Fairgoing Filipino Food in the Fifties

By R. Alexander Orquiza

In 1950, the cooking demonstrations at the California State Fair were a way to taste and see the globe. Americans were eager to show their newfound cosmopolitan tastes. World War II had ended. Many Americans firmly believed in Henry Luce’s “American Century.” But what do those food demonstrations in a Sacramento fairground say about the consumers who eagerly ate these foods?

California State Fair Agriculture Building, 1950. Image Credit: Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento Room.

A close examination of the Filipino recipes from California Cookery (1950), the official cookbook of the state fair, provides an interesting case. One can easily see an emerging American consumerism, the heavy hand of culinary adaptation, and a bit of historical amnesia in the presentation of Filipino food.

Coolerator Fridges, 1953. Image Credit: RetroLicious Ltd., Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.co.uk/retroliciousltd/

On a larger scale, these demonstrations promoted different international cuisines as a way of advertising the new appliances of the post-war American consumer society. In addition to Filipino cuisine, there were demonstrations of recipes from Norway, the Netherland, China, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Mexico thanks to “the cooperation of the consulates of several nations.” The Pioneer Appliance Company of San Francisco provided its “Coolerator” line of refrigerators, electric stoves, and freezers; the demonstration kitchens were lined with Armstrong Linoleum floors; and United Grocer of Sacramento stocked the shelves with imported goods and fresh California produce. Demonstrations thus simultaneously broadened the culinary mindset of attendees while directing consumers to buy the latest kitchen gear at their local store.

The recipes clearly catered to an American audience that was unfamiliar with Filipino food even after fifty-two years of American presence in the Philippines. Recipes used easy-to-find ingredients and presented a familiar three-course structure to entice Americans suspicious of trying Filipino food.

Demonstrators offered five recipes. Adobong Baboy (braised pork) was described in the official California State Fair cookbook as “the national dish of the Philippines” that was conveniently served either hot or cold. Its listed ingredients—pork, garlic pepper, salt, lemon, and water—were easy to find. They paired Adobong Baboy with ensaladang kamatis (tomato salad), a similarly easy-to-prepare dish of sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt. Served alongside white rice (kanin) and completed with one ripe banana (pang matamis) per person, the demonstration presented a clear message—anyone could make Filipino food.

However, a closer look at these dishes shows complexity beyond the simple consumer nirvana  of the fairgoers. The recipe for adobong baboy failed to use the essential ingredient of a Filipino adobo—vinegar, the ingredient that quickly pickles and preserves pork in the tropics—one of the reasons why the adobo cooking method became popular in the Philippines.

Chicken adobo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Moreover, the recipe failed to describe the multiple variations of adobo. Each region, each island (and there are over 7,000 islands in the Philippines) has its own adobo that differs according to vinegar, spices (bay leaves, annatto seeds, cloves, or turmeric), and the use of sugar or coconut milk. Similarly, ensaladang kamatis removed key ingredients— coconut vinegar, shrimp paste red onions, ginger, and pepper—that give a Filipino tomato salad its bite. Perhaps it was difficult to find coconut vinegar and shrimp paste in 1950s Sacramento; but the remaining ingredients were surely available. White rice, or kanin, was (and is) undoubtedly a staple of Filipino cooking; but Filipinos commonly line their rice pots with banana leaves to impart characteristic flavor. Finally, while a ripe banana is a great way to end a Filipino meal, the sliced fruit that most Filipinos end a meal with is mango.

One imagines that United Grocer had a hard time procuring mangoes, banana leaves, shrimp paste, and coconut vinegar in the 1950s. But these culinary adaptations are also indicative of how little Americans knew about the Philippines despite five decades of American colonial rule. The state fair demonstrations were more California than Philippines as recipes lacked indigenous ingredients and descriptions of their rich culinary historical backstories of trans-Pacific exchange and Hispanicization. “Exotic” Filipino food joined the other international cuisines that inspired the emerging American middle class to invest in new kitchen appliances. Yet those other countries did not have the same colonial relationship with the United States dating back to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Now that Filipino cuisine is the latest Southeast Asian food fad in the United States, it is easy to forget that introducing Americans to Filipino food at the California State Fair in 1950 inevitable meant compromises on ingredients, techniques, and dishes. Recreating Manila in Sacramento before the age of jet travel was always going to be a stretch. But the removal of the social and cultural histories behind dishes, particularly their connections to western imperialism, reflected a larger ignorance and amnesia to American empire in the Philippines. A deeper dive into Filipino food would inevitable reveal the dirtier, bloodier aspects of the American relationship with the Philippines. Filipino food, removed of its historical context, became yet another way to promote the new ethos of the post-war American consumer.


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