Monday, February 1, 2016


Cecilia M. Brainard introduces A LA CARTE FOOD & FICTION, Collected and Edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard and Marily Ysip Orosa
(Anvil, Philippines, 2007 and an Ebook published by PALH, CA)

BOOK LINK (click on book cover) 

[A La Carte is the winner of the Gourmand Award
 2008 as the Best Food Literature Book from the


In some places in the Philippines, people greet you by asking if you have eaten: not Good morning, or Good evening but  — Kumain ka na? — Have you eaten?  And even if you have, they will serve you food anyway, and it would be considered an insult if you did not eat. 

Even when I was young, I had an inkling about the special relationship Filipinos have with food.  At home my mother was constantly prodding people to eat more— a habit I have picked up, sometimes to the embarrassment and annoyance of my American sons. 

Another thing that annoys them and my American husband is my difficulty to throw food away, so much so that my refrigerator is filled with bowls of forgotten dishes, some of them with very interesting multicolored mold on them. I had a son threaten to use one of those forgotten containers for a Science project!

I had to explain to them that the inability to waste food came from my mother, who with the family spent the World War Two years in Mindanao, and who, like many other Filipinos during those War years, experienced hunger and deprivation.  But I suspect the reluctance to throw food away runs deeper than that; perhaps to Filipinos, it is clear that food is life, and life should not be thrown away or treated with disrespect. 

Indeed the connection Filipinos have with food is almost religious. Eating is the time when the family gathers, when the community is one, and is something of a sacred time. In the home I grew up in, the entire family sat down for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Lunch and supper were elaborate, with soup, and fish, and meat, and rice, and vegetables, followed by a variety of fruit and/or some sweet for dessert. I believe there are still many Filipino households that have meals like this.  Others, because of their modern hectic lives, have simplified their daily meals, but when it comes to parties, Filipinos still go the full length to have a grand spread. 

It was this deep connection that Filipinos have for food that prompted Marily Orosa and me to edit this collection of Philippine stories and recipes. Marily and I have shared a love for fiction primarily because stories reflect the soul or culture of people. So does food and we thought combining stories and recipes in one book would reveal Filipino culture in a unique manner and would invite lovers of both stories and food to take a look at our delectable collection.

Soon after the release of the other book Marily Orosa and I co-edited (Behind the Walls: Life of Convent Girls, Anvil, 2004) we publicized a search for this collection. Initially, we anticipated we’d get light stories, possibly comic ones. When the stories started coming in, we were surprised to see that the topic of food had triggered some serious stories. We quickly realized that food and eating bring back memories of families and friends, and relationships are always complex. The stories we finally selected were by writers from America, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, France, and Germany. The majority of the contributors are published writers who are well-known in the literary and academic communities. 

An inspiration to this book is Laura Esquiviel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate. Each chapter in Esquiviel’s book is introduced by a recipe so that the chapters flow out of those recipes. Likewise, the 25 stories in our collection are preceded by related recipes. Following the food theme, we arranged the book like a menu, and so we have categories of Breads, Appetizers, Salads; Soup; Rice; Main Dishes; and Dessert, with the recipes and stories falling under the appropriate sections. 

The recipes included in the book are: Aragula in Blue Cheese Sauce; Shrimps on Leeks; Tokwa’t Baboy; Banana Turon; Pan de Sal; Ensaymada;  Green Mango Relish; Feta Cheese with Greens, Artichokes, and Crabfat; Shanghai Fried Rice; Garlic Fried Rice; Pork Adobo; Manok Inasal; Paella/Arroz; Kare-Kare; Lumpia, Laing, Sinanglay na Karpa; Pork Sinigang; Filipino-Korean Lumpia; Rellenong Bangus; Humba; Escabeche; Binagoongang Baboy; Cascaron; and Halo-Halo. They have not been taste-tested and we suggest that those who wish to try the recipes do so in the spirit of experimentation and adventure.

Some stories in the collection are light-hearted. Edna Weisser’s “Merienda Alemania” is an  autobiographical piece about a Filipina and her husband in Germany who have invited their friends over for merienda, but this time with the German touch. The stories of Dean Francis Alfar and Ian Rosales Casocot, combine magic-realism and slapstick. Alfar’s “Sabados Con Fray Villalobos” relates the Spanish friar’s attempts to win the hearts of Filipino Indios although some Indios have other ideas. Casocot’s “Pedro and the Chickens” is about the blossoming of a romance in the town of Dumaguete and the accompanying strange events that happen to the town’s chickens. The story “Wok Man” (by Jose Dalisay) is about the kinship of a short-order cook and his employer who both find joy in cooking. “Hanging Rice” by Carlos Cortes is a short-short about a Visayan eating Cebu’s common street meal; what’s uncommon about it is how the rice is wrapped in a work of weaver’s art. 

The other stories have a more serious style. “In Bread”  (by Ma. Romina Gonzalez) a 26-year old woman prepares bread as her mother had taught her and recalls the time her father left her mother. “Ensaymada” (by Corinna Arcellana Nuqui) is about a homesick Filipina in the U.S. who in the act of baking visits her past. Margarita Marfori’s “Mango Seasons” is a first-person piece focusing on the narrator’s memories of a special summer, brought on by the cutting down of an ancient mango tree. Alfred Yuson’s “Romance and Faith on Mount Banahaw” is a surreal piece accompanied by the salad recipe (in poetry form) of “Feta cheese, with Greens, Artichokes, and Crabfat.” 

Linda Ty-Casper’s story, “Visit to Myself,” is about a 15-year old girl and a 94-year old woman, and how they, one hurrying to the future and the other living in the past, recognize one another. My story (Cecilia Manguerra Brainard), “Romeo,” focuses on the narrator’s mother, now old and whose sole companion is the dog, Romeo, who had once belonged to the narrator. Janet Villa’s “Close Open” and Joel Tan’s “Sinanglay na Karpa” look at people trapped in relationships that they cannot escape. Marie Aubrey Villaceran’s story, “Sinigang” is about a girl, who while cooking, recalls the funeral of a half-brother and it is also during this time that she comes to terms with her relationship with her father. 

Shirley Mae Mamaril Choe’s “Kitchen Secrets” is about a young girl who struggles to reveal a terrible family secret. Through her weekly cooking lessons, she develops a strong relationship with her mother which enables her to finally share her burden. Reine Arcache Melvin’s “The Fish” is about complex relationships among members of a household that come to head during the gutting of a fish caught after a shipwreck. Erma Cuizon’s “Secret Scent” is nostalgic piece about a woman who yearns for the old life that is gone forever.  “Two Drifters” by Veronica Montes is about a young woman who has to cope with the addiction and brokenness of her family members. Brian Ascalon Roley’s semi-autobiographical piece, “In Memory,” remembers a menacing encounter at summer camp in the ‘70s, involving his Filipina mother and white father. 

Edgar Poma’s “Desperata” is set in Hawaii, about a struggling writer’s break when a firefighter managed to find an editor’s note to have his work published. The firefighter’s visit to Hawaii makes the writer realize that his mother needs more than phone calls, but that, as the firefighter said: “You gotta see her every chance you get while you still can and you gotta hold her in your arms."  Oscar Penaranda’s story, “Mango Lady,” recounts a Filipino American’s visit to the Philippines after an absence of 19 years and his search of the fruit vendor who a part of the memories of his youth.  The accompanying recipe is a favorite dessert, Halo-Halo.

The stories in this book are a mixed bag of joyful stories as well as more somber ones; all of them explore the dynamics of human relationships.  The editors of this book sincerely hope the reader will find enjoyment in them. 

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