Kitchen Ghost

Family culinary traditions hold a tangle of identity, history, and hurt.

My mom’s dad moved in with us when he was ninety-one and I was nine. He stayed for the spring, then moved back in with my aunt Gloria for the remainder of the year. In the years that followed, he repeated this seasonal migration between his younger daughters. His name was Gregorio, but I called him Goyo or Pop. He was no taller than five foot five, trim, with patches of white hair in wisps and occasional lonely whiskers. He always looked strangely stylish, in loose-fitting khakis, a white Fruit of the Loom T-shirt, and a woolen Pendleton—a contemporary ’90s look that he had been sporting for decades. His full bottom lip protruded in the loveliest pout, which he pursed in and out like a drawer opening and closing, a gesture that looked like thinking but actually meant being. He almost never spoke, except to answer with the indeterminate “could be.” About his childhood in the Philippines, his gambling and philandering in the rural countryside, the jealousy and lunacy he was known to have shown toward my grandmother, his unreal knack at fixing cars and bowling strikes, all he would ever say was an ambivalent “could be.” 

My mom was filled with pent-up anger at him for years of cruel dominion, but by the time I met him he was sapped of cruelty, and of energy in general. He never did anything intentionally sweet, but I didn’t care; he always let me eat his Popeyes biscuit, which was enough. His presence was so steady, silent, and predictable that he sometimes felt like a ghost living among us. Even now, I’ll turn around and expect to see him sitting in the corner of the kitchen, a newspaper open on his lap, his eyes looking at it without reading a word, his lower lip faintly pulsing. 

The biggest change his presence brought was in the food we ate. My mom, despite her residual anger, wanted to feed him food he would love, and so we slowly started having more Filipino dishes: pork chops with rice and chopped green onion and tomato, fried chicken, chicken adobo, buko pie, even avocado ice cream. Sometimes she would bring down the kudkuran, a device that looked like a child’s wooden rocking horse, and my ninety-two-, then ninety-three-, then ninety-four-year-old grandpa would sit astride it and grate fresh coconut on a serrated wooden knife where the horse’s head should have been. While he lived with us, I learned through osmosis—my mom would make foods he loved, and the comfort they both felt would flow into me. 

When my maternal grandparents married in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, their interracial marriage was illegal under Michigan’s antimiscegenation laws. Francis was the child of recent Polish immigrants; Goyo was an international student at the University of Michigan. After he graduated, Goyo was unable to find work, and no one would rent them a place to live. To escape harassment they moved to the Philippines, which was soon occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. The family describes Goyo as a playboy, addicted to womanizing and gambling. Franny was left largely alone in a rural village near Lucena with three kids, and soon four. She pretended to be German; she spoke only a few words of the language, but the Japanese couldn’t tell the difference, which saved her life. She also adopted local Filipino culture, learning to cook regional foods, speak fluent Tagalog, and sing traditional songs.

When the family moved to Schenectady, New York, in 1945, what Franny held on to most of all from her time in the Philippines was the food. In every other way, the family tried to appear like a cookie-cutter 1950s American family—to be like White America and place themselves in the social hierarchy above non-White America. But both she and Goyo needed the anchor of food. Hidden in the home, beyond prying eyes, Franny adapted her favorite dishes into a mash-up of Filipino, Polish, and 1950s American cooking. This is how my mom cooked for her father, and how I cook today. We put apples and sherry in our adobo. We pan-fry pasta with garlic in the style of sinangag, garlic fried rice. When I visited family in the Philippines, I learned that our playful interpretations are in keeping with the history of Filipino food, which has been shaped by Indigenous, Spanish, Chinese, and American influences. Generations of cooks have navigated complex identities, heaped and collaged. Ours is just one scrap of paper in a boundless papier-mâché creature whose shape I am always trying to perceive.

As I grew older, I wanted to eat more Filipino food outside my home, but I was thwarted by the mysterious lack of Filipino restaurants in the United States. Four million Filipinos live in the US, more than in any other country outside of the Philippines, but Filipinos often seem invisible despite their numbers. They are especially concentrated in California, which is home to half the Filipino population in the US. Tagalog is the third most widely spoken language in California, after English and Spanish. But unless you receive regular care from a nurse—Filipinos make up 20 percent of registered nurses in the Golden State—you might not realize that. How could such a large and long-established population be so underrepresented in US food culture? Both frustrated and curious, I went hunting for answers. 

My mom’s family name is Marquez. Many Filipinos have Spanish last names. A friend who grew up in California told me that as a little girl she had assumed all the Filipinos around her, with names like Garcia and Rodriguez, were Latinos. Maybe their dad was Mexican and their mom was Chinese, she thought. Her childhood assumption refracts some historical truth. Magellan landed on Cebu in 1521 to establish a colony as a way station for trade, which in turn attracted Chinese silk merchants. The Spanish created direct trade routes between Mexico and the Philippines, moving people from each country to help control the Indigenous population in the other. Several centuries later, in 1849, the Spanish imposed names on the Indigenous Philippine population for taxation purposes. They used the Catálogo alfabético de
apellidos
, a compilation of mostly Spanish surnames assembled by parish priests. As the story is told in my family, Governor-General Narciso Clavería y Zaldúa ripped pages from the catalog and sent them to each provincial governor. The catalog was written in alphabetical order, so each region ended up with alphabetically ordered names. The Marquezes come from Lucena, a city southeast of Manila, roughly where the M would land if you scrolled your fingers along a map of the islands from north to south while whispering the alphabet.

The imprint of Spanish colonialism is especially visible in Filipinos’ devotion to Catholicism (with the notable exception of the Muslim population on Mindanao) and their corresponding conservative social beliefs. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines, and Roman Catholic doctrine forbids contraceptive use. Goyo was one of thirteen kids born to his mother and at least twenty-three to his father, who sired ten-plus kids with a mistress. (The hypocritical Catholic patriarchy that forbade birth control quietly allowed adultery.)

Spanish colonizers also brought their obsession with pork and garlic to the islands. Four species of pigs are endemic to the Philippines, and pork was already present in local cuisine, but the arrival of the Spanish made it a focus. In the Philippines, pork is understood in all of its nuances and possibilities. Meanwhile, garlic has become so deeply ingrained that it’s impossible to imagine Filipino food without it.

The United States invaded the Philippines in 1898. Among the first US soldiers to land on the islands were the Second Oregon Volunteer Infantry, known as the Oregon Volunteers. They were initially deployed to fight alongside Filipinos against the Spanish in the brief Spanish-American War, but as soon as the US army had defeated the Spanish, it turned on the Filipinos. The Americans were now fighting against the very people they had purportedly come to liberate. During the ensuing three-year Philippine-American war, more than twenty thousand Filipino soldiers were killed, and more than two hundred thousand civilians died of famine and disease.

In the eyes of the US government, Filipinos were not a sovereign people. US propaganda, backed by the ideology of White supremacy, described them as infantile and subhuman. In a public address about the Philippine–American War in 1900, Secretary of War Elihu Root said, “Government does not depend upon consent”—a chilling invocation of rape. He rationalized his position on US colonialism abroad using examples from recent US history, namely the subjugation of Blacks in the South and Native American populations in the West. 

The members of the Oregon Volunteer Infantry were already conditioned by anti-Black and anti-Indigenous propaganda. The state’s racist constitution still prohibited Black people from residing, owning property, or voting in Oregon. Voters rejected efforts to remove these clauses (which were rendered moot by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments) in 1900 and 1916. Less than a decade had passed since the massacre of three hundred Lakota at Wounded Knee, and many members of the Oregon Volunteers had fought in the so-called Indian Wars. In “Painting the Philippines with an American Brush,” a 2003 article published in Oregon Historical Quarterly, Sean McEnroe writes, “[The soldiers’] notion of the Filipinos’ racial identity changed to meet the psychological demands of the new war.” 

In the 1970s and ’80s, my mom and dad were active in the movement to raise awareness about the crimes of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose wife famously collected three thousand pairs of shoes, and whose rule from 1965 to 1986 was characterized by corruption, extravagance, and martial law. During that time, my parents became aware of a trove of letters at the Oregon Historical Society written by the Oregon Volunteers in the Philippines between 1898 and 1900. These letters document the soldiers’ changing views of the Filipino population, with placid curiosity giving way to disgust and contempt. The writers repurpose derogatory language used against Black and Indigenous people in the US to dehumanize the Filipinos. After the US captured Manila, for instance, Private Albert Southwick wrote in a letter home, “Next time they get into a fight, there will be quite a funeral of black men.” Officer George Telfer worried about his “chances of standing off any stray party of Indians.” Most of the letters use uglier words. The soldiers defaulted to the hatred they knew, relying on the depths of racism to erase Filipino identity.

During the Philippine-American War, the Oregon Volunteers burned and looted villages, killing civilians and prisoners. “We burned every house we passed,” Telfer wrote. These actions on the ground were supported at the highest levels of the military. Questioned by Senator Joseph Rawlins (D-Utah) in 1902, during the hearings conducted by the Senate Committee on the Philippines, General Robert P. Hughes justified the frequent tactic of burning Filipino villages and killing women and children with the blunt statement, “These people are not civilized.” For the following four-plus decades, until World War II, the Philippines was a US colony and its people were “nationals,” subject to US rule but without the constitutional rights afforded by citizenship. 

America has been called a “melting pot,” as though everyone were inside one vessel, becoming a unified soup, but Americans don’t comprehend the shape and breadth of the vessel, let alone the destructive power of its boiling. Political scientist Benedict Anderson calls the familiar shape of the continental US the “logo map.” It’s what most people within the continental states think of as their country, with funny boxes for Alaska and Hawaii. The logo map hasn’t represented the actual borders of the US since at least 1856, when the Guano Islands Act allowed the government to claim dozens of islands in the Caribbean and Pacific. White citizens living in the continental US have never extended their understanding of their borders to include US islands populated by non-Whites, including the Philippines and Puerto Rico. They simply disappeared these places and people—out of sight, out of mind. Meanwhile, non-Whites in the continental US, as well as on US island territories, were told they were Americans while never being seen or treated as such.

My older Filipino relatives don’t seem to share my anger over US colonialism. My mom tells me that Goyo never spoke about the American occupation. Instead, he carried a weight of hurt that he turned on those less powerful than himself. Among my aunts’ and uncles’ generation, a little older than my mom, there is a fervid American patriotism, an embrace of consumerism alongside a love for basketball. (The biggest fan base for the NBA outside the US is in the Philippines.) My aunt Dolores, who has lived between New York and Manila for the last several decades, is the most patriotic American I know. I used to think she was using patriotism as a cloak to shelter herself from bigotry, but I’ve come to understand that, for her, the United States and the Philippines are inextricable. To love the Philippines and have hope for its future, she has chosen to love the US. Like most loves, hers requires countless acts of blindness. 

One reason Filipinos can seem invisible in the US is that many of them assimilated before leaving their country. The colonial occupation instated American education, including American English. Briefly, a group who came to the continental US in the 1920s and ’30s, known as the manong generation, were given citizenship. Goyo was part of this group. But in 1934, as Filipinos became more frequent targets of racist violence, the US government passed a law restricting immigration and reclassifying all Filipinos living in the US as aliens. The following decades included waves of migration related to different laws and programs—a cascade of half-hearted gestures, rejections, promises, and the paternalist forgetting of promises made.

Throughout the twentieth century, many Filipinos found relatively lucrative jobs in the United States thanks to various training programs, widespread English fluency, and other products and by-products of American occupation. Goyo became an engineer at General Electric. Filipinos in the US didn’t need to open restaurants to make a living, and so very few did. The scarcity of restaurants compounds Filipinos’ invisibility. White-collar jobs usually pay better than running a restaurant, but they don’t create community watering holes, and they don’t offer much opportunity to share culture with people who don’t know or recognize your identity. Restaurants are not a perfect tool for cultural education—White Americans still believe non-White food should be dirt cheap, still develop generic ideas about foreign food cultures that erase specificity and nuance, and tend to look to White chefs as cultural ambassadors. And yet, as someone who doesn’t go to church or live near family, I feel the lack of Philippine restaurants as a hole in my stomach and heart. 

Recently my mom told me that she thinks of herself as White. She is acknowledging her power as someone who “passes” as White as well as the disconnection she feels from Filipino identity. I found her assertion surprising because to me she is happa, a Japanese term for “half Japanese,” which many East Asian Americans of my generation have redefined as “half Asian.” The Filipino slang for it is tisay, a Tagalog riff on mestiza. My mom is small, with thick black hair and large lips that purse like her Filipino father’s, but her eyes are round and hazel like her Polish mother’s. Over the course of the year her skin moves from pale to deep brown, making the photos I take of her look like I am toying with saturation. She never travels without bringing home pasalubongsmall presents to give away. She always has a pot of rice on and adds four times more garlic than any recipe ever calls for. Her siblings jokingly call themselves “Polipinos”—half Polish, half Filipino. Isn’t being multiracial what it means to be Fil-Am? I think. The Philippines is already a conglomeration of Spanish, Chinese, American, and Indigenous cultures. But my mom does not experience her identity in polychrome.

When I asked my mom what she means when she calls herself White, she clarified that when she was growing up no one who was White accepted her as such. She and her siblings were taunted as Japanese enemies. But her family was so set on assimilating in post–World War II America that she doesn’t know any other identity. My mom, the fifth of eight children, was the first baby boomer in our family, born in 1946, after the war concluded. Back in the States, her family never spoke Tagalog at home. The only words that came down to me are puki (“vagina”), puwit (“butt”), sabaw (“meat drippings”), kuskus balungos (“too much fuss, and for what?”), and mati gás ang ulo (“stubborn”). This is the vocabulary of a child, and also of a mother to her children, who are undoubtedly a pain in her puwit.

My mom calls herself a “disinheritor.” She refused the gender roles foisted on her: she threw away her bras and girdles and stopped teasing her hair; she pursued a career; she had children out of wedlock, declined to be subservient to a man, and embraced communal living. She worked to exorcise her Catholic guilt and corresponding sexual repression. She discovered drugs, and with them a new and joyful wonder and a connection to nature.

I think my mom’s involvement in the hippie movement in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1960s and early ’70s had an obliterating, deracinating effect on her. We think of psychedelics as freeing, allowing a generation to heave off the stultifying cultural expectations of an unambiguously racist, classist, sexist, homophobic country. But trying to erase your past can be poisonous. The dismantling philosophy of hippie culture was itself a form of assimilation. Having erased their origins, hippies went searching for a sense of history and meaning in old Buddhist texts, in mysticism both shallow and deep. Some were easy targets for charismatic megalomaniacs and joined cults. As a young woman, my mom felt she had to reject everything connected to the culture of her upbringing, the good with the bad, because it all smelled of rot. But she felt at sea without the systems she had been raised within: a big family, a church.

I don’t have to do the same heavy labor of heaving off that my mom did. Goyo’s ghost only haunts my kitchen, not the deepest part of my psyche. I don’t have to obey a fearsome God. I don’t have to salute the flag. I don’t have to sit mute while men speak. I am grateful that my parents gave me the gift of distance from which to observe and discern. This freedom of thought is empowering. Yet I am still left unmoored. I suspect it is lonely to grow old when you aren’t part of a multigenerational community, and miserable to face disaster when you live a solitary life. I am one of so many hippie kids, descended from two generations of assimilation, who are one-quarter this, one-quarter that, adrift in our own supposed freedom, trying to figure out if we need to drop anchor. 

I cannot stomach organized devotion, with its mechanics of power and necessity of delusion. But I can go weak and feel awe and gratitude while eating a delicious meal in good company. Like my grandparents and parents before me, I find myself looking to food for roots and the richness of meaning. I seek out Filipino friends, recipes, and stories to make the invisible visible. I crack myself open to my family’s complex history, entangled with the violent history and present of the country I live in. In turn, I love to share Filipino food and the buried stories that accompany it in my home—since you can rarely get it in a restaurant. Food is the entry point I often use to learn about and share the things I am drawn to. It is not religion; it is not community; but it can be communion.    

Franny’s
Chicken Adobo

Recipe by Francis Marquez

My maternal grandma, Francis Marquez, would cook dishes for my grandpa that she adapted from their Philippine origins to suit her own tastes and the ingredients she could find in her local stores in Schenectady, New York. Her chicken adobo is beloved by all my aunts and uncles as one of their mother’s classics, and it wasn’t until I actually went to the Philippines that I learned how uncommon this variation is. For one thing, Filipinos don’t use apples and sherry.

We have a family copy of the recipe with Franny’s writing mysteriously inked in three different pens and a pencil. She scrawled this anecdote on the side: 

Legend has it that the coconut was named by traders from Spain and Portugal who apparently thought that the shell’s three “eyes” resembled the face of a clown: loosely translated, the Spanish word coco means “grinning face.” 

This is a very saucy dish, or as you’d say in Tagalog, rich in sabaw, the meaty drippings. You have to eat it over rice. Like all curries, it tastes better the day after it’s made.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

  • 6 tablespoons high-heat oil (like sunflower) 
  • 2 chickens, cut up, or mixed chicken pieces, bone in, skin on
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 apples, cored and roughly chopped
  • 10 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 cup dry sherry or apple cider vinegar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 cups full-fat coconut milk

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large enamel or cast-iron pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add chicken pieces in a single layer. Do not crowd the pan. Brown the chicken. You will want to flip the chicken pieces to brown on several sides. First, test each piece by prodding. If it sticks to the bottom, it’s not ready to be flipped. When it releases with a gentle nudge, flip it. Remove browned chicken pieces to a bowl and repeat until all pieces are browned. 

Add 2 more tablespoons oil to the pan, and sauté the onion and apple until the onion has a little color on its edges, about 3 minutes. Add the onion and apple to the bowl you’ve set aside with the chicken. 

Add the last 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and fry the garlic and ginger until fragrant and just starting to color, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken, apple, and onion back to the pan and toss everything together. Add the dry sherry or apple cider vinegar and scrape the bottom to loosen any delicious browned bits. Add the bay leaf, curry powder, salt, black pepper, lemon juice, and 1 cup coconut milk, which should cover the meat halfway. Turn the heat to low and cook for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is fully cooked but still succulent and firm. Add the remaining 1 cup coconut milk and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Serve with rice.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

Thank you for writing this essay, I enjoyed reading it and learned quite a bit. I think your analysis of why there aren't more Filipino restaurants in the USA is spot on. I was raised in an Italian/American family, by the time my generation (Boomers) came along we were assimilated. Adobo has always been one of my personal cooking passions, with every culture that had contact with the Spanish/Portuguese having their own unique version. Your family's recipe is the first I've seen to include apples or (except for Goa) curry. See you on Facebook!

Robert Bruno | December 2020 | PORTLAND

What a masterful essay. You have woven together so many themes and time periods and really brought your research and insights alive!

Melissa Marsland | December 2020 |

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