Food security and the quincentennial

Published June 5, 2021, 12:04 AM

by Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid


Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid

Food security has become an imperative goal in our pandemic times. It is underscored in one of the two themes of the quincentennial of the coming of Christianity in the Philippines – “humanity” or compassion of our ancestors in saving the sick, starving, undernourished and hopeless crew of the Magellan expedition.

From time immemorial, food security has become central to social life. And  as chairman of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), Dr. Rene Escalante who wrote the foreword of “Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic, Culinary Encounters During the First Circumnavigation, 1519-1522” puts it, it is the “rare lens” which had helped us see Philippine history.

In this book written by food and cultural historian, Felice Prudente Sta, Maria, where she retells Pigafetta’s stories, food  has been a useful tool in establishing friendships, mediating negotiations, and providing hospitality  to guests, and even to strangers.  It was central in every celebration and that 16th century Filipinos had developed culinary systems founded on keen understanding of their natural surroundings.

Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian scholar, accompanied Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastian Elcano in the three years and 20-day expedition on the five-ship Armada de Maluco in the journey aimed to discover the Spice Island for Spain.

It is not often that we find a book’s historiography on food that is so riveting. It allowed us to take a good look into our ancestors’ food habits and to discover that many of the foods that we have today were already endemic to Philippine flora and fauna. Coconut (with its water/juice, for wine,  and meat used in varied ways), rice cooked in bamboo tubes, millet cakes wrapped in leaves, bananas, fish, pork, chicken, and delicacies such as turtle eggs, snails – these, and their preparation, were meticulously recorded by Pigafetta. Interesting to note too that our “tinola” and “sinigang” today (fish and pork cooked with broth” and “inihaw” “roast pork and fish, were favored dishes.

Food and lack of it, was an essential focus during this odyssey that had put the Philippines on the world map.

It was Magellan’s demand for a food quota that triggered the conflict. Goats were part of the food quota but Lapulapu, chief of one village refused to deliver the quota. Angered by the rebuff, Magellan, together with some men torched the village. But he was killed by Lapulapu’s men in what is now known as the Battle of Mactan.

One can imagine the challenge of feeding daily 235 to 280 men on five ships! Among the provisions that Magellan prepared when he embarked on the expedition, included cheese, dried fish and anchovies, bacon, dried beans, chickpeas, lentils, rice, flour, garlic, olive oil, mustard, honey sugar, raisins, prunes, sea biscuits, salt, vinegar, wine, preserved quince, three pigs, six cows, and water.

But the provisions were only good  for two years  while the expedition lasted three years and 20 days. At some point, Magellan had to reduce the ration for each person, a move that ignited a mutiny. Some foods became rotten and lack of fruits and vegetables resulted in many getting ill from scurvy. They could not fish in the deep waters. Rats, bats, sawdust, yard cover made of ox hide became substitutes.

There were more challenges along the way and when they finally arrived in Spain, only 18,  including Pigafetta had survived the pioneering journey.

What lessons can we draw from the interactions between the explorers and our early ancestors?

That food is vital not only for physical survival but for its role in building relationships, in connecting people to one another and to their communities. On a micro level, we have seen the role of the community pantry and food banks in staving off hunger in many parts of the country where the pandemic had created unemployment and lack of livelihood opportunities. The pandemic had widened disparities between the rich and the marginalized. This, of course had led to worrisome trends –  rising hunger and malnutrition, and stunted growth among  children. This should not happen in a country like the Philippines which has rich biodiversity and abundant natural resources. But years of poor leadership and governance had resulted in policies that were advantageous to political and economic dynasties but  not to small farmers, fisherfolk, and entrepreneurs.

Structural reforms will be needed in rice productivity, raising food production levels, attracting more agricultural investments, increasing budgetary support for farmers, and harnessing science and technology to prop up agricultural productivity, according to Agricultural Secretary William Dar.

Our educational and media systems need to be more responsive by providing needed learning and motivation  that would contribute to greater productivity, better nutrition and health services.

Pigafetta had created a Cebuano word list of 40 culinary terms. To this, Augustinian Recollect priest, Juan Felix de la Encarnacion, 30 years later, added a compilation of over 1,700 food and food-related works which are included in Sta. Maria’s 157-page book. Many of the terms are familiar to every Filipino.

Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic is the Philippine contribution to the global celebration of the Quincentennial.

Felice Prudente Sta. Maria is a pioneer writer on food history who has  won several international and local awards and has served the Philippine government in several significant positions.

My e-mail, [email protected]