Vernacular gifts

Three times I attempted to replicate a beef-in-olive-oil dish I first tasted on Bau Alunan’s table.  I love to reconstitute recipes from the sheer memory stored in my taste buds.  But this particular dish I simply could not get right.  My concoction was unquestionably edible, my children assured me, but I knew there was something amiss about it.  In frustration, I broke my personal rules and called Bau for the recipe.

This Christmas, one of the early gifts I received was nothing less than the elusive dish itself, frozen and with instructions on how to simmer the tender meat in its sauce.   This was one gift that wasn’t meant to wait for Christmas day.  I had it for dinner, lunch and breakfast until it was gone.  It was consumed with great reverence.  In sending it, Bau not only made me happy, but she also gave recognition to her cook’s artistry.

The best gifts are unfailingly those that bear the personal touch of their givers.   The personal signature may be seen in the meticulous way the gifts are chosen, or in the unmistakable way they are wrapped.   “I give you a part of myself,” their senders seem to say, in a conscious effort to bridge the chasm of anonymity created by the commerce of gift-giving.

Among my many brothers and sisters, the one I least expect to take the trouble of imagining gifts for each one of us is my brother Ambo, the priest.  I know how busy he is hopping from church to church to celebrate the Mass during the Christmas season.  But this year, he surprised us by giving to each family a ganta of malagkit rice, personally packed and accompanied by a lovely note in lyrical Tagalog, which I shall here render in English.

“I know every grain of rice in this bag.  That is because I know who planted it, Mang Felicing Timpog, of Barangay Pita, in the town of Dinalupihan in Bataan.  I know Diosing, who plowed the soil in which it was grown.  I also know Aling Ester, who cleared the weeds, and those who helped harvest this rice.  I know all of them.

“You might say therefore that this rice is no stranger to me.  Add it to your midnight meal this Christmas or New Year.  I assure you: it will give just the right stickiness to your bringhe, suman or kalamay.  Or provide body and texture to your arroz caldo, ginataang mais and champorado.

“Let this bag of malagkit make your family more cohesive; let its adhesive quality characterize the bond you create with your friends. May your lives be as spiritually enriching and as intellectually edifying to those you come into contact with as the food in this bag.”

There are less and less things in the modern world that we can claim to know with such intimacy or vouch for as gracefully as Ambo does with his gifts.  Today, the market effectively effaces any trace of authorship of the goods we consume.  Corporate brand names, built by years of repetitive advertising, now stand in the place of the individual artisan, farmer or worker whose labor made these things possible in an earlier age.

Marxists have a term for this estrangement of the producer from the product: alienation.  The production process in capitalism becomes so complex that goods appear to materialize on their own.   Mass production dissolves the makers in anonymity.  In turn, the workers recognize no trace of their labor in the products that leave the factory.

But slowly, the recognition of the direct producer is coming back.  In Japan, where the craze for organically-grown products has swept the market, individual farmers have now taken to affixing their names and photos on the bags of rice and vegetables they sell, not only as a guarantee of authentic quality but as an assurance of personal accountability for their products.

In a world threatened by global homogenization, people are demanding what is culturally unique.  In a market inundated by mass produced goods, people are obsessed by limited editions, by the personally hand-crafted.  They no longer want to keep up with the Joneses; they just want to live differently from them.

This shift in attitudes opens some space for the recovery in value of the local, the traditional and the home-grown or vernacular.  This is evident in the array of gifts we received from friends and relatives this Christmas:  the kalamay from Tayabas has assumed an honored place beside the Belgian chocolates, and the home-baked muffins sent by a friend have received more compliments from the family than the expensively-packed Danish cookies.

Yet, at the same time, we can only gaze in horror at the wild profusion of imported goods that entered the country this year.  It is as if an entire nation was being fattened for the kill.  As the peso sheds off more value in the coming months, it may be the last time we will see English venison pate and air-dried raw Swiss ham in local stores.  But it is well that we learn to find our way back to the local flavor of good old liver spread and the native toughness of sun-dried tapang Batangas.

For I doubt very much whether the duty-free emporiums of Manila, Subic, and Clark, those vestiges of the era of the over-valued peso, can outlast the present currency turmoil.  The hemorrhage in dollars that they represent must be stopped.  Whether we like it or not, our collective survival in the coming months will depend on how fast we learn the lessons of self-reliance.   The good news in all this is that next year’s Christmas fare, on the centennial of our independence, will just have to be, unavoidably, home-grown, home-made and homesourced.  A Happy New Year to All!


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