Stories served a la carte!

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By Raydon L. Reyes

BESIDES words exchanged through mouth or paper, there is another universal language that ties people together: food. This is evident in bookstands where cookbooks reign supreme, even over Palanca-winning fiction and poetry books. Compiled by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard and Marily Ysip Orosa, A La Carte: Food and Fiction (Anvil Publishing House, 2007) is a collection of short stories that attempts to reveal how food binds individuals, families, and even people belonging to the same culture, together.
“The connection Filipinos have with food is almost religious,” Brainard writes in her introduction. “Eating is the time when the family gathers, when the community is one, and is something of a sacred time.”
The whole book itself is a compilation of Filipino recipes placed right before the stories, arranged like a menu that categorizes the food and the stories into breads, appetizers, salads, soup, rice, main dishes, and dessert. For example, Corinna Nuqui’s “Ensaymada,” a story about the homesick widow Miguela, is preceded by the recipe of ensaymada, the Pinoy cheese bread that rekindles Miguela’s hope and brings her “home to herself.”
Carlo Cortes’ “Hanging Rice,” introduced by the recipe of sinangag or garlic fried rice, reveals the tragedy of Filipinos gradually forgetting their ethnic traditions. “Manila’s racial memories are imperfect; her people no longer know how to make hearts of rice; they have given up many things once considered essential,” the main character, a former boy scout, laments.
“Two Drifters” by Californian-Filipino fictionist Veronica Montes tells the story of how siblings Eddie and Rica are estranged from one another because of Eddie’s harmful vices. Their one moment of familial understanding involves a tray of fried rice made from leftover rice, spam, and eggs. “As I push the leftover Chinese takeout aside for a better look, I realize that… food can be love,” the character Rica thinks to herself as she looks for something to feed her brother.
Dean Alfar’s “Sabados Con Fray Villalobos” illustrates the journey of two Spanish priests trying to spiritually reach out to the indigenous Filipino villagers by eating their meals with them: “What people eat and how they prepare what they eat tell you more about their culture and way of life than almost anything else.”
The book’s style is reminiscent of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, where every chapter is introduced by mouth-watering recipes. The characters in the stories mouth them as well. Readers will definitely be enticed by stories that not only appeal to their human and Filipino psyche but also to their gastronomic senses.
However, there are stories that are very vague with regard to language and theme that may turn readers off. For example, Alfred Yuson’s “Romance and Faith on Mt. Banahaw” uses language and imagery that are too complicated for ordinary readers to understand, with lines such as, “The first fine gusts of wind increase in direct and inveterate proportion to her laughter and the people in the pit are blown out, through vast yoga deserts and corned beef forests, spreading their gratitude as a brotherhood of effretes, now and forever, till to the king comes doom,” that do not seem to form a coherent message with the other lines.
Still, Ala Carte: Food and Fiction effectively conveys that eating and cooking serve a great purpose in the lives of individuals and nations, as they are an indispensable part of culture and everyday life. The book proves that food is a crucial source of life and inspiration, especially for a nation rich with timeless recipes and stories interwoven together by their love for it.

Montage Vol. 11 • September 2008