Doreen and Philippine cuisine

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

The New York Times has featured the late Doreen G. Fernandez in a full-page tribute to her as one of the forces of nature that helped propel recognition for Philippine cuisine. Formerly relegated to the back kitchen as food for the help, local cuisine has since then entered the big dining rooms here and abroad, thanks to the work of pioneers like Doreen.

I first read Doreen Gamboa Fernandez when she wrote a review of Nick Joaquin’s “An Almanac for Manileños.” It was published in Philippine Panorama in the late ’70s. I liked the style of writing, light but not lightweight, and the sensibility rooted in Philippine history and culture.

I first heard of Doreen as a teacher when my friend and neighbor, Erwin Rommel Dalisay, became her student in the Freshman Merit class at the Ateneo. Rommel told me how he got a B in his first composition and thought it was a bad grade, until Doreen passed around mimeographed sheets of the students’ best essays, and saw his work there. Doreen marked the essays, typed them herself, and discussed them in class, workshop style. Her point was that students learnt best from reading the finest work written outside the classroom – and the finest work of their peers.

In 1979, I became a Business Management major at the Ateneo, where I belonged to the regular Freshman English section. One day, my teacher passed around a mimeographed essay written by Doreen. It was about Van Cliburn playing at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, about how the First Lady, Imelda R. Marcos, had flown tulips from Holland especially for the occasion, the pomp, the hypocrisy, the madness of it all. It was, as usual, a well-written piece. But it was 1980, and the Marcos dictatorship was still regnant in the land. So my teacher asked us to return copies of the essay to her after we had read it.

When I became the editor-in-chief of Heights, the Ateneo’s literary journal, I changed our bulletin board into a poetry board. I typed the poems of the campus writers, asked our artists to illustrate them, then pasted them on the board. We changed the poems and the illustrations every week. To our surprise, it was a smash. Every Monday, students would crowd in front of the Heights Poetry Board and read the new poems and look at the new drawings we had put up. Doreen donated delicate and beautiful Japanese paper for our board, and told the UP Writers’ Workshop that summer of what we had done.

My friendship with Doreen deepened when we went on teacher-training workshops, when we went to the meetings of the Manila Critics Circle, and when we went out to eat. Once we went to the Central Luzon State University in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija to give a workshop under the Ateneo Center for English Language Teaching. Her driver, Arsenio, drove Doreen, the poet Rofel G. Brion, and myself all the way to San Jose.

“Now we know the way to San Ho-say,” I sang as Rofel and Doreen giggled. Oh how I remember Doreen giggling, then laughing that trademark laughter of hers: low and rolling, her lips smiling widely, her eyes full of light.

The teachers recognized her from her columns. Aside from writing a food column for a newspaper, she also wrote a monthly column on teaching for the Philippine Journal of Education, which has a wide readership. When my mother was still teaching, she was also a regular subscriber to the PJE. The teachers in Nueva Ecija were charmed by Doreen’s humility and her common sense. “When we teach Composition,” she said, “we should not ask our students to write about Greece or Rome. We should ask them to write about things close to home, like their family, their friends, why, even the market.”

And so the next morning, after a breakfast of Tagalog beef steak, garlic rice and a glass of Milo (“this glass of Milo reminds me of my childhood,” Doreen said), we went to market. Doreen was an enthusiastic observer. She asked about the name of a fish she did not know, and then we listened to a vendor singing sweetly, to entice the customers to her table of freshly caught fish. The next week, that vignette was already in her column.

Doreen would also drive to the meetings of the Manila Critics Circle. She would pick me up in the English Department, and we drove to Café Ysabel or the University of Santo Tomas or wherever it was the MCC would be meeting. Our group read dozens of books and chose the best books of the year for our National Book Awards. On the way, Doreen and I would update each other.

She would be reading the new novel by John Le Carre or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She read novels voraciously, preferably newsprint because they were cheaper and lighter to carry. There would be one novel in her car, another on her work desk, and another beside her bed.

Shayne Lumbera also told me how Doreen would visit Bien Lumbera at the Bicutan Detention Center during the early years of martial law. One story went that since only nuns and priests could go in and out of Bicutan, Doreen dressed herself as a nun so she could visit her friends. She would bring drinks, food (Doreen=food, in our collective memory), and cigarettes for Bien and company. One time, when the writer Ricky Lee collapsed from a lung problem, Doreen brought her own personal doctor – the best lung doctor in the Philippines – to Bicutan. Aside from ministering to them, Doreen also told them stories on what Ferdinand Marcos and his extravagant wife Imelda were doing to the country, on what the people are doing, in their own ways, to subvert this darkness over the land.

Doreen, of course, is not a saint. Or was now; it’s still hard to talk of Doreen in the past tense. Oh the many other stories she told me about writers and artists, matrons and politicians, pretenders to the throne and mistresses of illusion. But they were so acerbic, so sly, so wicked I am reserving them for my memoirs. And she told me these stories when we went out to this or that restaurant to eat. She needed a male companion to check out the men’s bathroom for her restaurant review. Like my father, she knew how to eat the head of fish, savoring the gelatinous part; or nibble even the eye of a fish.

Indeed, she knew the pleasures of the table and the text, our much-missed DGF.

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