Here’s Why Food Historian Doreen Fernandez is a Vital Part of Today’s Culinary SceneMarch 13, 2020
Once upon a time, Filipino food was not something people raved about or dined out in restaurants for. It was what you ate at home, and likely did not regard as haute cuisine. Flash forward to the present day where The New York Times predicts that Filipino food will be “the next big thing.”
Filipino food became visible on worldwide radar when it caught the attention of celebrity chefs looking for new, novel cuisine to present on their foodumentaries. Viewers and fans across the world hear Anthony Bourdain declare lechon to be “the best pork ever” while Andrew Zimmerman sings praises for adobo. That’s right, world! There’s more to Philippine cuisine than eating balut in “Fear Factor”!
But before all the Hollywood buzz, we were privileged to have someone who expressed a true understanding of Filipino food and brought about the appreciation it lacked from its own people. She is Doreen Fernandez.
Who is Doreen Fernandez? Young adults of today may have heard of her in passing, since she was the grand dame of the local food writing landscape before the Social Media Age, but pre-millenials are likely to be aware of her work—at least they should be, especially if they call themselves “food critics” or the more contemporary term: “foodies” Like most great women, Doreen was excellent at many things. She was an inspiring professor, a well-versed historian, a highly acclaimed food critic, a loving wife, a treasured aunt, and so much more.
Doreen’s three decades of writing began with Geny Lopez and Santi Dumlao. They approached her husband Wili Fernandez, esteemed interior designer, asking him to write a column for The Manila Chronicle “that would make mouths water.” His reply: “I’ll eat and she’ll write” (Besa, 18). At the time, she was already a professor, researcher, and writer, but did not have much experience in the food industry. Naturally then, her first reaction was, “But I don’t have enough of a vocabulary! How many words are there for ‘delicious’?” (Tikim, xi). Little did she know at the time that she would leave a massive legacy on the Philippine food writing industry and Filipino culture itself.
As the famous but fictitious food critic Anton Ego from Disney’s Ratatouille once said, “You know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some clear, well-seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?” Doreen Fernandez undoubtedly satisfies this craving for perspective with her writing. As a food critic, Doreen is best known for her very shrewd and witty reflections on the dining experience and how every aspect of a dish, from the ingredients, the cooking process, and even the presentation, represents our culture and national identity. She considered herself more of a food historian than a critic, and as such, worked relentlessly to perfect her craft. This is what makes her writing stand on its own and merit review and reference decades later.
In Doreen’s narration of the importance of rice, which is almost always regarded as the sidekick of a meal, she writes, “What would we do without rice? Those who do manual labor would go hungry midway through the gap between meals. And what would we take to go with kari-kari… tinapa, tuyo, tapa? Loaf bread? Only rice provides the mild, comfortable background that makes the very salty, the highly flavored, logical and palatable” (Savor the Word, 35). , Instead of merely describing a sensation, she coaxes us to savor, to understand, to reflect, and most of all to think critically.
The critical thinking that is very much present in her writing was likely developed from her years as an English and creative writing professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. Maya Besa Roxas, Doreen’s niece and custodian of Doreen’s library and body of work says: “She would take her students on food trips as part of her course. She would introduce them to farmers, arrange for restaurants to prepare for them so they could sample local foods… Even dishes such as snake and adobong bayawak!”(“What does it taste like?” I asked curiously. “Like chicken,” she said.)
A common approach to food criticism today is to see it as the opportunity to have a free meal and reporting it in detailed, synonym-filled description. Even more tragic is when the writing focuses on food fads, celebrity chefs, and emphasis on where the society crowd dines. With the rise of social media, every diner, every blogger, every Instagrammer is a critic. However, what separates a good food critic from a forgettable one is, according to Roxas: inquisitiveness. She further elaborates on Doreen’s influence in her own writing: “Be inquisitive and come from a scholarly background—[don’t just write] a simple press release. Tita Doreen never considered herself a food critic, but a food researcher. For straightforward restaurant reviews, she always said, ‘I’ll leave that to the kids.’ It was more important to her to look behind the food; it’s meaning, what it says about the culture, where it came from.”
It is highly probable that Doreen’s influence and her emphasis of the importance of the origins behind the meals we take for granted is what led to the current trend of culinary anthropology. Such courses are taught at schools today,. Those who write and read about the subject are developing an interest in the history and evolution of cuisine instead of just eating and being on their way. We see the organization and promotion of well-attended events such as the recent Madrid Fusion Manila. The pen, or to be more current; the keyboard, truly is mightier than the sword!
These days, having a byline in print or onscreen is neither as exclusive nor distinguishing as it was before the Internet era. Anyone can post their opinion –the simplest form of thought– online. The ever-quotable Doreen Fernandez, however, is relevant even 13 years after her passing in 2002. Why? She worked hard at everything she wrote. She researched, she theorized, and asked the right questions at interviews. “You have to think about the collective thought you’re contributing to,” Maya Besa Roxas states. “Uneducated opinions won’t matter ten years from now.” Doreen has clearly survived the short-term attention span that our generation possesses alongside instant gratification and an abundance of easy-access information (Thanks, Google!). So, if you are serious about food writing, pick up a book by Doreen Fernandez: the gastronomical researcher, cultural historian, and culinary anthropologist. Who better to learn from than the Indiana Jones of food criticism?