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The Bicol Express Runs Again

The Bicol Express is roaring again. This time not as the train on railroad tracks, but as food, online.

The debate is on that most difficult, most contentious item in heritage or cultural legacy – origin. Where did the name “Bicol Express” as a label for a food come from? As if this is not an incendiary topic enough, a site posts this caveat: Bicol Express is not from Bicol.

I have written this cultural issue for a long time, how culture is about being inside it or outside. One’s position vis-à-vis a culture would create a different way of calling or naming an object. The insider has a name for things; the outsider would have another. The two do not necessarily correspond to each other. The question is which is more valid? Which labelling becomes more dominant?

Writers, artists, philosophers, museologists and curators can never not be concerned about the significance of food in our society.

One cannot dismiss the discussion of food as funny or silly. Amusing maybe but not irrelevant.

The French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, the mind behind French, Structuralism, has said of food, that it is not only something to eat but something to think about. “Mapagal ano?” In other words, food is not simply food but an extension of the social. Food can be an indicator of gender or inequality, an expression of behavior, a narrative. Food can be a source of signs and symbols of religion. Food can even be the equal of a god.

At the center of this contention is Bicol Express, a dish whose pathos depends on who is describing it. Its existence depends on who owns it and where it can be found.

I did not want to join the discussion at first. I know online conversation can be merciless and cruel. But when I saw the names of my comrades in Bikol cultures, Luis Cabalquinto and Marne Kilates, I knew I had to join the fray.

By the time I went into the arena, another Luis, the indomitable, good lawyer and good friend, Luis General, was already there and by the look of his statement, he was voicing his opinion at the top of his legal voice.

Being an old issue, the claims were muddled and not verifiable anymore. It was not a matter of your words against mine. It was a tricky matter of your memories versus my memories. Did Cely Kalaw really come up with the name “Bicol Express?” Did she claim ownership of the dish?

In many articles I have read, it was clear the late Cely Kalaw (her passing on I would find out from archivist Monchito Nocon who writes about the oldest panciteria and carinderia in Manila) would always say she based her “Bicol Express” on the famous Bikol dish called “gulay na lada.”

Was Cely Kalaw a Bikolana? Scant pieces of information would always talk of her spending her childhood in Bikol. It was her memory of Bikol dish that prompted her to experiment on a recipe that would later be deemed representative of all things delectable and original from our region.

But why question Ms. Kalaw’s ethnicity? Does it follow that only Bikolanos would be able to cook a Bikol dish? The battleground was becoming a battlefield with warriors on one side brandishing the golden banner of provenance (saen man nanggad hale?) and on another the monumental crest of authenticity.

How do we deal with authenticity in these Ages of diaspora and lockdown? Does the Boinen (if you are puzzled with this orthography then this debate is not for you) cease to cook the true and the good Bikol dish because he lives now in Portland, Oregon? Is pinangat cooked in a Balinese restaurant somewhere in Malaysia not the real pinangat concocted in Camalig?

Listen to the Manila-based Bikolano poet, Marne Kilates rhapsodize in his poem, “Tacada de Pinangat,” about the peregrinations of the coconut and the vegetable of his Albay land: Each packet, steaming and tender/And rich with a coat of natúk,/Only the hungry Bikol eye knows.

Kilates claims a kinship whose aroma we can smell. But we know and he knows he is not more or not less Bikolano than anyone of us. Kilates lives somewhere but not in Bikol. Can his emotion for the land be diminished by his not being on that land he sings of?

In “Wrapped in Leaves,” Kilates writes an ode to another delicacy, the “Pinangat,” which shares with any Bikol “gulay” similar ingredients. Heed the poet: There are fewer things in heaven and earth/Than can be wrapped in leaves, or uttered/Without holding the breath… He continues: By a spring among rocks, the tender taro/Bathed in nutty cream—no pleasure of the flesh!

The poet relentlessly, almost breathlessly issues the command: throw in the sinful pork fat. He concludes with the ardor of an evangelist ecstatic with his faith: With burst of delectation so otherworldly:/O Pinangat of the heart, there can be one only.

The fact is authenticity is problematic. It is also overrated. Cultures –songs, dances, poetry, architecture, even or more so religion – have been shown to transcend locations. Ethnic groups cross oceans and mountains and bring with them their cultures.

Jeremy MacClancy in his book, Consuming Culture, quotes the Basque who said: There is no community of people with history without a cuisine.” Of the Basques, MacClancy notes, how they “underline the distinctiveness and the distinction of their cuisine by denigrating others.”

We are not unlike the Basques or other Europeans or other Asians: we claim our culture, our food, as wholly singular, terrifically unlike the others. We condemn those who cook our food and give it another name. They are robbing us of our identity! We believe, rightly so, after all, that, like Language, Food is culture.

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