‘Lechon’ reflections for 2020
Sabrosa is a sleepy town in northern Portugal traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Fernão de Magalhães, better known in Spanish as Fernando or Hernando de Magallanes, or in English as Ferdinand Magellan.
Sabrosa means “tasty,” and the town’s pride is a line of fortified wines, vinho do Porto, or simply port, named after Magellan, made from distilled grape spirits from the Douro valley of northern Portugal.
A former town mayor who accompanied us to wine-tasting at the distillery declared, in jest, “Magellan port is best paired with Lapu-lapu fish.”
Sabrosa also translates to “greasy,” perhaps a reference to leitao, another specialty of the region, which is roast suckling pig—cochinillo to Spaniards and lechon de leche to Filipinos.
On the way to Sabrosa, we stopped by a town of lechoneros that Philippine Ambassador to Portugal Celia Anna Feria described as “the La Loma of Portugal,” where 6-week-old piglets were dressed with simple stuffing of garlic, salt and pepper, producing a salty dripping or gravy that I prefer over the sweet liver sauce every Filipino knows as “Mang Tomas.”
It’s a pity that the lechon sauce that bears his name does not carry his likeness, in the same way that everyone knows “Colonel Sanders” as the face behind KFC.
Instead, we have an artist’s rendition of a smiling man in a white barong and salakot who could be mistaken for a Katipunero if he wore the iconic red Kundiman pants.
Tomas de los Reyes revolutionized our eating habits not just by inventing the lechon sauce that bears his name, but also by how he popularized lechon.
Until he opened his lechon stall outside the La Loma cockpit in 1951, you needed a fiesta to taste lechon. But Mang Tomas sold lechon all year round, and you didn’t have to buy the whole pig as he sold them in portions to be eaten at the stall or for take-away.
His stall was the go-to place for men to congregate after sabong to celebrate their wins, drown their losses or simply discuss the best and worst of the day’s cockfights.
Eventually, the success of Mang Tomas spawned a whole local industry, and while there are more popular competitors today like Lydia’s, Ping-ping’s, Aling Nelia’s, Jomar’s, Monchie’s, etc., each with their own sawsawan or dipping sauce, the name of the original lechonero has become the generic name for lechon sauce—Mang Tomas; it has now become an all-around sauce and is also used for roast chicken, which the budget-deprived now enjoys as “lechon manok.”
While researching on Mang Tomas, I came across Presidential Decree No. 449, otherwise known as the Cockfighting Law of 1974, that regulated sabong, tupada, pintakasi, derby, etc., whose etymologies deserve a future column.
More intriguing is the fact that the regulation referred not to gambling but the preservation of “a traditional and customary form of recreation and entertainment among Filipinos during legal holidays, local fiestas, agricultural, commercial and industrial fairs, carnivals or expositions.”
Issued under the authority of Ferdinand Marcos, PD 449 grandly stated that “cockfighting in relation to Filipino customs and traditions… should neither be exploited as an object of commercialism or business enterprise, nor made a tool of uncontrolled gambling, but more as a vehicle for the preservation and perpetuation of native Filipino heritage and thereby enhance our national identity.”
Speaking of national identity and icons of national identity, the lechon has been raised by acclamation rather than legislation as our national dish.
It has to be emphasized that lechon and adobo may be Spanish terms, but these dishes antedate the Spanish contact in the 16th century.
Our lechon is traditionally spit-roasted on a bed of glowing charcoal, with the expert eye of the lechonero knowing by experience when the pig is done and its skin crunchy enough for people to fight over.
The Portuguese leitao and the Spanish cochinillo are cooked in brick ovens, which Filipinos know as pugon and associate more with bread or hot pan de sal.
Let’s welcome 2020 with reflections on lechon rather than resolutions to have less of it. Lechon should invite us to look back on the past year to improve on the coming year, because as John Stuart Mill said in 1863: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”
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