Pan de sal. Salt bread, literally. Think of them as delicious little rolls that go with anything. My husband made pulled pork shoulder for an American Fourth of July while we lived in the Philippines, and I realized the pandesal was born to be a slider. It was like they were made for our cross-cultural family extravaganza.
Of course, they weren’t. They were made for the Almighty. The Spanish brought wheat flour to the Philippines because how else can you make a proper Christian host for communion without wheat? (Update: The Vatican still thinks gluten is required!) Early versions were cooked directly on the oven’s red brick floor, according to food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria. This method gave the bun a crisp hard shell.
Americans, though, introduced metal pans in the name of hygiene, it is said, resulting in the softer bun which still dominates today. (They also introduced a reliance on American wheat by eliminating tariffs on US goods coming into the Philippines while still charging tariffs on Philippine goods sent to the States. A good old double-standard, but I digress.) Either way, the original pandesals were larger: 9 to 15 centimeters long, 7 to 9 centimeters wide, and 4 to 6 centimeters thick (according to a source in Sta. Maria’s fantastic book, The Governor-General’s Kitchen).
These days, a typical pandesal is about the size of a fist—or the maximum amount of bread you can stuff in your mouth at one time. I’ve tried. Instead of salty, they also tend toward the sweet, some being made with milk or even condensed milk. (This is similar to a Portuguese sweet bread roll, probably an ancestor or cousin of the pandesal.) Finally, they are rolled around in bread crumbs before baking, which gives it a great texture.
They are lovely for dipping in Spanish tsokolate (see glossary term #5) or coffee or anything you want. They are considered by many as the national bread of the Philippines. When fresh and hot, they are manna from heaven. (Featured photo by Alyssa Sison in the Creative Commons.)
Part of me does not want to post this, but you’re going to see the word in the book, so…
It’s a terrible word. Don’t use it. If you are too young to understand how offensive it is, just trust me. This racial slur was used widely by American soldiers, politicians, and civilians to denigrate Filipinos—and later Koreans and Vietnamese in a slight variation (gook). The word apparently was meant to mock Tagalog speakers with their heavy use of the letter g. (G is four times more frequent in Tagalog as it is in English, and is the third most common letter overall in the language.) I read a different explanation in a children’s book of the time called Uncle Sam’s Boys, where it was claimed that the word came from Filipino revolutionaries pretending to be the “good” guys around American soldiers, and somehow “good-good” got shortened. (Yes, they used racial slurs in a children’s book. When I say that racism popped up everywhere in my research, I really mean it.)
Of course, no matter how the Americans came up with the word, the fact that they used it with such vitriol is all on them. This brings up a problem for my writing. How accurate should a historical romance novel be? Americans called Filipinos everything from the N-word to the G-word and more, and they published such language in their novels, memoirs, newspapers, and even bold newspaper headlines. I could have ignored the record, but sanitizing history does not help those who were oppressed. As I recently heard author Wes Moore say: “The worst thing we can take away from a tragedy is to pretend the tragedy did not happen.” If learning about how Americans treated Filipinos makes you angry, then good.
How blind were those Americans to their own small-mindedness? This may help you understand: the English language did not even have a word for racism yet. There was no single term to convey the idea that discrimination based upon race was wrong—not until 1903, and it was not widely used until the 1930s. There was a similar-sounding word, racialism, which was the pseudo-scientific study of traits according to race—as if eugenics was the most natural thing in the world. Yikes.
Therefore, my characters do not come to an epiphany about racial harmony because that would be wildly anachronistic. Georgie falls in love with a man based on his qualities as a man. Javier falls in love with a woman based on her qualities as a woman. That will have to be enough. In fact, Georgie’s relationship with Javier is more complicated than race. It involves class, too. Javier is more wealthy, more cultured, more connected, and more powerful than she is. Javier also has the edge on education and certainly on languages. They do not occupy the same social sphere, no, but it is hard to say whose sphere is higher. The irony of American “benevolent assimilation” (read: “civilizing mission”) is that many of the Yankees Javier meets are less “civilized” than he is. Sometimes he cannot help but point that out to them. (No, it doesn’t go well.)
The truly sad part of this all is that I borrowed the most outrageous insults straight from period sources. I found it distasteful to make these things up, so I relied upon distasteful people to do it for me. Maybe readers will mistakenly believe that I believe these things, but I hope not. Really, I did tone it down. The serious historian inside of me says this book is all unicorns and rainbows, but there is only so much my romantic side can stomach.
On Twitter recently, an author said that she received a two-star ratings on Amazon for NOT warning readers of a non-white main character. [Sigh.] Clearly, racism is still out there. I just hope people understand that accepting something is true to history does not make it the historian’s preference. (Cover photo from Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines.)
Sundays and saints’ days were the only days when cockfighting was legal under the Spanish—and since it happens to be both (see term #12, Sinulog) as I write this, it is a good time to introduce the kristo, or all-around bookie and cashier. A kristo brokers bets by pointing at the two opposing parties, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, hence kristo. Hand signals indicate the amount of the bet and other details. You had better know what you’re doing and be able to choose fast.
I don’t think I could—both because of my general indecisiveness, and because I have pet chickens now and have become squeamish about the whole enterprise. I know that many prizewinning cockerels in the Philippines are very well cared for birds. Until the fight itself, these birds live far better than their factory-farmed chicken nugget brothers in America. What can I say? My poultry ethics are convenient, not consistent.
Nevertheless, I do want to see a kristo in action. These men manage to keep track of dozens of bets in each fight, all in different amounts, all in quick succession, and without the use of a computer or even pen and paper. In fact, kristos in the early American period were often illiterate—which, if you think about it, makes sense. Literacy ruined memory. Our forefathers learned poems, songs, stories, histories, and religious revelations by rote, yet I can’t keep track of my grocery list without Google Keep on my Android.
Pathetic, the kristo says. Pathetic.
By the way, when the kill-joy Americans arrived, they tried to replace cockfighting with baseball. Though the great American pastime caught on—shout out to the Manila-based champions of the 2012 Big League Softball World Series—it never replaced cockfighting. (Creative commons featured photo by Adam Cohn.)
(Note: This post was originally written on January 9, 2016.) It’s fiesta time, people! You thought the holidays were over, but in Cebu they are just beginning. All you need is some nutmeg, a drum, and a statue of Baby Jesus.
The nutmeg is a nod to history. Spices are why Magellan sailed to Cebu. In medieval Europe, this stuff was more valuable than its weight in gold. It not only tasted good, it warded off the bubonic plague, too! (Don’t try that at home, folks.) By the early 1500s, the Portuguese had locked up the eastern trading routes around Africa and India, leaving the Spanish to sail west off the edge of the world. No, just kidding. Anyone with education back then knew the world was round, but they didn’t know a good route around the Americas. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan told King Charles I of Spain that he could find a western passage for the right price. It took him two years to make good on that promise—two years of being chased by the angry Portuguese navy; surviving mutinies, storms, starvation, and winter; and crossing the un-pacific Pacific Ocean. Finally, Magellan and his remaining crew arrived in Cebu in 1521.
There Magellan managed to convince the raja of Cebu, his harem, and the entire settlement to convert to Christianity. The people already had their own idols they danced to, but they pledged to put those away in favor of a present from Magellan: the Santo Niño, or Child Jesus. Magellan even offered to make Christianity work for his new ally, Raja Humabon, now called Don Carlos. Carlos pointed out that the raja of Mactan, a small neighboring island, was spurning the right and true religion. Off Magellan went to fight Lapu-Lapu with an unnecessarily small number of Spanish troops: forty-nine to Lapu-Lapu’s fifteen hundred. Magellan must have never heard MacArthur’s (or the Princess Bride’s) twentieth century warning to “never fight a land war in Asia.” Intending to be a Christian miracle worker, he died a Christian martyr. His body was not found after being torn apart by the Mactan defenders, adding to Lapu-Lapu’s legend as a true nationalist hero. He even has a delicious fish (local grouper) named after him. Very cool.
The Spaniards staying with Don Carlos overstayed their welcome, possibly raping some of the raja’s women after a fiesta (not a tradition of Sinulog). A few of Magellan’s crew, under the captaincy of Juan Sebastian del Cano, made it back to Spain after circumnavigating the globe for the first time. This was the last the native Filipinos saw of the Spanish for a while. Other Spaniards made it to the southern tip of Mindanao long enough to name the islands Las Islas Felipinas in honor of Phillip II, but it took 43 years for Miguel Lopez de Legaspi to make it to Cebu. What did he see there? People dancing to the Santo Niño! (Probably among other idols, but he did not emphasize that part.) A miracle!
Soon came the friars, and Catholicism was in the Philippines to stay. Every town’s church is named after a saint, and that saint’s festival day is celebrated with a procession of the wooden santo statue along the main thoroughfare. In Cebu the sinulog, or “current of the river,” was also danced to please the Santo Niño during his parade. Native drums, gongs, and frenzied movement resemble the pagan festival it once was. Sometime in the 1980s Cebu’s Sinulog became big business, and people travel from all over the world to see it. The schedule for this year’s event includes an entire month’s worth of events, from a historical recreation of Don Carlos’s baptism to a singing competition (Sinulog Idol, of course!). The Santo Niño also travels round trip to Mactan (Lapu-Lapu would not be happy, I think) the day before the big parade, which itself lasts about twelve hours. The costumes are out of sight. In comparison, Americans have no idea how to throw a parade. Even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade cannot beat this, especially since Sinulog is a regional celebration. I’ve not even mentioned Quiapo’s Black Nazarene, Iloilo’s Dinagyang, Bacolod’s Masskara, Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan, and so on.
If you live in Cebu, I hope that you were not planning to drive anywhere this week or next. Happy Sinulog! (Featured photo by Kenneth Gaerlan in the Creative Commons.)
To be honest, I’ve known very few Filipino vegetarians, though maybe it’s simply the company I keep. This does not mean that I’m a huge fan of roast suckling pig, or lechon, but I see its attraction.
To appreciate the Filipino national dish, you have to be willing to see your animal go from farm to table right in front of you. (And for that, I must apologize for the featured Creative Commons photo by whologwhy.) I’ve used a photo below of how the lechon would likely be served to you, cut right off the pig after being roasted on a spit for hours. (Creative commons license by Scott Mindeaux.)
Typically, the younger the piglet, the more fatty and therefore the more prized the lechon. Personally, I prefer more meaty lechon, which my barkada (my peeps) took as evidence of my poor taste. I let them have the lechon while I slyly ate all the kinilaw na tanigue (ceviche Spanish mackerel) or fresh lumpia (spring rolls), among other dishes.
The lesson is this: do not disparage Filipino food. Anthony Bourdain has visited the islands twice—most recently this past month—and he called the local lechon the “best pig ever.”