How food is a way of life that’s more than about survival for Filipinos

Published November 12, 2020, 7:12 AM

by Jules Vivas

Dreaming of cakes with food historian and cultural worker Felice Sta. Maria

MUSE OF PUBLIC HISTORY Guest speaker Felice Prudente Sta. Maria (Photo by Bien Bautista for CCP)

In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the US embassy in collaboration with the Ayala Foundation, Inc., Filipinas Heritage Library, and media partner Manila Bulletin, worked together to conduct a timely webinar titled “Dreams of Cake and Ice Cream: Coping with Hunger in World War II.”

With the veteran culinary historian and cultural heritage advocate, Felice Prudente Sta. Maria as guest speaker, the webinar took participants by way of food through the highlights of the Filipino experience in the throes of World War II. The lecture was aimed at ensuring that the learnings from the war would not be forgotten and that history would not be repeated. Felice reviewed the Philippine food culture, layers leading up to the war, during the war, and in its aftermath, focusing on the role of women in mitigating hunger and boosting moral.

THE YULO SISTERS Brigada (left) and Concepcion with their mother, Gabina Mapa vda. de Yulo

The opening remarks were given by senior director for Arts and Culture of the Ayala Foundation, Inc. Mariles L. Gustilo, assistant cultural affairs officer of the US Embassy in the Philippines Pauline Anderson, and lifestyle editor of The Manila Bulletin AA Patawaran.

“Many people perished from starvation and other preventable causes [during WWII]. Provisions became increasingly difficult to find. When they were available, the price was unaffordable. World War II was a picture of grim desolation, but the Filipino resiliency served as an indication for courage, hope, and dreams,” says Pauline. “The unbreakable bond between Filipinos and Americans formed during the war reminds us that together we can overcome the most difficult of times,” she continues.

“History is now more important than ever before, because we are moving to a new era, the fourth industrial revolution, a new frontier, you might say, another great migration,” explains AA. “The ongoing pandemic hastened the digital shift. Although we had, for two decades or so, anticipated this move, we were caught somewhat unprepared, and the great pause caused by the lockdowns around the world has been a big blow to a big part of our lives, which is why it is important to commemorate milestones like this, the 75th year since the end of World War II.”

FOOD NOTES Conching’s recipes and Biding’s diary

Felice’s talk began with a reality check, juxtaposing the past against present conditions in the country. While Filipinos were recovering from WWII and fearful of the possibility of another, today, we are afraid of disasters while faced with the Covid-19 health crisis. Speculations of doom are every present, whether caused by weather disturbances such as the recent Typhoon Rolly or earthquakes, the Big One, caused by the west valley fault movement, which experts say are “only a matter of when.”

The first part of the two-hour-long program highlighted the women-led innovations in cooking as well as the Filipino’s inclination to baking and studying food.

The well-known columnist proceeds to tell the story of her relatives, the Yulo sisters, Brigida and Concepcion, as well as her great grandmother Gabina Mapa de Yulo. It was a very normal family. And like all of us today, the Yulo family wanted a happy peaceful life. “Home is the nation’s heart, and the woman is its strength,” beams Felice, pointing out that the 1920s and ‘30s were the golden age of Philippine cuisine with home cooking in the lead. Cooking and eating were means of uniting a family.

BAKING INSTRUMENT Magic Chef gas stove advertisement in 1932

Home economics was introduced to Philippine education in 1904, inspiring mothers and girls to value modernity side by side with old-fashioned traditions. The subject strengthened the woman’s ability to apply science in health, cooking, and sanitation. Health was wealth. The Filipina took responsibility for her family’s health at home.

With the veteran culinary historian and cultural heritage advocate, Felice Prudente Sta. Maria as guest speaker, the webinar took participants by way of food through the highlights of the Filipino experience in the throes of World War II.

Every woman aspired to have a refrigerator, because with it one could store leftover food and ice cream. At the time, the US was the leading manufacturer of the fridge, so that is one reason why to this day we have many American brands in the country. The second most desired modern appliance was the stove with oven. It was important to have an oven to bake using baking powder, which was back then a new invention. The first birthday cake recipe in a home economics textbook was used by all public schools throughout the archipelago in 1922.

HEALTH IS WEALTH Sunday Tribune, March 23, 1941, showing the woman’s importance in public health (Photo from the Filipinas Heritage Library)

Baking became an obsession among homemakers like Concepcion Yulo Garcia, more fondly known as Lola Conching. Foreign food imports increased significantly after World War I ended in 1919. Brands were coming into the country, and were competitive using print and radio advertising, even live cooking demonstrations. They also started sending recipe cards and books to customers.

CASHEW LATER Neil Oshima’s photo of a sans rival for the book Kulinarya

Sans rival has been an aspirational cake to make since 1932. Zamora de Mascuñana held cooking classes at Centro Escolar, where students would take home her cherished recipes for continental fares. Her sans rival seems to be the oldest one in the country, made the French way with almonds, but was later Filipinized using cashew.

As President Quezon wanted a more literate country, the Office of Adult Education was established in 1937. The initiative was also done to address women’s education and assert new social legislation to protect the rights of farmers and those engaged in food security. Volunteers numbering 45,000 served and 5,053 adult schools were created with an enrollment of almost 290,000 students by 1941.