Food-tripping with Jose Rizal: 5 Curious Dining Habits of our National HeroMarch 10, 2019
Nowadays, it’s common for celebrities to be multi-hyphenates. Our television screens are littered with dozens of garden-variety model-actress-entrepreneur-photographer-blogger-socialite hybrids (regardless of whether or not their modeling/acting/entrepreneurial/photography/blogging/ socializing skills are actually up to scratch). But today, December 30, our country celebrates someone who is arguably the ultimate multi-hyphenate, Dr. Jose Rizal.
Rizal at 35 was a writer, artist, physician, athlete, linguist (27 languages, possibly including Egyptian hieroglyphics!), and part-time ladies man. Yet, like all larger-than-life characters, he was also all too human in other facets of his life. There are few things that illustrate this better than his approach to food. Here are 5 examples of Rizal’s curiously mundane dining habits; perhaps learning about them will help us understand the man behind the hero just a little bit better.
1. Rizal was a penny-pincher when it came to food (but he sure loved taking selfies).
Before checking into a hotel, Rizal always inquired about the difference in the room rate if he were to choose to forego breakfast. He usually opted to go without the meal, preferring to spend the difference on alcohol, tea, and a box of biscuits, which he would ration. Once, while rooming with Jose Alejandrino in Belgium, the two agreed to split a box of biscuits between them. The wealthy Alejandrino starved under this regime, and finished his portion within 15 days. Rizal, on the other hand, managed to successfully keep to his Spartan 30-day ration.
A record of Rizal’s expenses for January 1884 reveals that he spent 71.75 pesos on food, a mere fraction of his 329.63 peso-budget for that month. (He spent most of it on books, unsurprisingly.) But no matter how hungry he got, Rizal always set aside a tidy sum for having his photo taken by a professional. You can just imagine what his Instagram feed would look like, if he were alive today.
Despite a tight budget, Rizal didn’t like begging for food, and went to great pains to conceal the fact that he was starving. When disputes over his family’s estate in Laguna began, it would sometimes take months for Rizal’s allowance to reach him in Europe. Too proud to let his landlady learn of his penury (maybe he was courting her, or her daughter/sister/mother/friend), Rizal would leave the boarding house at lunch or dinner, and walk around town, cursing his luck. He’d enter restaurants to breathe in the smells of food just to soothe his grumbling belly. (He would have been an avid follower of our Ghetto Grub articles, I’m sure.) He would later go back to the boarding house, his clothes smelling of food, with everyone believing that he’d just eaten out.
2. Rizal was a killjoy at parties.
Rizal was once invited to a potluck New Year’s Eve Party, and was tasked to bring champagne as his contribution. Not only did he spend most of the evening lecturing his friends on the evils of drinking, gambling, and womanizing (which, apparently, was the whole point of a 19th century frat party, or heck, any frat party for that matter) and nagging them to take their studies more seriously, but he also announced that he expected everyone to pay their share of the champagne bill. Everyone thought he was joking until he stood up and passed his rather large hat around to collect the payment.
Rizal always wondered why he was never popular with the Filipino community in Europe after that incident. Talk about dense.
3. Whenever he did have money, Rizal liked to indulge himself with his favorite pancit.
Though he was known for his stinginess, Rizal would also set aside money (if there was any left over from his photo shoots) for weekly “cheat days.” He had a fondness for pancit since it was the dish he and his fellow Filipinos in Madrid would cook on their weekends off from school. Once, when he was with Alejandrino in Belgium, Rizal decided to have pancit but ended up buying too much noodles. The two ended up feasting on the stuff for days, a welcome change from the dry, increasingly-stale biscuit rations that the two had been forced to adhered to.
The greater mystery I’m curious about, though, is where Rizal managed to purchase sotanghon or bihon in 19th century Europe.
4. Rizal often liked to eat “Filipino fusion” cuisine for breakfast.
Despite practically coming of age in Europe, Rizal’s palate remained partial to homestyle Filipino cooking. His breakfast was like a deconstructed champorado of sorts, comprised of hot chocolate, a cup of rice, and sardinas secas (a fancy name for tuyo). Tinong, Rizal’s Dapitan cook, also revealed that his master feasted on three kinds of ulam whenever he was feeling peckish. He’d eat one that was purely Filipino (like sinigang or paksiw), one that was Spanish, and another one that his cook simply described as “mestizo.” (Possibly a Filipino-Spanish dish of sorts. Adobong pusit paella, anyone?)
Rizal didn’t touch his last meal. (It wasn’t exactly a feast, though.)
On the morning of his execution, Rizal was described by eyewitnesses as serene, even a little cheerful as he smiled at familiar faces in the crowd. The military doctor who took Rizal’s pulse before his execution found it rather calm, with the condemned man’s pallor being the only physical change in him. His paleness could’ve been partly because Rizal didn’t eat his breakfast. While most death row convicts nowadays are given the high-calorie feast of their choice as their last repast, Rizal was only given a plate of three hard-boiled eggs. Saying that the rats who shared his cell also deserved a fine meal, he simply set the plate down in a corner and left it there.
While we might find some of Rizal’s eccentricities above amusing or perhaps even funny, they also reveal that the good doctor was still human, which makes everything he did for our country that much more praise-worthy. From the rather austere scrimping on food to the ultimate forfeiture of his very life, it’s clear that patriotic sacrifice largely defined the existence he chose to live.