I still miss Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, she whose food columns at the Inquirer I read as greedily as its comic strips and opinion pages.
Now, the written word – when strung together with warmth and charm and flair– is comfort food enough for the soul sometimes. And when a writer waxes sublime or funny or instructive over food of the kind that feeds our mortal body, -- now, that makes us, the reader, doubly satiated and comforted, while at the same time pleasantly hungry.
Doreen, all-time dean of foodie writers, always made me feel that way. I stalked her food adventures -- from those weekly Inquirer essays to her Palayok, Lasap, Tikim, and Sarap volumes on Pinoy food and Pinoy food traditions. I marvelled she could write divinely of something as mundane as adobo and dinuguan and pancit and balut. After all – even the thickest thesaurus yields frustratingly few words for saying this or that is -- or isn’t -- delicious.
But like most good writers, Doreen Fernandez did not say. Rather, she showed … in so many ingenious and often scholarly ways.
Unforgettable are her paeans to sinigang, which she declared "the quintessential, the signature, perhaps the national Philippine dish.” Sinigang is so ubiquitous it is coooked in almost all parts of the archipelago and known by various names -- tinowa in Cebu, cocido in Bicol. Sinigang is so democratic it is served on the tables of both rich and poor. Sinigang is so versatile almost any fish, meat or vegetable can be seasoned with pickings from the farm or the backyard. Sampaloc fruits, flowers, leaves and tendrils; kamias, green mangoes, green guavas, green pineapples, alibangbang leaves, batuan, tomatoes, calamansi, and more have been tossed into pots to make sinigang taste like … what else … exquisitely pungent sinigang in varied nuances of "sour."
From her, I learned eating the head of big premium fish like salmon, lapu-lapu and maya-maya can be a smorgasbord of over 20 intricate flavors if one would take the trouble to dissect it bit by bite, while confessing she herself has discerned only 12 or so. I have since then begun my own measly count of fish head textures and flavors – (1) the creamy round center of the eye, (2) the white, pleasantly bland smoothness around it, (3) the bulalo-like fish brain best sucked noisily and unabashedly, (4) the morsels of meat lurking inside skull crevices rendered more tasty by the effort of plucking them out, (5) the delicate flavor of the translucent and silky labial parts, (6) The crisp, fat-encrusted palikpik flanking the head, and (7) the melt-in-the mouth viscosity in unexpected places. I am still trying mightily to make it to ten.
Doreen was an accidental foodie. Her husband Wili Fernandez, who was as famous an architect as he was as a gourmand, was actually the one asked to write about his gustatory adventures. Wili must have thought his better half was also the better scribe. “I eat, you write,” was his deal with Doreen, who didn’t only write-write-write but read- read-read and researched and elevated food writing to a scholarly craft. And yes, of course, which foodie wouldn't eat-eat-eat, too?
When Doreen Fernandez died in 2002 I knew she would be hard to replace in the annals of food writing. Not that wannabes didn’t try. Margaux Salcedo, Reggie Aspiras, Micky Fenix. All of them fine writers, kitchen-savvy, and restaurant-happy, especially Margaux who’s had flashes of on-target culinary lyricism, cynicism, and humor. They are still trying.
I am in fact a wannabe, too. I figured that since I could write some, and cook some, and eat out some, then maybe I could be a second-rate, trying-hard Doreen Fernandez copy-cat.
By some fluke, the past few weeks saw me establishing a new personal record in dining out, with recent outings to Saisaki, Tong Yang, S’barro, Fridays, Flying Pig, Old Vine, Bubba Gump, Abe’s, Look Foo, Mandarin Hotel coffeeshop, Dusit Hotel coffeeshop, Le Gourmet, Red Mango, Burgoo, and Pasto – thanks in part to the grand reunion that was, in part to amigas who lunch, and the rest to my girls who love to drag me to their gimmicks.
What I am trying to say in an unpalatably roundabout way is simply: I might soon food-blog.