relleno—as well as storing food at the proper temperature, serving food that is “freshly cooked and piping hot,” and making sure that the vegetables are not limp and leached of their color.

The cookbook is a joy to read and sample, except for one small but nevertheless telling detail. Nestled in the ensaladang Filipina (Filipino salad), with its mouth-watering array of steamed okra, kamote tops, and water spinach, its grilled and skin-charred eggplants, and its dressings (ranging from guisadong bagoong alamang or sautéed shrimp paste and guisadong bagoong isda or sautéed fish paste to sweet-and-sour vinaigrette and honeyed fish sauce), are slices of hardboiled eggs that bear the unmistakable, telltale signs of overcooking.

You can tell that an egg is overcooked when there is a greenish-gray ring around the yolk. The ring is basically ferrous sulfate, the product of a chemical reaction between the sulfur from the egg white and the iron from the egg yolk. While the ferrous sulfate ring is not toxic, it does affect the look and taste of the egg.

To be fair, other photographs in the book feature perfectly boiled eggs in the rellenong manok (chicken deboned and stuffed with Vienna sausage, chorizo, onions, pimiento, olives, raisins, boiled eggs, Edam or Parmesan cheese, and ground pork) and the pancit luglog (rice noodles with a sauce made of annatto oil, garlic, shrimp stock, and chicken stock, seasoned with fish sauce and pepper, and topped with kamias [bilimbi], chicharon [pork crackling], smoked fish flakes, squid rings, pork meat, scallions, and toasted garlic).

In recent years, Filipino cuisine has garnered international recognition for its rich and varied culinary tradition and its creative appropriation of ingredients and cooking techniques from different parts of the world, both East and West, North and South.

Pointing out an overcooked egg or two is not mere quibbling. A close-up of one such wedge of egg right next to the “Working Towards World-Class Cuisine” essay undermines the stated mission of promoting a “world-class cuisine.” If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a badly cooked egg does nothing to enhance our pleasure and pride in our food history and culture.

To put it bluntly, how can we trust our best cooks to “define” Filipino culinary tradition and present the best of our food culture when some (thankfully not all!) of them cannot even boil an egg properly?

This is not some freak occurrence, either. I have seen YouTube videos of professional chefs (whose names are best left unmentioned) demonstrating the art of making, say, rellenong manok for Christmas. The relleno looks delicious, except, alas, for the overcooked eggs.

This suggests either negligence or lack of oversight (should these chefs rely on assistants to do the preparation for them) or, worse, lack of basic knowledge, training, and skill. The kindest thing that can be said about the cooks who serve badly cooked eggs is that they are too lazy to maintain the minimum standards of cooking; the worst that can be said is that they simply don’t care about the people for whom they cook.

And yet, reasonable instructions for boiling eggs properly can be found in no-nonsense, workperson-like cookbooks. For example, Eleanor Laquian’s Filipino Cooking and Entertaining Here & Abroad (National Book Store, 2007; earlier editions of the book were published under the title Filipino Cooking Here & Abroad)—a favorite of OFWs because its recipes have been adapted to cooking in places where not all native ingredients such as kalamansi or patis are available—contains the following tips for hard cooked eggs:

“Place eggs in a pot, cover with cold water, bring water to a boil, immediately remove pot from heat on boiling. Keep pot covered, let stand for 20 minutes.”

Laquian even offers a contingency plan for people who let their water come to a boil without having put in the egg beforehand. She suggests lowering the egg into the water with a metal spoon “so metal absorbs the heat and eggs won’t crack from the sudden change in temperature”. The temperature should be lowered so that the water gently simmers: “Never boil eggs, they become rubbery”. For hard-cooked eggs, allow 10 minutes, for medium-cooked eggs, 3-4 minutes. If eggs are not at room temperature before they are cooked, add 2 minutes more to the cooking time.

Timing is not all. How eggs are handled immediately after cooking is equally crucial: “Never let cooked eggs stand in the hot water after cooking, this toughens the egg white and makes it difficult to peel the eggs.” Instead, rinse the eggs under cold running water, or else plunge the eggs into cold water as soon as they are cooked.

Daiso’s egg timer

In Japan, Daiso’s 100-yen shops sell egg timers which can be put into the pot along with the eggs. These timers turn pink to indicate “hard,” “medium,” and “soft” boiled egg.

Other cookbooks recommend cooking times of 10 minutes for hard, 5 minutes for medium, and 2 for soft. Perfectionists that they are, some Japanese chefs also suggest using chopsticks to gently roll the eggs in the water as the water is being heated to ensure that the yolk stays in the middle of the egg.

If we want to affirm the wonders and pleasures of Filipino cuisine to ourselves and introduce properly our cuisine to the world, we might as well start by cooking our eggs properly.

 

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End-of-Summer Blues

Among the bounty of summer produce—zucchini, eggplant, tomato, corn, all kinds of berries, peaches, cherries—I’m tempted to say that I love zucchini the most.

There are so many ways to cook it: diced and lightly fried with minced garlic in olive oil; grated and melted into a vegetable stew; cut lengthwise, dipped in egg and flour, pan-fried, and presented grandly as zucchini steaks. They’re all delicious, the zucchini always keeping its hint of sweetness, its texture meltingly soft and tender.

A terrific preparation, but perhaps the most labor-intensive, is zucchini fritters. Zucchini is grated, salted, and the water pressed out. The grated vegetable is then mixed with minced garlic, eggs, and flour. Sometimes I add a Filipino flourish—dried shrimp. Known as hibe in Tagalog, dried shrimp is available in Chinese and Korean markets in New York. I soak half a cup in hot water, chop it roughly, and add the soft pink mass to the batter. It makes a huge difference in taste and texture to the fritter, the dried shrimp adding a rich mouth-filling umami. It also adds a sporadic crunch to the fritter because the shrimp shells and heads, while in tiny fragments because chopped, still have a residual hardness. Sometimes I do the Italian version of the fritter and add grated parmesan.

I drop spoonfuls of the batter to a hot frying pan slicked with oil and fry one side to a golden brown, turn it, and fry the other side. Once they’re cooked, we eat them dipped in vinegar when it’s the Filipino version or with a squeeze of lemon when it’s the Italian version. The first time I prepared and cooked zucchini fritters a few years ago, the taste and texture of the first bite—the crispness of the grated and fried vegetable, the salinity of the hibe, the bracing acidity of the vinegar—evoked in me a cascade of memories.

It’s my grandmother’s ukoy that I remembered. I have a specific memory too: arriving at her house in the barrio, going into the kitchen where she sat on a bench, an enameled tin basin in front of her filled with an orange batter that she mixed by hand. It’s orange because she used grated squash for her ukoy. When I did a quick internet search, most ukoy recipes are made with bean sprouts or just dried shrimp. A trendy Filipino restaurant in the city offers ukoy made with shredded carrots and cabbage as an appetizer—I have to say this doesn’t sound very appetizing at all.

Zucchini is not native in the Philippines, although I heard it’s now widely available there. I first learned about it in high school when I read a book by a man who was bullied by neighborhood boys because his mother gave their mothers zucchini from her garden and they were constantly forced to eat the vegetable. It has a reputation for being easy to grow and is supposedly profligate in blooming in farms and backyard gardens. This has been true every summer. Last summer, produce was breathtakingly plentiful and cheap. All varieties of eggplants, zucchini and yellow summer squash, peaches, and tomatoes were constantly abundant in stores and always discounted. This summer, for one reason or another (climate change? water shortages? backlash from the overproduction last summer? Donald Trump?), seasonal produce is not as abundant and not as cheap.

There’s something melancholic in the site of produce bins with tiny hills of zucchini and squash when last summer there were heaping mountains of them. Even corn is not as abundant this summer.

Or maybe I’m just feeling the melancholy of the end of summer. It’s not really a shortage. They’re always available and I buy them even when they’re not discounted—they’re still better and cheaper in the summer anyway. The season is almost over, but I have many excellent food memories—a luscious fried eggplant in July, a cold peach I ate standing in front of an open refrigerator, a sublime golden tomato in a salad last week, strawberries and cream, sweet corn, and plums that I eat while thinking of William Carlos Williams’s poem “This Is Just to Say”—which makes the plums taste infinitely better.

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Spammed

Last week, I cooked Spam. I opened the can, slid the rectangular cube of pink meat out, sliced it into thin slabs, and fried them lightly. I served the slices with white rice and some leftover braised lentils.

The last time I had Spam was a few months ago, in a ramen joint in the city, when one of the kids ordered an appetizer of Spam musubi, the Hawaiian roll of rice and Spam wrapped in nori. Before that, the last time was probably five or six years ago. I never cook it because, well, I try to minimize the eating of processed food. But that night in the ramen joint, when I bit into the soft, salty slice, I felt a jolt of recognition, as if, after many years, I met an old friend by accident.

It was, of course, tasty; that one bite had that orchestra of taste and mouthfeel—of a yielding but mouth-filling tenderness, of porky fat, of salt, of a thrum of sweetness—that only highly-processed foods can deliver. It was also achingly familiar. As a child in the Philippines, I ate Spam when my mom served it to us as a rare treat. We ate it the way we ate tapa or tocino or longganisa, with rice and eggs. As a young adult, I had it occasionally when I went out with one friend who loved to have it as a bar snack when we drank beer.

About a month ago, when I was cleaning out the pantry, I saw two cans of Spam at the back of the cabinet, behind a sack of rice and a liter of olive oil. I had forgotten they were there and I looked at them with wonder. I’m writing this even as I’m embarrassed by it. I’ve had these two cans of Spam for a few years, bought, along with a few gallons of water and some crackers, on a dark winter afternoon when a blizzard bore down on the city and panicky residents had cleaned out the nearby supermarket of food items to stock.

I decided, with really an absurd and inordinate amount of thinking and conflicting emotions, to cook one of the cans of Spam. I wanted it. I wanted a big porky bite of it, not the small measly taste of it I had with the Spam musubi. I wanted to eat it with white rice and a fried egg, maybe with ketchup. I wanted to eat it and feel that sense of familiarity again, that sense of going back in time.

But I kept forgetting or, when I remembered, I had something else prepared already. Many times, I couldn’t bring myself to cook it and serve it to my kids. On their website, the company boasts that Classic Spam only has six ingredients—pork with ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrite.

It’s clear what the company is implying with this information. Michael Pollan, the influential food and nutrition writer, capped the number of ingredients of acceptable processed foods at five, and those five should be ingredients one can easily pronounce, preferably monosyllabic ones.

Classic Spam has a respectable six (“pork with ham” sounds suspicious, but never mind that), all of them easy to pronounce, with the only non-food-sounding one the sodium nitrite. But even that is familiar—problematic and controversial in its own way, but familiar.

From the website, we also learn that flavors have proliferated and that there are now fifteen varieties of them. One of them is tocino, created by the company to express their appreciation for the Philippines. The Philippines, in fact, is one of the countries so devoted to Spam that it has its own website (spam-ph.com).

One can enjoy the flavor and revel in the kitschiness of Spam. Spam is retro, trendy, and, most importantly, humble. The ramen joint where we ate the Spam musubi, for example, boasts of such carefully made food as pork broth simmered for ten hours, of hand-pulled noodles, of artisanal miso flown in from Japan. But they have Spam musubi because they’re also eclectic and democratic. The trendy Filipino restaurant we ate at a year or so ago had Spam fries in their menu. And Dale Talde, a well-known Filipino-American chef with restaurants in New York and other states, shares a recipe for spam and kimchi fried rice. It’s particularly popular in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and the Philippines, supposedly because the Americans brought them during and after the second world war. If you look at the global map on the company website, you’ll see that the product is available in all of north America and all of Asia and Australia. It’s in the UK, but not in the rest of Europe. It cannot, I guess, really compete with prosciutto.

Spam slices, braised lentils, and a thumbs up from the kid

So last week, after weeks of waiting and pondering, I finally cooked Spam. We had leftover rice and braised lentils. If we were better, saner people, we would have just those two. But I cooked the Spam and presented it at the table. It was a Filipino meal not just because Filipinos love Spam, but also because the braised lentils and Spam slices somehow mirrored the Filipino dish of ginisang munggo and chicharron. I tried to explain it to the family, but they didn’t really care—they were just surprised and elated that, after five years, I cooked Spam again.

At the dinner table, I ate one slice and, in the kitchen after the meal, furtively nibbled at another one. I wish I can say that I’ve had my fill of the damned thing, but I can’t. I ate it, it was good, I wouldn’t mind having more. I read a long time ago about the actress Jennifer Aniston and how she would buy a bag of Doritos, eat a single chip, then throw the rest of the bag away. The anecdote pisses me off in the way that anecdotes of other people’s discipline and self-restraint piss me off.

If true, anyway, what Aniston does is highly unnatural (also bizarre and annoying, but I think I already said that). These foods, unfortunately enough, are engineered to make us consume more of them. The bliss point of processed food—that perfect balance of salt, sugar, fat, and mouthfeel—is the focus of attention of millions of dollars of industry research; of the collective intelligence of thousands of scientists, statisticians, and marketers; of the ambitions of ivy league-trained CEOs who have to answer to their shareholders.

In a 2013 article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food,” the journalist Michael Moss described what goes into the making of processed food. “Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.”

Spam, compared to the other processed foods, is even more problematic. It’s not even that it’s an unnatural and engineered food and that it’s unhealthy, it’s that its production is implicated in such problems as the ethics (or lack thereof) and environmental impact of the mass production of animals for human consumption, the use and abuse of undocumented workers, the countless instances of animal and human cruelty that have been reported inside factories.

In a Mother Jones report in 2011, the writer described the truth behind the innocuous pink cube inside the Spam can: “Every hour, more than 1,300 severed pork heads go sliding along the belt. Workers slice off the ears, clip the snouts, chisel the cheek meat. They scoop out the eyes, carve out the tongue, and scrape the palate meat from the roofs of mouths. Because, famously, all parts of a pig are edible (‘everything but the squeal,’ wisdom goes), nothing is wasted. A woman … would carve meat off the back of each head before letting the denuded skull slide down the conveyor and through an opening in a plexiglass shield.”

The truth behind the cheap price is that, on a regular day, almost twenty thousand animals are processed in a single factory, about five million a year, with workers forced to keep up with the unrelenting pace of the rather grisly work, despite illnesses, injuries, or any other expression of human frailty.

Dear reader, I apologize. I intended this piece to be much shorter, much simpler. I meant it to be a cute little essay, a rueful admission of a craving that many would understand and relate to. It was supposed to be the blog equivalent of a dish of Spam fries offered in a trendy restaurant—self-aware, ironic, playful.

I guess it’s appropriate that I bought the two cans of Spam as preparation for a natural disaster. With its preservatives (I bought my two cans years ago and it’s going to last until 2019) and problematic provenance, Spam seems the perfect food for a dystopian future that will involve rising sea levels, deadly mosquitoes, perhaps a zombie apocalypse.

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Always Roaming with a Hungry Heart

I don’t really read poetry. Even before, as an English teacher, poetry was my least favorite genre. There were a few poems that I liked and that I returned to again and again, but even then (and even now), I felt (and feel) a self-consciousness about liking them. I remember being haunted by certain lines from a handful of poets—Auden, Keats, maybe Edna St. Vincent Millay.

A long time ago, I even made a shirt printed with lines from “Ulysses” and gave it as a gift to a friend. After giving it, however, I felt weird and awkward. (Tennyson? On a t-shirt? Really?) It wasn’t that I printed lines of poetry on a t-shirt, it’s just that it was Tennyson. Shouldn’t I have picked somebody more obscure, more contemporary, more difficult? Somebody … cooler.

But I was never interested enough to seek new ones or to understand the difficult writers. I liked “Ulysses.” Until now, I like it. Some teachers of poetry say that you should like what you like, that what’s important is to read poetry. Kind of like wine experts who say, preempting those who hem and haw about wanting to drink wine but say that they don’t know anything about it, that you should drink what you want to drink—pair a malbec with salmon, for god’s sake, if that’s what you have and that’s what you like.

Recently, I’ve been getting hits of poetry in the least likely places—in the subway, in the newspaper, and, of all places, in my Twitter feed. I guess it’s exactly because they’re in these forms of media that they’re accessible, easy to appreciate. I find that I like them. I like them especially when I encounter them unexpectedly, as if—exactly!—I’m given a malbec that is excellent with my fish.

It started in 2012 when the MTA started displaying posters with poems and interesting graphics in subway cars in a campaign called Poetry in Motion. I found many that were arresting because of the graphics—a winged horse and carriage against stars on a cerulean background, the constellations golden against aquamarine, a setting sun in between brick apartment buildings—but I didn’t like many of the poems. Except for one.

Displayed under a painting of one of those familiar New York apartment buildings, “The Good Life” by Tracy K. Smith gave me pause the first time I encountered it in the subway. I loved its metaphor for money as “a mysterious lover / Who went out to buy milk and never / Came back.” I loved its nakedness about food and hunger and satiety, the resonance of its images of living hungrily on “coffee and bread,” of dining on “roast chicken and wine” on paydays. Standing in a crowded subway and reading the poem, so compact and so direct, I felt as if a space had opened up around me, a strange stillness in the lurching car.

The New York Times publishes poems weekly in its Sunday magazine and in T, its occasional style supplement. Most of these poems are the cryptic, difficult kinds though, the ones I don’t like. Every now and then, they would have a spread with several poems about a certain theme. Again in 2012, they published poems about the end of the world because, as the editors said in the introduction, the world was about to end—at least according to some versions of the Mayan calendar. There were six poems in the spread and I liked them all, but one in particular stood out for me. “Going Down” by Maxine Kung is about, of all things, climate change, an unpoetic topic if ever there was one. But it describes the inundation that’s coming with hypnotic lyricism and ends with these haunting lines: “Despite outcries of pure angst / dikes won’t save the playing field / so blow a kiss to this drowned world. / The gods have spoken: yield.”

Finally, a few weeks ago, my Twitter feed began filling up with tweets about Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones.” The poem became popular last year when Waxwing published it. It went viral after the Orlando shootings and after the November election, has been endorsed by celebrities and recited by Meryl Streep, has been translated into Spanish, French, Hindi, and Korean. Last April, it was featured in an episode of the TV show Madam Secretary, which was why it exploded in popularity on Twitter once again.

An exploration of the darkness in the world, it’s particularly meaningful for mothers. It reminds me of the time when my older daughter was around eight or nine and she would hug herself and tell me, her voice filled with joy, “I love myself, Mommy!” It is, of course, a normal thing for kids to love themselves and the world. And yet, when my child showed that abundance of joy about being in the world, I felt such gladness, such relief. My younger daughter shows the same sturdy happiness. I congratulate myself on this, that I am able to, in Smith’s indelible words, “sell them the world.” As my two kids grow up and their love for the world is tempered by hard (but, thank god, still not that hard) realities I cannot (should not?) protect them from, I feel more and more like the realtor in the poem. I try to convince my kids, “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.”

After I found her poem, I promptly began following Smith. The other day she tweeted a question to her followers, “Poems that bring you joy? Make you glad to be alive?” This resulted in a thread with poem recommendations like, among many others, “Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich, “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, and “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon.

These poems can be described as joyful, but it’s equally accurate to describe them as mournful, even dirge-like. (Someone suggested Keats’s “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” and no one objected.) But I guess that’s the essence of poetry, right? That it can condense complexity and express contradictions, that it can call the world a shithole, as Maggie Smith did, and you read it, again and again, with wonder and astonishment, slayed by the language.

Hey, look at me, making pronouncements about poetry!

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56 Years a Slave

The posthumous publication of Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American journalist Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” has provoked much discussion and some controversy. Many readers were moved by the plight of Lola Eudocia Tomas Pulido, who was eighteen years old in 1943 when the author’s grandfather “gave” her to the author’s mother as a “gift” and who worked for the author’s family for fifty-six years.

Tizon provided harrowing details of how Lola Eudocia was subject to frequent scolding, forced to work long hours well beyond physical exhaustion and sleep amid piles of laundry, beaten in place of the author’s mother when the author’s mother misbehaved, promised but never actually given an “allowance.”

The essay also recounted Tizon’s own efforts to make amends: standing up to his mother in defense of Lola Eudocia; bringing Lola to live with him in her old age and helping her obtain U.S. citizenship; giving Lola $200 a week to send to relatives, and later paying her airfare to visit relatives back in the Philippines; taking her on family vacations; and bringing her ashes back to her birthplace.

The internet being what it is, Tizon’s article has generated its share of commentaries both thoughtful and thoughtless, knee-jerk and nuanced. While some were quick to condemn Tizon for not doing enough, and sooner, to redress fifty years of suffering and exploitation (a point that should get one thinking in turn of how long the United States and its people have taken, and are still taking, to redress the trauma and long-term immeasurable human cost of slavery), a number of commentators have called for better historical and cultural understanding of slavery and the utusan/kasambahay/katulong system in the Philippines that made such suffering and exploitation possible in the first place.

The conversation has not been confined to one among Americans (including, of course, Filipino Americans, many of whom have learned about the situations of “maids” from their grand/parents or from their own visits to the Philippines), but has reached across the Pacific and the world to encompass middle- and upper-class Filipinos living in the Philippines and other parts of the world.

I say “middle- and upper-class Filipinos” because, so far, we have yet to see mainstream media solicit and present the reactions and opinions of actual katulong/kasambahay back home. In the case of Overseas Filipino Workers (numbering some 2.4 million in 2015, 51% of them female, and more than half of female workers being classified as “laborers and unskilled workers,” a category that includes domestic helpers [more about “unskilled” later]), it is also difficult to track the discussion among them because: 1) they are not likely to have the time to browse, let alone post comments in, English-language media; and 2) the internet discussion has been mainly in English (and there is no translation of the article into Filipino and other Philippine languages).

In short, it’s important to ask who is part of this discussion and who is not.

Moreover, reading through the comments, one can’t help wondering at what is missing or, more important, what is silenced or erased when people—particularly those who identify as Filipino by nationality or by heritage—attempt to explain the context of slavery and the utusan system in the Philippines.

The most obvious context here is that household work in general is devalued and for that reason poorly remunerated. Economists do not factor unpaid “household production” or “own-production”—the work done by and within a family for its own use (cooking, cleaning, child care, etc.)—in their statistics. There are now calls among some economists to come up with a way to measure household production, but the challenges of measuring the “quality” of such production remain.

In the Philippines, the labor (both muscle and emotion) needed for household production is sub-contracted by families (including some poor ones) to their katulong. Even when paid housework is included in national statistics (a country’s GDP, for instance), it is still viewed as “unimportant” and classified as “unskilled,” as though the quality of caring for home and children (the future generation, the human resources) doesn’t count for much.

Then there is the oft-repeated remark that since Eudocia Pulido was called “Lola” (Filipino term for grandmother), this meant that she was considered “part of the family.” This so-called explanation is actually a non-explanation, since it says nothing about the exploitation that happens within families. The cultural practice among Filipinos of calling their kasambahay “lola” in no way mitigates, let alone justifies, the exploitation of Lola Eudocia. Generations of feminists have detailed the abuse and exploitation that can be found in the most intimate, private sphere of the family, in the relationships between spouses, between parents and children, between heads of households and dependents.

In a posthumously published commentary called “Strange Hierarchies” (Philippine Studies: Historiographical and Ethnographic Viewpoints vol. 64, issue 1, 2016), the scholar Benedict Anderson argued that “maids are an interesting site to study the cross-effects of class inequality and intra-gender inequality.” He trenchantly observed that Southeast Asian middle-class children often “learn the ropes” of inequality from—and practice being “unequalizers” on—their own “yayas” (a Binisaya term that originally means “aunt” but is now synonymous with kasambahay who care for children).

In his comments, Vince Rafael rightly points out that Filipino “slavery” has its own specific history and system of social arrangements and relations. (Slavery in different forms, as well as other forms of indentured, conscripted, and unremunerated labor, exist in many regions of the world across centuries.) Rafael examines how the concepts of mutuality, reciprocity, utang na loob (a concept more complex than simple “debt of gratitude”), awa (pity), and hiya (shame) underpin the historical system of slavery in the Philippines, and inform present-day relations between katulong and their so-called “amo.”

The thing about these so-called “Filipino values” is that they work in a double-edged way: as much as they are often the only means by which the oppressed are able to assert their agency and human dignity against their oppressors (as Vince eloquently shows), the language of reciprocity has also functioned historically to mask and enable the power dynamics of inequality and subordination.

In fact, one of the thorny issues in the agrarian and tenancy disputes of the past century in the Philippines has been tenants and sharecroppers’ resentment of the way the landlords, who already benefit from a rigged system that keeps their tenants and workers perpetually indebted to them, still expect or demand personal services from them–services ranging from cutting firewood to repairing houses and, worse, offering their children as household servants–for free.

This is why the issue of wages has been an important component of the political struggles of workers around the world, as wages set some limits on how much mutual obligations people—particularly those in power vis-à-vis the powerless—can exact from each other.

Another running thread of the internet commentary on the Tizon article is the unconscious paternalism exhibited by some commentators who claim that one is doing a good thing–the right thing, even a favor–by giving the poor food and shelter in exchange for having them do house work for very little pay, or no pay. The middle classes, behaving just like the landlords (and, if you want to think farther afield, slave-owners and colonizers), like to invoke this brand of self-congratulatory paternalism when they say that they “take care” of their servants even as they relentlessly exploit them.

There are, it must be said, examples of good employers who do their best to ensure the welfare of their servants. But a comment such as this one–“i feel like many filipinos don’t have so much so i wouldn’t be surprised if some took people in as help…even when they weren’t paid, feels like a way for them to take care of each other”—does not help clarify things. Its vague talk of mutual help runs the danger of shading off into the patronizing rhetoric of hiring-maids-as-a-favor-to-the poor, because both beg the question of who is making more use of whom. After all, the cost of providing food and shelter is far less than having someone be at one’s beck and call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Just for comparison, let’s look at contemporary Japan, where servants were commonplace until the end of World War II. Nowadays, the cost of hiring a professional nanny to take care of one’s child is about 2000 Japanese yen an hour, plus transport and other expenses. If you multiply this by eight hours, that’s already 16,000 yen for one day’s work–and the nanny cannot be asked to do any other housework (for cleaning, you have to ask another company to provide that labor, and you’ll also be charged per hour). A stay-in nanny who works eight hours a day, seven days a week for a month will cost you 480,000 yen. Compare this to the median family income in Japan, which is about seven million yen a year, or around 583,000 yen a month. Which is to say that Japanese middle-classes cannot afford live-in nannies or even hourly-pay nannies. Companies like Duskin are hiring Filipino workers and paying them the equivalent of USD 1500 or 66,000 pesos a month to do house-cleaning for Duskin clients. Their pay is roughly comparable to the minimum hourly wages in Japan. (Compare this to the 2500 Philippine pesos that the Kasambahay Law mandates for domestic helpers in Metro Manila as against 9000 pesos per month for non-agricultural labor in the National Capital Region.)

The “culture” of the utusan system is deeply connected to politics, economics, and institutions. Alex Tizon is right to use the term “slave” because, in the twentieth century, if someone doesn’t get paid for doing work that she ought to get paid for (regardless of whether she consents to an unpaid arrangement or not), then she is a slave by our twentieth-century definition. It is possible to speak of a wife, a widow, a sister, a grandmother, an aunt, or a daughter (and their male counterparts) as working like a slave, even when the work they do is considered part of their “familial” obligation.

The point is that we are no longer talking about sixteenth-century or even nineteenth-century slavery. The national liberation struggles, the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements, the workers’ movements, the feminist and other social and political movements from all over the world since then have helped create a world where what happened to Lola Eudocia and the oppression of so many other people all over the world can no longer be condoned, and what is needed is not just understanding and individual initiatives to redress the situation–laudable as Alex Tizon’s efforts to make amends to Lola Eudocia had been–but larger systemic and structural changes such as better enforcement of laws and regulations and better protection of the vulnerable and the poor.

What exactly are the politics and economics of the utusan question and why is the utusan system so pernicous and long-lasting, despite the progress in our political and social values? What are the specific problems and challenges that we middle-class Filipinos need to grapple with?

If it is a question of housework, most Filipino middle-class families can save up for a washing machine, and assign the chores of cooking and cleaning among themselves (husbands and children included, not exempted). But the factors that account for the persistence and longevity of the maid system are deeply political and economic, and involve a series of institutional problems. Here are just a few of them:

  1. the erosion of the standards of the Philippine public school system: as recent as the postwar era, the public school was of sufficient high quality that people were proud to go to public school. The great historian Resil Mojares, for example, talks about his pride in being a public school student (as opposed to private school) in one of his essays in House of Memory. Washington Sycip and Kerima Polotan, two prominent Filipinos, went to public schools. The point about public schools is that they would have been within walking distance of the houses in a district. But the erosion through inadequate funding and bureaucratic corruption of the public school system has given rise to the middle-class preference to send their children to private schools, and because private schools are often located at a distance from their homes, they have to rely on maids to ferry their kids to and from school, or keep house for them as they ferry their own children back and forth.
  2. concerns (real and imagined) about law and order: while most children of working-class families have no choice but to walk or commute to school by themselves, most middle-class parents worry about the safety of their kids, fearing that the kids will be robbed, molested, or kidnapped. Some middle-class children are so coddled by their parents that they have never taken a bus or a jeepney in their lives. (We haven’t begun talking about how cocooning children from the world outside their airconditioned car windows and middle-class homes engenders a narrow, blinkered view of that world.)
  3. the repeated failures of industrial policy: had the country’s elites been able to formulate and implement better industrial policies, the employment opportunities that would have opened up for women in factories, offices, and other better-paid workplaces would have encouraged more women to take jobs other than household service. Middle-class families often worry about the precariousness of their finances because they know the wages they themselves earn are not enough for them to pay their DHs well.
  4. the lack of support system for childcare: there are kindergartens, but only for those who can afford them, and there are not many government-subsidized and employer-provided childcare facilities that will allow working mothers to entrust their small children to adequately compensated, professional caregivers.
  5. the failure of imagination and mindset: while there are enlightened men who are willing to share the housework with their spouses, the onus is still on the women to do the bulk of the housework. Worse, because the middle- and upper-classes are already so dependent on their maids, they tend to breed in their own children a similar “señorito/a” complex that views housework as something only maids–other people–do. This kind of mentality explains the cluelessness of those who, having gone abroad or migrated to First World countries, complain about having to do the housework themselves and wax nostalgic about having katulong back home to make their beds for them (as Anderson mentioned in his essay). It also explains the annoying predilection of middle- and upper-class matrons to complain about the “laziness,” “slowness,” “untrainability,” and “untrustworthiness” of their maids (an NHK documentary shown in Japan actually recorded one such conversation involving one of the Philippines’ elite families–had this documentary been shown in the Philippines, it would have ignited a firestorm of controversy). If the work done by the maids are not up to the standards of the matrons, why don’t the matrons do the housework themselves?

What “My Family’s Slave” has done is to bring up a subject that is often left unsaid and left unthought and unexamined, a subject that, far from being just a problem of Philippine poverty and corruption and lack of state capacity “out there”, implicates all of us who have ever had yayas bring us up and keep house for us.  We have to render ourselves accountable for–and live with the guilt and consequences of–all the things we have allowed to happen and all the things we could and should have done but failed, for whatever reason, to do.

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