Doreen Gamboa Fernandez: Making History Edible

History need not be relegated to schoolbooks and classrooms, where it often becomes a set of names and dates to memorize and spew out on test papers.  History is a living and lively account of what we were and are…

Doreen Fernandez, Foreword of Rizal Without the Overcoat

Doreen Gamboa Fernandez was a Filipino academic, cultural historian, writer, teacher, and mentor.  While she was a celebrated scholar and food writer in the Philippines, the article about her in the New York Times this past July surprised me seventeen years after her passing.  In this article, Filipino American chefs shared that her writing affirmed that Filipino food, a food that may have felt shameful when they were younger, deserved interest and celebration.  That is just one example of her enduring impact.  She was a prolific academic and she left a legacy that lives on through her scholarship, her insightful and accessible writing about food, and her mentorship of other scholars and writers.  She used theater and food, among other topics, to explore the complexity of history and culture in the Philippines.  Her ability to write expressively and effectively made history stimulating, digestible, and relevant. 

Born in 1934, Doreen Fernandez’s mother was a medical doctor and her father was a sugar planter.  They lived in a town in the province of Negros Occidental that was known as the “Paris of Negros.”  She studied English literature and history at St. Scholastica’s College in Manila.  She then studied literature at Ateneo de Manila University, one of the most prestigious universities in the Philippines. She earned a M.A. in 1956 and a Ph.D. in 1977.  For almost thirty years, she taught literature, creative writing, composition, and journalism at Ateneo de Manila University.  At different times, she chaired the English, Communications, and Interdisciplinary Studies Departments.  

Doreen Fernandez began writing about theater early in her academic career.  She wrote her master’s thesis on Christopher Fry, the English poet and playwright.  Her dissertation turned to a more local topic exploring the indigenization of a Spanish theatrical form in the Philippines.  She used theater as a lens to understand Philippine culture and history.  Her books on theater included Iloilo Zarzuela: 1903-1930, In Performance, and Palabas: Essays on Philippine Theater History.  In Palabas: Essays on Philippine Theater History she addressed how the enduring effects of colonialism supported the cultural bias that theater was completely Spanish in origin.  Fernandez argued that theater in the Philippines was an amalgam of Spanish influences and pre-Hispanic games, chants, and riddles.  Fernandez also wrote about contemporary theater.  In an essay entitled “The Playbill After 1983: Philippine Theatre after Martial Law,” she wrote about the urgency of protest theater during the years of martial law which began in 1972 and lasted until 1981 under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  

She not only wrote about theater; Fernandez was a part of the theater community.  She co-founded the Babaylan Theater Group in 1973.  Her theater group experimented with sarswela,an indigenized version of the Spanish theatrical form zarzuela that includes spoken words and songsIn Palabas, she shared that by the 1920s sarswelas were no longer performed because Americans considered the plays seditious and had arrested the playwrights.  While there is no more information about the content of the plays that her theater group performed in the seventies, one cannot help but wonder if creating space for seditious plays was her way of protesting martial law.  During this time, Fernandez also aided her friends from the National Democratic Front.  A number of them had suffered from gunshot wounds while opposing the Marcos regime.  She gave her friends a place to recuperate, rest, and have repast.

Doreen Fernandez started writing about food as a reviewer rather than an academic.  In 1969, the Manila Chronicle asked Wili Fernandez, her husband and a noted gourmet, to write a food column.  The couple decided to write the column together.  In an interview in 1999, Doreen Fernandez shared that, “He said, like the male chauvinist that he was, ‘Sure I’ll eat, and she’ll write.’”  While they both got credit, it was all Doreen Fernandez’s writing. 

Once she started writing about food, she never stopped.  “Soon I was no longer interested in just describing the food; I wanted to know its history, its setting, its meaning,” Fernandez recalled.  She had four food columns in newspapers and magazines throughout the years; she was best known for her column “In Good Taste,” which ran for sixteen years.  In a remembrance of her, one writer claims that, “readers would find themselves actually hungry after reading a column.”  It was through her food columns that she reached a wider audience.  She also authored and coauthored books on food including Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture, Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food, Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness, and the Lasa series, books reviewing restaurants in the Philippines.   

Doreen Fernandez’s two perennial topics, theater and food, had commonalities in her writing and in their illuminating value.  An American colleague explained one of the connections between Fernandez’s writing about food and theater.  Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett wrote:

Doreen treated food as a performing art. Both food and theater require that the writer attend closely to an ephemeral experience… She made ephemeral experiences reverberate in the body of the reader, evoked memories, and traced a path from the immediacy of the moment to a vast and varied culinary landscape and history.

Perhaps it was the way that Doreen Fernandez captured the fleeting nature, and the physicality and emotionality of eating that also captured the reader’s imagination.  She was not simply writing about food; she was writing about its past and significance.  In her essay “Culture Ingested: Notes on the Indigenization of Philippine Food,” she used indigenization, just as she had with theater, to unravel the threads of merging cultures and history.  She wrote that a “special path to the understanding of what Philippine food is can be taken by examining the process of indigenization which brought in, adapted and then subsumed foreign influences into the culture.”  She wrote about language signaling which foods are valued, the merging of native and imported components, the ways food are cooked and shared, and the social meanings.  On theater, she wrote about the elements from Spanish colonizers and indigenous cultures, and how art responded to contemporary concerns.   On food, she wrote about how the ingredients from Spanish and American colonizers, migrants, and indigenous peoples were tempered by present day tools and circumstances to create a cuisine.  Her writing created a picture of “Philippine cuisine as dynamic, syncretic, and emergent.”   There was history in the cuisine, but it was as alive as the people that ate it.

Food allowed Doreen Fernandez to explore culture and history in a variety of environments.  Although she had a privileged background, she did not narrow her food writing to restaurants.  She wrote about, “food on the streets, at construction sites, in factories, schools, offices, in markets and churchyards, and at transportation hubs.”  For the Symposium on Food and Cookery at Oxford in 1991, she presented on Philippine street food as a product of economic hardship and cultural ideas.  Fernandez celebrated street food vendors.  She wrote about the roving sellers of taho, a soy bean curd served with syrup, and how they developed lifelong customers as they visited the same houses and neighborhoods throughout the years.  She also interrogated the economic factors that made “day-to-day, cash-to-cash, person-to-person, small enterprise suitable for developing countries like the Philippines, in which a large portion of the population is below the poverty line, and constitutes the potential sellers and buyers of street food.”  She found value in examining Filipino food in many different incarnations and settings.  She wrote that her teachers were “market vendors, street sellers, cooks, chefs, waiters, restaurants and cardineria owners, farmers, tricycle drivers, gardeners, fishermen, aficionados, nutritionists, readers of [her] columns, friends, food critics and historians, fellow researchers, authors of books (and cookbooks), writers of columns, food anthropologists – everyone who eats and cares.” 

Her work resonated with contemporary Filipino American chefs because she valued  Filipino food as worthy of notice and scholarship.  In July, Ligaya Mishan, a Filipino American food writer, asserted in the New York Times, “Those born to the cuisine have had to grapple with a sense of shame and uncertainty about its place in America, and their own.  In Ms. Fernandez, these immigrants and children of immigrants are finding a champion of food long maligned and misunderstood.”  In writing about Philippine cuisine, Doreen Fernandez has given them a “lively account of what [they] were and are.”  Fernandez’s books have been difficult to procure in the United States because they have only been printed in the Philippines and most are out of print.  Because of renewed interest in her work, Dutch and Filipino publishers are both planning to reprint Tikim.

Doreen Fernandez’s greatest legacy might be the impact she had in teaching, mentoring, and inspiring academics and writers.  Her students have become notable historians and writers in the Philippines like Ambeth Ocampo, Queena Lee Chua, and Ruel de Vera.  She first met Ambeth Ocampo as his teacher in his freshman year English class. Ocampo, a public historian who is best known for his writings on Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, credited her for how he developed as a writer.  Before she died, she was working with colleagues on developing a food writing contest.  When she passed away in 2002, her colleagues named the writing contest the Doreen Fernandez Food Writing Awards.  The annual contest awards the best essays by aspiring food writers.  In 2012, Savor the Word: Ten Years of the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award was published. The collection of essays included work by Fernandez as well as food writers that have become established after winning awards.   

It can be difficult to write fully about someone who has died because many of the sources can be glowing remembrances.  It is even more difficult when the subject is as accomplished and celebrated as Doreen Fernandez.  While there may be more critical reviews out there of her work, the only one that surfaced was a reviewer calling her writing adulatory and awkward.  There are many others who would disagree about her writing in general.  Raymond Sokolov, a former New York Times food editor, called her, “the most impressive food writer and historian I ever encountered.”  Ligaya Mishan wrote that her, “prose was crystalline, at once poetic and direct, whether describing “the distinctive rasp and whisper” of crushed ice in the dessert halo-halo, or freshly cut ubod, the pith of the coconut palm, “that just an hour before had been the heart of a tree.”  The disagreement on Fernandez’s writing may be partly due to the reviewer looking at her essay as a scholarly work, while Sokolov and Mishan look at her writing as journalists who write for wider audiences.  Hopefully it is possible to achieve both robust scholarship and evocative writing.   At the same time, one reader’s awkward may be the other’s exultant.

Doreen Fernandez’s biography reveals some general lessons: academic interests can grow into different topics, or even different disciplines; teaching can be impactful work; and resistance to oppression can take a lot of different forms.  For me, as a person who has gone back to school after more than a dozen years to study the history and movement of food in Asia, especially in the Philippines, Doreen Fernandez’s work serves as a touchstone of how food can connect people to each other and the past.  Her investigations of food revealed the fingerprints of indigenous cultures, colonial powers, and movements of people.  Her writing underscored how food is also a part of a dynamic culture that is changed by circumstance.  History, culture, and context interweave in the ways people feed their bodies and spirits.  The remembrances of Doreen Fernandez also share that writing, when done well, is powerful.  It is in writing that historians can make history understandable and digestible.  As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett wrote, Doreen Fernandez’s work made “history edible.”  She made history alive and relevant whether she was writing about theater or food.  She not only proclaimed that Filipino food mattered, but the history, culture, and people mattered as well.  Although she passed away almost two decades ago, Doreen Fernandez leaves this proclamation behind in her writing.  

Audrey Idaikkadar is a Master’s student in History at Georgia State University where she is studying foodways in Southeast Asia.  Previously, she worked to improve community health in New York and Georgia through nutrition education and improved access to fresh fruits and vegetables.