‘False friends,’ ‘mamon,’ ‘champurrado’ and chocolates
Travelers and students of a foreign language are often warned about “false friends,” meaning, a word that appears in your native tongue and a foreign language, but with different meanings. Of the many misadventures I have had with false friends, two stand out, and they both pertain to food.
Homesick during my first stay in Madrid, I was drawn into a bakery by the smell of fresh bread and the wonderful cakes and pastries displayed on the shop window. I did not know much Spanish at the time and decided to play it safe by pointing to something familiar—a sweet fluffy bread that all Filipinos know as mamon. The shopkeeper curtly corrected me and said these were magdalenas. I explained that in the Philippines we call them “mamon” and asked for the price. I was corrected a second time, “Son magdalenas.”
It was much later that I was told that “mamon” was the vulgar word for breasts.
My other misadventure was in Mexico, while I was ordering breakfast—I scanned the menu and confidently ordered champurrado off the menu, only to be surprised by an awful chocolate beverage made with masa de maiz, a lime-treated corn dough! When I saw the wood whisk—or molinillo, which we call batirol in the Philippines—I at least expected the sweet hot chocolate we make from cacao balls. I have yet to acquire or develop a taste for old Aztec food, and this atole drink is not something I look forward to trying ever again.
I was to learn the hard way that the Mexican champurrado is not the same as the Philippine champorado. Ours is made of chocolate and rice, and served at breakfast. When I taught the course Food in Philippine Culture in Sophia University in Tokyo, my Japanese students found the idea of chocolate rice disgusting until I reminded them of Nestlé Crunch or Kellogg’s chocolate-flavored rice crispies as breakfast food. Champorado seemed disgusting to my students as an idea, but agreeable when they tasted it.
It was a surprise even for me to learn that champorado, according to a 1950s Department of Education textbook, was invented by Jose Rizal! As the story goes, when our national hero was just a small boy, he accidentally tipped a steaming cup of hot chocolate into his plate of rice and dried fish. When his sisters scolded him for his carelessness with food, he declared: “I did that on purpose. When you mix rice and chocolate you have champorado.” There is no primary source to support this story, although he did write that one of his favorite breakfast foods was sardinas secas, literally “dried sardines,” or tuyo (dry) to all Filipinos.
Today’s exploration into chocolate was inspired by the New York Times obituary about Forrest E. Mars Jr. He died last week at the age of 84. It was obvious to me that the man was connected to Mars candy and its other products like Milky Way and Snickers.
Mars Jr. was the retired president of Mars Inc. that he and his siblings inherited in 1973 from their father Forrest E. Mars Sr., who took over a small candy shop founded by his grandfather in Tacoma, Washington, in 1922. Mars Sr. turned the shop into a multibillion-dollar corporation that today produces Skittles, Uncle Ben’s Rice, and even Whiskas, Eukanuba and Pedigree pet food!
Mars Inc. acquired the Wrigley chewing gum company in 2008 for $23 billion, adding Doublemint, Juicy Fruit Lifesavers and Altoids to their list of products that are all familiar to Filipinos today.
Mars Sr. and Jr. were obsessive compulsive about quality control and often threw out a batch of M&Ms because the logo was off-center, unclear, or had one part of the “M” wrong. Employees were so terrified of Mars that some of them actually tasted the pet food to insure its quality.
It was fascinating to find out that M&M, first made in 1941, was actually copied from British Smarties. Both were chocolates kept from melting by a hard sugar shell that came in rainbow colors. Original M&Ms were made with Hershey chocolate inside. The two Ms refer to the founders: Forrest E. Mars Sr. and Bruce Murrie, son of Hershey Company president William F. R. Murrie. Bruce held 20 percent of M&M until he sold off to Mars Sr. who later built his company to rival Hershey.
One of Mars’ greatest errors was refusing the offer of Steven Spielberg to make M&M the favorite candy of the cute extraterrestrial in the blockbuster movie “E.T.” Spielberg used Reese’s Pieces instead, resulting in a boost in its sales and popularity.
Reading up on Forrest Mars Sr. and how he mistreated his children by forbidding them a taste of candy made me appreciate a dark side to chocolate. I did not know till recently that the raw material for candy, cacao beans, are harvested by children in West Africa in slave conditions of brutality and low wages. Worse, these abused children have never seen nor tasted the candy they helped to produce with their labor. So the next time you buy candy, look closely at the wrapping to see that these are “Fair Trade Certified Chocolate”—that is, not made with child labor.
Both the Hershey and Mars corporations are battling lawsuits and inquiries into the ethical standards that go into the sweets we enjoy. I have not seen any “Fair Trade Certified Chocolate” sold in the Philippines, so this may lessen my intake and help me reduce weight.
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