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Felice Prudente Sta. Maria’s works have been instrumental in carving a niche for cuisine in the study of Philippine history


By Joaquín Carlos U. de Jesús | Images by Noel B. Pabalate

Can we better appreciate our identity as a people through our cuisine? How do local and international social upheavals affect our gastronomy? What do the changing cooking techniques for a dish tell about particular chapters in our history? Felice Prudente Sta. Maria is a trailblazer in the search for answers to these questions. She has produced an impressive body of literature that serves as an invaluable reference to generations of gastronomes, historians, cultural heritage workers, and of course, Filipinos. She is, undoubtedly, a living legend.

Apart from being an author, heritage advocate, and culinary historian, Sta. Maria is also a trustee at the National Museum of the Philippines, a member of Ayala Museum’s board of advisers, and vice president for internal affairs and co-founder of the Food Writers Association of the Philippines.

Sta. Maria first began working in the field of advertising but because of the late hours and the demands of motherhood, she sought a career change. “I had the good fortune of meeting Gilda Cordero Fernando at the right time. It was she who started me in my writing career. I wrote for both Filipino Heritage and also, Eggie Apostol’s Woman’s Home Companion, where I touched on light, women-oriented topics but these were all well-researched,” Sta. Maria shared.

In an encouraging tone, she recounted that “I did a lot of what you young guys are doing now. I used to write a lot of feature articles, some of them for Mabuhay Magazine.”

She became fully committed to and immersed in cultural work when she became a member of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum right after People Power l. She has since been at the forefront of cultural heritage work for the country. As a multi-awarded writer, some of her works have been instrumental in carving a niche for cuisine in the study of Philippine history.

For example, Sta. Maria’s book The Governor General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes, 1521-1935 is an expansive collection that illustrates how representatives of foreign powers—Spanish and American governor generals—and their dining preferences were indicative of the changing historical, political, social, and cultural movements in the Philippines.

Untitled-3Cover of The Governor General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes, 1521-1935

Sta. Maria’s books, talks, and writings show how formidable the field of culinary history is in helping us Filipinos realize the importance of our heritage in knowing and shaping our cultural identity. Indeed, the history of what we eat is critical not only in terms of recipes but also in analyzing even the economics and politics surrounding food security. Listening to her and reading her books tell us that food history is not about harping on mere nostalgia because it undertakes and probes information concerning pragmatic and data-driven solutions for contemporary questions. When I asked her how she identifies or narrows down on a topic or a dish to research on, she said that, first, nobody has touched it.

“My whole professional experience has been answering the question ‘What is missing?’ You see, we don’t have the language that stems from the culture. I feel we don’t have a baseline, working chronology for food history from which future students of history and writers could draw inspiration—or even find my mistakes, for that matter, to correct or augment what I have found,” she said.

“My next book covers the period from 1515 to 1946. It is 50-year chapters in sequence. I think that gives enough leeway for future students to say ‘Let’s see what she said, then I can find my own topic.’”

“Another thing I felt that was missing was that we didn’t really know what we were cooking. For example, we think certain Spanish-sounding dishes are old but perhaps they weren’t because the ingredients still haven’t found their way to the Philippines,” explained Sta. Maria, who also said that the reason we find ourselves precisely in this situation is because we still haven’t studied our vocabulary.

It greatly helped Sta. Maria that she has a personal hobby, which is going through dictionaries. It is through her almost insatiable interest in words that kicks off her adventures of research and investigation.

“If I liked a word, I would list it down. I had lists of words for sounds, body positions, and of course, food, et cetera. It was just a hobby. When I moved then to a more serious study of food, [I,] we need words, but again, in sequence. After seeing and discovering words, our sense of wellbeing includes feeding the physical, spiritual, and the social self. In this process, you can find the topics,” Sta. Maria elaborated.

“You just can’t have trivia. You can’t say ‘Oh, I found something old’ and then isolate one fact. You have to try to tell what it means, set the context, and prove its significance. How I work is that I do not hypothesize, then research. I research, then from there, I find the evidence to showcase what we probably haven’t touched on our cuisine,” Sta. Maria said.

_MG_0726Felice Sta. Maria is a pioneer in the industry of food history, a path which she stumbled upon by accident

It is in this demonstration of mastery of Philippine cookery and history that one can be truly convinced that Felice Prudente Sta. Maria is a pioneer. Nevertheless, she didn’t fail to mention that along her journey, she received invaluable help from a lot of people from all walks of life.

“It seemed that I ended up in this field accidentally. But really, there were many people who encouraged and supported me. From the education sector, there were Lourdes Quisumbing and Victor Ordoñez. From the cultural field, there were Virgie Moreno, Alejandro Roces, who became a National Artist, and of course, Gilda Fernando, who’s up there on my list. It was Gilda who published The Culinary Culture of the Philippines in 1976, exploring the history, customs, legends, and philosophy of our food, thus moving the conversation about food beyond recipes to one that was academic,” she stated.

“On the other hand, it was the editor of Manila Times Joaquin Roces or Titong who asked me to write my first newspaper column, ‘Halupi.’ There was Betty Go Belmonte, who I miss terribly because we stand for the same principles.

“Of course, I cannot not mention Doreen Fernandez. It was Doreen who put together the first local presentation on Philippine food as culture. She forged the multidisciplinary field that is ‘culinary culture,’ merging it with anthropology and sociology,” Sta. Maria added.

“There was one person who encouraged me to specifically look into Philippine food history—Don Luís Ma. Araneta. An avid art collector of substance, Don Luis was mesmerized by my finds to the point that he even introduced me to his close friend, Elvira Manahan. She also enjoyed my stories that she invited me to be a guest on her TV show Two or the Road. I was terrified knowing there could be questions I might be unable to answer. It was worse when I realized the entire show was going to feature me. That was ages ago when food research was still only a hobby,” she recounted.

Untitled-4Sta. Maria signs several copies of her illustrated book with Bryan Koh and Mariel Ylagan Garcia titled Kain Na! (Instagram: @felicepstamaria)

Sta. Maria went on to acknowledge Cesar Virata, her “first ally” at the Philippine Centennial Commission and the Advertising Foundation, as a critical factor in the success of the said commission.

“Without the Advertising Foundation, we couldn’t have started our work for the Philippine Centennial. We had Linda Gamboa and Louie Morales, who I both knew even before we set up the foundation.

“Another person who has been significant in my work is Felipe de Leon Jr., one of the first commissioners of the NCCA. Jun de Leon and I bonded quite well during our time at the NCCA, we had the same pananaw and we still help in our own personal ways.

With regard to her work in historical writing, Sta. Maria credits Nita Churchill who repeatedly told her “this research you are doing, this is academic material! You need to have these published.”

“It was Nita who, in an introduction to one journal, branded me as a ‘food historian.’ I keep telling people though that I don’t want to trespass because there are persons who are trained professionally as historians,” Sta. Maria stressed.

Sta. Maria admitted that “without these people behind me, helping me, and considering me an equal— even if I was much younger than them—I don’t think we wouldn’t have been able to contribute as much as we have.”

With all her work on Philippine cuisine, I asked her what she found most exciting about our food.

“Studying Filipino cuisines across different considerations—from the cooking, the ingredients, et cetera— reinforces that we have a very strong culture. It supports the idea that we are innovative, that we adapt to changing surroundings, and that we nativize. We make everything that comes our way Filipino. To me, Filipino food is the world’s cuisine that seeks to bring a smile to the tummy. That’s our food!” Sta. Maria concluded.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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