Doreen G. Fernandez passed on a decade ago in New York, on a day you could be doused with water in San Juan, on a day that celebrates the founding of Spanish Manila. Ten years have passed and she is still remembered by those who knew her, as well as those who did not but continue Doreen’s work of research into Philippine food as a way of knowing what it is to be Filipino.
I remember the bitter soul who, in the midst of mourning for someone who wrote thoughtful and positive restaurant reviews for the Inquirer, asked why Doreen never wrote negative reviews. There are, after all, many bad restaurants in the country that we should be warned about. To make matters worse, this person insinuated that Doreen was on the take, that she did PR work for the restaurants she recommended. Doreen always paid for her meals, and always took along one or two friends to dine with her if only to make sure that the food was truly good or bad.
Once she asked if I would consider being a guest writer in her column space. I readily accepted and started to sharpen my knives remembering awful food and service in a handful of restaurants we visited that she didn’t write about. It was then that Doreen explained that she wrote once a week for the Inquirer Lifestyle page and there were far too many good restaurants for the fifty-two reviews she did each year. Why, she asked, should I waste effort and column space on a bad restaurant that was best ignored when I can get people to go to a good restaurant? That remark put me in my place and I realized that it was harder to write a good review than a bad one. It was hard to write about food without using adjectives like: good, yummy, delicious, tasty. Doreen in our freshman English class once said that “crispy” was a word coined by Barrio Fiesta to describe its trademark deep-fried pata. The correct word, Doreen said, was “crisp.” Three decades later, “crispy” is accepted and found in dictionaries.
All it takes is a bad review to hasten the ruin of a restaurant, why not be constructive and bring attention to a good one? Doreen was always constructive. To experience her in the classroom was probably what turned me as well as other pupils into better teachers. She would initiate discussion by asking a question and deftly threw an idea to one part of the room to elicit a reaction, catching that and throwing it to the opposite end to wake a daydreaming classmate or interrupt those in a hushed private conversation. Nobody was ever scolded, nobody ever seemed to say anything wrong in her class. One student would blurt out a remark that merited ridicule from another teacher, but Doreen would look at the person in the eye and try to encourage him or her with follow-up questions that led to the correct answer. If the remark was beyond salvaging, she would say, “That’s all right, maybe someone else has another answer.”
In my case I have never understood the arcane rules of grammar and sentence diagramming, which explains why my Pilipino and Spanish grades were always low. I can speak and write in Filipino, I enjoy literature in Pilipino and Spanish, but grammar? I don’t even know what a gerund is in English, how can I pass a course on Balarila? How do I unravel the mysteries of the passive and subjunctive in Spanish when I can’t even make sense of those concepts in English? Doreen gave me a diagnostic test to find out why I was flunking in grammar despite being able to write with ease. She pointed to a text and asked why I could not identify the parts of a sentence when I was able to spot and correct the grammatical mistakes. “I don’t know how I do it, it simply doesn’t sound right.” Then and there she said, Very well, let’s skip the grammar, can you write an essay for me every week? I complied.
Her next problem was getting me to edit my work before submission. All my classmates did their writing assignments over the weekend and submitted finely polished essays neatly typewritten. I wrote in white heat an hour before class started and submitted my work handwritten. These were returned promptly with corrections in red and a grade of C, at best C+. What surprised me was that once or twice my corrected essay appeared in the mimeographed weekly compilation Doreen made for class discussion. Years later, she would call me after reading my column, saying I had not changed since Freshman English class and advised me that if I wrote in “white heat” I should take time to let the essay stew before “editing in cold blood.” When I replied that we have an Opinion Page editor who should clean up after me, she said, “All right, send me your columns first, I will edit them before you submit them.” Unfortunately for my editors, I never took Doreen’s offer.
Criticism can and should be constructive, the world can be a better place if words are used to generate light instead of heat. Doreen G. Fernandez taught me well and by writing and teaching like her I am paying back and paying forward. If you like this column, thank Doreen. If you hate it, you can blame me.
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Ongoing at De La Salle University Museum is a commemorative exhibition of the Wili and Doreen Fernandez Collection. Forthcoming from Anvil Publishing is “Savor the Word,” a compilation of winning essays from the Doreen G. Fernandez Food Writing competition.