Friday, October 08, 2004



Updated 01:04am (Mla time) Oct 08, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the October 8, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

IT has been a number of weeks since the last Gawad CCP for the Arts were handed out in a long but glittering program held in honor of this year's awardees. Media coverage was slight, and the only television station that constantly reminds us of the awards is Channel 5 because of its owner, Antonio Cojuangco, who is in the news again but for a different reason.

The Gawad CCP is seen as the second highest cultural award within the gift of the state, next to being "canonized" Pambansang Alagad ng Sining or National Artist. It is good that we honor those who promote Philippine culture and we hope that even in these days of fiscal crisis, funding for the arts (already among the lowest priority) can be maintained.

Most memorable of the Gawad awards I attended was when Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero and E. Arsenio Manuel were honored. Etched in my memory was the scene afterwards, when the two senior citizens were vainly trying to get a taxi back to Diliman. They had been feted an hour earlier on the CCP stage, but there they were in their barong, clutching the framed citations, being avoided by taxi drivers who didn't want to make the trip to Quezon City. What I regret most was not stopping and giving them a ride because it meant missing my dinner in Malate.

That night I told myself, if this is how this country treats its artists and scholars, why bother? But then all the people so honored worked and toiled without seeking such a reward. Either way, I still think Guerrero and Manuel deserved a ride home that night.

One person who deserved to be remembered at least in the Inquirer is Doreen Gamboa Fernandez (1934-2002), who was honored this year for cultural research. She was better known as a food critic, one whose smiling face marked many food columns, some now used like the famous "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" in many restaurants in the country. She spoke to readers about food simply, in a language that perked up the taste buds and made mouths water. However, more than restaurant reviews, her graceful prose hid a deeper purpose which was to place food in its proper context. For this task Fernandez used more than the usual adjectives and drew from other disciplines: music, theater, art, literature, anthropology, or even architecture in describing food. Each essay pushed beyond eating and its physical pleasures and moved into the place of food in Filipino life.

Following the lead of Brillat-Savarin who wrote, "Show me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are," Fernandez used food as one way by which to tackle Philippine culture, since food forms part of that elusive thing Filipinos call national identity. For her consistent and groundbreaking work in food as well as Philippine literature, theater, history, journalism and the arts, she deserves her posthumous Gawad CCP for the Arts.

Marriage to the pioneering interior designer Wili Fernandez in 1958 led to many pursuits like the food column they began jointly in 1969, with Wili eating and Doreen writing. In time, the column carried only her byline and evolved into a column that set new standards for food writing. A disciplined writer, she submitted her weekly newspaper columns in batches often weeks in advance such that they continued to appear a few weeks after she died in June 2002.

Her food research was not confined to Manila restaurants. She went to fields and fishponds, interviewed people and observed actual cooking. Once she documented the way Ilocanos made trademark meat dishes by spending the better part of the day watching the goat from the time it was led to slaughter in the backyard till the time the creature was on serving plates, transformed into various dishes leaving nothing uneaten but the horn and hoof.

In like manner, her theater research took her from the air-conditioned and acoustically perfect halls of the Cultural Center of the Philippines to rural areas where the traditional plays like the komedya or sinakulo are still performed. Most difficult to document were the marathon plays of San Dionisio in ParaƱaque where townsfolk kept adding scenes to a fluid script extending the running time to about 12 hours, divided evenly over two evenings. Notebooks and note cards were filled with her observations in shorthand. She interviewed people, tracked down manuscript plays and old playbills and over time took hundreds of slides with her own camera.

These now historic color transparencies that form visual documentation of plays performed in the last three decades will soon form part of the CCP library. This is ironic because a number of times she was stopped by overzealous guards while she clicked away (without a flash) during performances in the CCP.

Her books include "Palabas: Essays on Philippine Theater" (1996), "Face to Face: The Craft of Interviewing" (1995), "Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture" (1994), "Fruits of the Philippines" (1997), and "Palayok: Philippine Food through Time, on Site, in the Pot" (2000), all basic references now for Philippine culinary culture. Maybe a compilation of her food columns can be added to the above to help us discover ourselves through our food.


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