Writing + Food = Fantasy Feast at the Asian Culinary Forum’s 2010 Symposium

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During a delicious procession of food and drink on Sunday, May 16, at the Asian Culinary Forum’s 201o Symposium, “Filipino Foods: Flavor + Innovation,” culinary enthusiasts also savored sumptuous tales and brilliant poetry by writers Barbara Jane Reyes, Aileen Suzara, Aimee Suzara, Lizelle Festejo, Yael Villafranca, Lisa Suguitan Melnick, and your Salonniere.

Kundiman Fellow and board member of ASF, Debbie Yee, who organized the literary event, introduced the reading then handed it over to poet and educator Oscar Bermeo who emceed. Reading four poems from her soon to be released chapbook Diwata, Barbara Jane Reyes gave the audience a sneak peek into her new work, eighty-eight pages of poems loosely tied together or existing as one complete piece. The poems are about the spiritual world and feature stories that have changed with every telling. Reyes started with an invocation. Here’s a taste:

…Sibilant selvage woman…
…Fire water woman…
…We bring her dried tobacco leaves…

She also read from the poem, “El Mas Supremo” and another piece about her Lola who told stories from World War II when legions of legends had it that the Japanese hid gold in the mountains of the Phillippines.

Aileen Suzara followed and acknowledged her parents in the audience, two excellent cooks and storytellers themselves. Suzara writes of food, family, and environment, and she read her work “How to Make Chicken Bicol.” Have a sample:

…slim hips of lemongrass…there are no maps in making a forgotten meal…usually I was the household cook…I struggled to share some simple words of thanks that should have been instinct…as a child I read Heidi and dreamt of a blue-eyed, gray-haired grandfather who served bowls of creamy oatmeal…had no imagination for Filipino food…the taste of tiny soft shell crabs…my mom entered the kitchen as translator of recipes…maybe its not the right moment, but thank you for cooking.

Her sister Aimee Suzara sung of langka, jackfruit, and the roots of food in her performance poetry. Try a bit:

From “Langka and the Bolo”

…if you can picture the biggest langka you’ve ever seen…
…like a walrus, leaning slightly to the right on its flabby belly…
…the sound of a langka split open by the bolo…
…its best to rub coconut oil on your hands…
…the juice is so sticky like glue…
…we don’t mind the mess…

Her piece, “The Meal I Never Had” explores how relationships with food change and evolve throughout the generations and consequently our relationships with food determine our connection to our bodies. Suzara examines all this, especially in light of her change to vegetarianism as a teenager and veganism now.

Lizelle Festejo’s, poet and Assistant Director of The Bread Project, acknowledged her mother and sister who competed in the Adobo Throwdown, which took place the day before at the Symposium. The two cooks joined us at the reading along with Festejo’s grandmother. Reading from a story about her grandparents, her words aimed straight for the stomach and heart:

Instilled in me my sweet tooth, taught me the magic in baking…for you life was the pleasure of food…I knew what this food meant to you…the cartography of your stories…the kitchen was the room I loved the most…

Yael Villafranca, VONA and Kundiman participant, read from her undergraduate thesis. She’s currently studying at University of San Francisco.

Gambas shrimp sautéed with crab paste….

….family of cookers and eaters…

…transmission…

response…

Her second poem embodied a regular family outing when a caravan of thirty to forty Filipinos trekked out to Tomales Bay and spent thirty hours on the water, enjoying one another’s company and eating.

The first impulse must be one offering iced tea with simple syrup,
the condensation still forming on the glass
…first impulse must be one of listening…
the first impulse must be one of indulgence…

Writer and a professor at College of San Mateo, Lisa Sugitan Melnick rounded out the event remembering her uncle Epifanio Sugitan. His name means revelatory manifestation of a divine being, and he was known in her family as Uncle Pipi. Here’s his story:

Pipi prepared a relish plate as accompaniment to the meals…rotated radishes in his elephantine hands, fashioning the roots into rosettes and soaking them in an ice water bath so they turned bright red and pink…Celery became decorative fans, pepperoncinis, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes were each carved into flowers…

Similar threads ran throughout each of the readings, ties to the family, sanctified with food. Each of these writers invoked the sacred through the rich details in their writing. To read more about the Asian Culinary’s Symposium check out the post on Merienda Reception: “For the Love of Chocolate.”

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for your presence at the reading and for this article! It was an honor to be there, and a delicious weekend overall. Hope for more to come! – Aileen Suzara

  2. Thanks, Aileen. Such a privilege to read with you and all the other talented writers. Next time, I’ll have to remember to get you to sign my copy of “GUFFII.” I’m kicking myself for forgetting. Hope our path cross again, soon.

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