Learning to eat
You’d think eating is instinctive: You put food in your mouth and automatically you chew and swallow.
But even our nonhuman animal friends don’t do it that way. Unless very hungry, they sniff the food first and “think” whether it’s worth eating. I’ve had dogs and cats who take ages to evaluate their food. Their reactions reflect their personalities: There are the snobs who will sniff and then walk away, nose in the
air, as if telling you: “You call this food?” Then there are the “Catholic” ones who are filled
with guilt, who look at you almost apologetically: “Sorry, sorry, I know there are hungry dogs out there, but I just can’t…”
Children are notoriously difficult to feed, and the temptation, when they are very young, is to just give them one of the hundreds of snack foods (chichirya) which they quickly take on because of the colorful, quirky shapes (animals always do the trick), loaded with the sugar and transfats that make them so addictive. The food destroys the children’s palate, and for the next few years you’re going to have even more difficulty feeding them.
In my time we didn’t get to decide too often on what to eat. Our mother would do the “there are hungry children (and dogs) out there” trick, which always tempted us to retort, “Then they can have the oatmeal.” My sister and I had the same breakfast for more than a decade—oatmeal and a soft-boiled egg—and we discovered what we thought were the wonders (now horrors) of breakfast cereals only when we had to live on our own.
Now, with my own children, I keep pushing for healthy eating but realize it’s such an uphill battle. Even if you try to insist on healthy dishes at home, the kids are exposed outside, even in their schools, to all the temptations of junk foods and fast foods. There’s a whole field now of neurogastronomy showing that a person’s taste in food starts early, even in the fetal stage, and then extending into the first year of life.
Our tastes in food are acquired through a very complex process of the brain learning to associate pleasure not just with how the food tastes but how culture tells us that taste is “masarap.” We learn to derive pleasure from the shape of the food, its packaging, and even who we eat or drink with, as the San Miguel Beer “Iba ang may pinagsamahan” tagline goes.
The setting is important, too. There are times when I get really exasperated seeing the kids huddled together with their junk food and watching television. Yes, sometimes our dog, Dr. Tissot, sits with them, too, salivating and hoping they’ll share one—just one, please—potato chip. I wonder if they come from another planet, some alien species that can’t communicate except through a communal partaking of junk food.
Or maybe I’m the alien that accidentally ended up on this amazing planet, where its incredibly smart inhabitants have learned to mix dozens of ingredients together to produce what they eat.
Eating is learned. Notice how so many dogs hate dog food? That’s because their palates have been trained (or mistrained) by human food… and a social context. They like potato chips because they get the chips while being pampered by their humans: sitting on someone’s lap, getting hugged, and all that.
Food and pleasure
I do tend to disagree with the people in neurogastronomy who say the damage is done in the first year. I think it’s possible to unlearn that first year of palate mistraining, and a first step is to learn about real food and its pleasures.
My nutrition and food tech professors at UP lament that some students don’t even know what certain vegetables look like in their fresh state, and what their local names are. It’s even worse with fish, and I still smile when I recall how surprised I was at seeing my first real live tuna. It was huge, and the fishermen were all hunched from carrying it. Before then, I thought tuna were tiny fish, with several of them processed to fit into a can.
Aklat Adarna has a great book, “What Kids Should Know about Filipino Food,” written by Felice Prudente Sta. Maria and funded by Mama Sita Foundation. (I’m writing this column partly as a tribute to this amazing matriarch, whose 100th birth anniversary is being celebrated today.)
“What Kids Should Know” is not a recipe book but a profusely illustrated book about the joys of food and eating, interspersed with vignettes from history.
The table of contents tells it all, starting with foods from land, air and water, where you can learn not just about tuna and sardines but also about salagubang and bats and dumara (wild duck). You’re introduced to the five tastes, and how cooking highlights and enhances some of those tastes. You learn about the different ways of preparing food… and their products, including an amazing “kakanin roll call,” from bibingka to tupig.
The shortest chapter, four pages long, is on a heritage kitchen that names and describes cooking utensils and kitchen tools of all kinds. Maybe for future editions or books we’ll have names of the different traditional wrappers for food.
There’s a regional food tour where I learned that the famously delicious curacha of Zamboanga, which people in Manila associated with Alavar restaurant, has the English name “red frog crab.” I’ll still need to find out why the Spanish “curacha,” which means “healing,” came in (curacha, not cucaracha, the
latter being cockroach, and the dance that makes you look like a cockroach).
The regional food tour chapter got me thinking about how it should be expanded for future books so that people—young and old—learn not just about food but also about our many cultures in the Philippines. Just think of how Muslim-Christian dialogues might unfold over a Maranaw meal so well described by Felice: “Rice is made into garlic and chili flavored tamu wrapped in coconut leaves then boiled in coconut milk; bituwanan packets of spicy sticky rice mixed with shrimp; special occasion kiyuning colored golden by turmeric.”
Anthropologists love visiting local markets to look at the local food culture, and it’s something we should do as a family or a barkada. The pleasures of eating, we will find, are not just in what’s edible and how it’s cooked, but also in the stories of how people developed the food fare as part of learning, not merely to eat, but to eat well.
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