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.

Victorian Recipes and Public History: My Visit to the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

By: Michelle DiMeo

As an active academic scholar who recently started working for a cultural institution, I’ve become increasingly interested in how the sources I use for professional historical research can be recast for a wider public audience. Recipe books tend to be an easy genre for public history and outreach: off hand, I can think of more public books than scholarly books about historical recipes. That said, not all of these are done well, and I particularly appreciate public histories that include thoughtful reflection on the original historical context, and those which can integrate museum and library collections to provide a more complete look at how the texts were actually used.

An event I recently attended at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion – a 17-room Victorian mansion in Philadelphia –  offered a creative, interactive way for guests to learn about historical recipes. Upstairs Downstairs Celebration was the opening event for the Mansion’s new interpretive tour focusing on the challenges and enjoyments of Victorian women across all socio-economic levels. Recipes were not the focus of the event, but were instead integrated into a much larger program. Guests entered the Mansion and were taken into an elaborate dining room, where we were invited to choose a pin featuring a Victorian woman’s portrait. Everyone from suffragists to recipe book writers, and from prostitutes to medical doctors, were represented. (As a medical humanist, it seemed appropriate that I chose Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive an MD, though I did seriously consider Philadelphian Eliza Leslie, who wrote nine cookbooks between 1827 and 1857!) Connected to the dining room was the well-preserved nineteenth-century kitchen, where the imposing black iron stove and over-sized kitchen utensils caught my eye before spotting the free champagne and Victorian finger-foods on the table. Guests wandered between the kitchen and dining room, exploring historical artifacts and textual reproductions that served as good conversation-starters.

Victorian Stove, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion
Victorian Stove – Image courtesy of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

Becky Diamond, author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, was available to answer questions and share interesting facts about the objects the guests viewed. In the kitchen, we could smell the rosewater and fresh nutmeg that Diamond used in the jumbles she baked, which we would later be given as a parting gift (along with her modernized version of the Victorian recipe, adapted from Mrs. Goodfellow’s original). Diamond has recently begun experimenting with the recipes she studies, and she was able to explain the changes in oven temperature, egg size, and available resources today versus the late-nineteenth century. The dining room also contained engaging reproductions of Victorian household guidance books. Who can resist smiling at Mrs. Henderson’s suggestions for a 7-course breakfast party (which, she argued,  were “very fashionable, being less expensive than dinners, and just as satisfactory to guests”) or Mrs. Beeton’s  suggested Bill of Fare for a picnic of 40 people? Of course, reading prescriptive texts in isolation does not give us a completely accurate account of what many Victorian women were actually doing or how they were adapting the guidelines. As such, I appreciated seeing that the Executive Director of the Mansion, Diane Richardson, provided some critical commentary and supplementary images, including an 1881 invitation to a lunch party that Philadelphia socialite Minnie Campbell Wilson (neé Harris) saved in her scrapbook, and a photo of a smaller dinner picnic that was held in the woods of New Jersey in 1888.

Victorian Picnic
Dinner Picnic in New Jersey woods, 1888.  The Library Company of Philadelphia

As I began this post by saying, the event was not explicitly about recipes, and I think this is what I liked most about it. Guests were lured in by a range of other activities broadly related to the history of Victorian women, including the opportunity to do a self-guided tour of the Mansion. We then gathered in the parlor to hear Cordelia Frances Biddle offer an overview of the social and political challenges faced by nineteenth-century American women and to watch actress Megan Edelman read Susan B. Anthony’s Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States (which Anthony read on July 4, 1876 on the front steps of Independence Hall , Philadelphia). This kick-off event, and the guided tours that will continue on the first Friday evening of every month, will primarily appeal to those with an interest in women’s history and the history of Philadelphia, but it would also interest history-lovers more broadly.

Victorian lunch party invitation
Lunch party invitation, 1881. The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Most people will not attend the Upstairs Downstairs tour to learn specifically about American culinary history, but they will walk away knowing a bit more about it. For me, this was a good example of how a niche sub-field I study as an academic can be intelligently worked into a broader public history event – one providing enough information to encourage critical reflection and engagement with material culture, but not too much information to alienate or overwhelm the non-specialist.

Thank you to Diane Richardson, Becky Diamond and Nicole Joniec for sharing their research materials with me and answering my questions.