The “Spirit” of Food

I’m on the airplane on the way to Chicago, reading my latest find on Amazon: Food and Culture, a reader by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik.

Big Sur, California

Big Sur, California

In one of the best articles I’ve read about food, Roland Barthes speaks of a certain “spirit” of food. And with this, the facets of communication that food connotes – bringing together flavor or substance to form a “unit of single signification.”

He goes on to discuss MENUS as syntaxes (methods of organizing meaning)…his main point? “Communication always implies a system of signification, that is, a body of discrete signs standing out from a mass of indifferent materials.”

Barnes then ascribes (3) themes promoted by food advertising, the first being:

COMMEMORATIVE – food permits a person to partake each day of the national past.

I feel that this is rigidly apparent in Filipino foods and other foods as well. Although certain “national dishes” distinguish a cultural diet all dishes are inevitably reflective of colonization and trade relationships.

In speaking with restaurant owners, it seems as if they are the best historians for how we were able to procure certain dishes. For instance, as a child my grandmother would often cook yellow chicken curry drumsticks, pancit canton and lumpia. All of these contain traces of other cultures and reveal elements of Filipino history. Curry connotes our trade relationships with India and harkens to the Philippines’ history as a popular trading post in the Pacific. Pancit Canton is derived from China, (canton = root of Cantonese) and is similar to Chinese chow mein. Although seemingly obvious, it is interesting how these foods persevered over time, how intermeshed these cultures became, and how these foods were adapted to fit local resources and palettes.

I think that often times we don’t pay attention to food as a carrier of communication, instead delineating food as an “immediate reality” and undervaluing it as an anthropological signal. There exists a string of values associated with each bite we take – laced in the substance, form and preparation. “Everybody has to eat,” but no two people do it in the exact same way.

I also think to what Filipino food signals. I think that Filipino food is vastly comprised of “comfort foods”: stews, fried delicacies, rich dishes that soothe and console. But it also connotes a certain friendliness, a flexibility to other cultures and an honoring of neighbors.

I think of my grandmother – and the delicateness with which she cooked. On the contrary, my hand seems more efficient, more rushed, more goal-driven. My grandma would make sure that every onion piece was chopped exactly so. It was as if she cooked to preserve the past. I remember that spirit; cooking was treated more like a craft, a dance, a departure. Even the way in which she ladled the food onto the plate was otherworldly.




3 thoughts on “The “Spirit” of Food

  1. I think we maybe over-romanticizing things a bit. But then, emotions, particularly the sense of struggle, redemption and good times seem to be the hallmark of the Filipino well-being. There is romance of course, but that is a universal desire. All of which are reflected in Filipino pop culture such as the ballads of OPM and novelas. The same is reflected within the food culture. Although we have our dishes we equate with gatherings, we don’t pay attention to the everyday cooking to satisfy the basic human instinct to survive. Maybe that’s a bit too bottom line, but we can’t ignore that despite all the restaurants and get togethers that there are just as many individuals and households that prepare humble dishes as part of their daily existence. One example is an Illocano standard, dinengdeng. Basically a simple broth made from bagaoong, whatever vegetables thrown in and some protein. Usually leftover fish or meat. Add a pot of steamed rice and this one pot meal could extend leftovers another 2-3 days! Its a reflection of our history from the Manong generation all the way to 21st century.

  2. “But then, emotions, particularly the sense of struggle, redemption and good times seem to be the hallmark of the Filipino well-being.” Absolutely. This was put beautifully. I know that salt has played a huge part in the Filipino diet as well. Having a small amount of fish and ample amounts of rice is enough to stave off hunger. Perhaps this is just on the “sustenance” level, but calls attention to our needs and the ways in which our food has trickled down and evolved through socioeconomic classes as well.

  3. Thanks Kristine.

    As American born Filipinos, I think its hard for us to fully realize and appreciate the hardships that our parents and grandparents went throught. Especially during WWII, the Cold War and the Marcos regime. I think it was during those specific time periods that began to define the Filipino food we know today. Referencing your previous post on rice. Growing up, our parents, grandparents, babysitters would tell us to “eat all your rice or else the rice will cry”. That says alot about the importance of this food, but also harkens to a time when there wasn’t so much. Growing up in the province, my parents would tell us, if you had just rice to eat, you were good. Some bagaoong, even better. If there was dried fish, it was a feast.

    While you’re travelling through the midwest, it would be interesting to hear food experiences of Filipinos over there and how it compares to us Californians.

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