FIELDNOTES: The Essentialist’s Natong and Other Delicacies

Tito Genova Valiente This article is a break from my fieldwork, a lightening of my burden; after all, life is short. I HAVE always wanted to be a foodie, to be interested in food and everything about food. In fact, I have dreamed to be an epicure, a man who finds happiness in eating and not only finding joy in food but also a desire to put, uppermost in my life, next to writing, the sheer fun of having fun. There is a roadblock to this journey of mine (is this a mixing of metaphors or simply bad employment of figures of speech?) to being a food expert and expressing that expertise by writing about food: I do not like much many of the food that many of you would love to feast on. In other words, I cannot be a gourmet because, and here allow me to mix metaphors, like a singer, my eating range is limited, and small. I am therefore a one-octave gourmet, a gourmand with lots of dietary caveats, a baritone forcing to be tenor. There is an advantage to my limits. I think of what Albert Einstein supposedly said, or what many historians of words attribute to him: The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has limits. As a foodie, therefore, I am a genius. If you are beginning to feel that anytime now, I shall, in written form, burst into a song, you are right. There is a reason for my impending rhapsody. The reason is the arrival yesterday, the last day of July in 2018, in two small plastic containers, of a gift from Iriga. Well, they were really food brought over by good friend and fellow Bicol Mail columnist, Kristian Sendon Cordero, from his home. Some months back, we were in his home and Kristian’s good mother, Mme. Ofelia, convinced us to have our lunch there. When mothers insist you eat the food they have prepared, there are only two things: they are very kind or they are very kind and very good cook. The latter was true of my friend’s mother. In that lunch, we were surprised to encounter – as in meet – a different Natong. It was so different that it wiped all historical attempts to rename natong as “laing.” There was a specific way to it, a taste that was surreal because one did not assume that food could taste in that manner. With due respect to that magnanimous and magnificent lunch, months and distance have diminished my memory of the taste that touched my tongue and brought the sensors to hit my brain. In other words, I could not write about it anymore unless I invent my memory of that event and bring to it modifiers at my disposal, with that disposition not sure to be ethical and truthful. There are too many lies, too much fakeries, and senseless shams in this world that to lie about food, to be not factual about eating is a sin, a truly original sin because the first sin was about eating. That night, as I reached home, I placed the two containers on the table. The first container had natong only; the larger, plastic container carried a two-colored food – on one side was the same natong and the other was Sinantol. There were just three of us in the house. Three pairs of eyes and three functioning brains apprehended the Gift. I thought of Marcel Mauss, the French sociologist, who studied the phenomenon of “gifts” in a book titled “The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.” The book looks at the notion of gift from Ancient Rome to Melanesia. In the book, Mauss, the nephrew of Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist who was the first to study the phenomenon of suicide, asks the questions: What rule of legality and self-interest, in societies of a backward or archaic type, compels the gift that has been received to be obligatorily reciprocated? What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back? If the Gift is not good, we have to be thankful. The giver of the Gift has power already over us. He compels us to recognize reciprocity. If the Gift, the Natong and the Sinantol turn out to be perversely delicious, what do we do? I thought of Marcel Mauss again. This is the same man who uttered these lines bordering on faith: “It is not simply to show power...that a man...throws coppers into the sea...In doing this he is also sacrificing to the gods and spirits...” In our brains that night, there was another question: do we put the Gift (now gifts) in the refrigerator. No, we all, agreed. We are, after all, knowledgeable about delicacies, delicate viands and the miracle that can be wrought by coconuts. These Natong and Sinantol are going to last well if they could be, as what Mauss prophesied, sacrifices to the gods and spirit. At lunchtime the next day, the first day of August, we partook of the feast with the Natong and Sinantol the crucial players in this morality play about food as gift and about writing about food as a dream. We had invited an aunt newly arrived from wintry Australia (remember their winter falls in July and the next months). She was missing food and on the table were foods that deserved to be missed. She started eating the Sinantol, the delicacy made from what is known as Cottonfruit, also known as santol in our language, sentul in Bahasa Melayu or Malaysian. She was not looking up. I started scooping Natong, the delicacy made from gabi leaves or taro leaves. In that part of Iriga or perhaps in the family of Ofelia Cordero, the Natong leaves are mixed with Libas. In Portuguese, Libas is called “cajamanga” and in Spanish, “Ciruela Mango”; thus, making the English equivalent acceptable, “Wild Mango.” I see the connection because when you eat the leaves, they are edible and taste tangy and sour. In many places, the Libas leaves are boiled and used for the first bath by women who have recently given birth. Sensing Libas in the Natong is therefore participating in the delicate circle of recovery from birthing. The Natong with Libas assumes a sourness that is not found in any kind of Natong dish. There is a bitterness that is faint, more like the bitterness of a heartbreak that one remembers while one is deeply in love again: you smile at the slight bitterness and you enslave the tanginess with the coconut that, by this time, has become a col0nizer of taste and scent. But there was also the Sinantol. I dipped into it and my good aunt, even without looking up and not knowing if I had tasted it already, muttered: I told you, it is good! And that exactly was how the Sinantol tasted, it had the goodness of “I told you so,” a faint but lingering flavor of an event that transpired and promised to last. I was trying to pin it down, the succulence and the savory feel, but it was rushing fast away from me, like love that threatens not to last. The solution was to eat again, and run after it. If there was a food that defined for me the taste of the eternal, it was the Sinantol. It was forever but it was not. As I write this, I think not of the sociology of food or the anthropology of taste; I am considering having the career of a food writer, that someone who could talk of food with the expertise of a shaman and a lover.