By Philip De Guzman
I dropped a dollop of grated ginger into the bottom of a lightly oiled pot, and there was no turning back. I was committed to the commission of, “Family Secret (Guard with your life).” It was the family recipe for dinuguan, a traditional Filipino stew made with pig’s blood. As a child, an adult deceived me and said that it was made with chocolate. This made me eat with gusto, but when the lie had been shattered, probably by a truth telling older cousin, all consumption stopped. Twenty years passed without a stray thought of letting it touch my lips, but the fast ended after I watched a Filipino parody video created by Mormon missionaries. Their Filipino impressions were as good as the ones I made with friends to jest at our elders. They exposed the one-knuckle rule to making perfect rice and called out “psst hoy” in a large crowd to get someone’s attention, exposing some of the only insider knowledge I knew of Filipino culture. As they reenacted one stereotype after another, it seemed like someone didn’t remove enough starch from the rice, and it gave me hunger pains as well. These Mormon elders spoke a Philippine language, where I spoke none, and had lived in the homeland, where I haven’t been. I felt like the imposter, as if I was the one wearing brown face.
Before the ginger could sizzle, I was already thinking that this stew could usurp the city’s love for pizza. I imagined myself biking and delivering containers filled with dinuguan to friends throughout the New York boroughs. This dream helped release me from my previous presumptions in that dinuguan was a dish for savages and that it was something I needed to reject. My excitement in recreating this entrée allowed me to forget the disgust that I clung to for so long. Perhaps this aversion didn’t originate solely from the unpleasant thought of swallowing blood from a living animal, nor from the thought of a pig hung upside down, its throat slashed, and the collective pool of platelet and plasma dripped into a bucket directly below. No, neither of those ideas chilled me much. As a child, any foods or flavors outside my usual spectrum of home cooked goods and fast food fares always intrigued me. In the realm of bizarre foods, my favorite was a Philippine sweet potato called ube, gladly had seconds when my kindergarten class made green eggs and ham, and even ate duck embryos straight from my father’s hand. In fact, I had become accustomed to sucking on my own wounds, an idea I practiced in case a poisonous snake ever bit me. The taste of blood empowered me, and gave me strength in defining myself through eccentricity. But my distaste for dinuguan, in a way, came from an inherited or taught idea – something handed to me from my parents or maybe the playground – that I didn’t want to be too Filipino, and my abstinence from certain foods enforced that.
I hoped the completion of this dish could absolve me from this thought, and allowing the ginger to fall from its spoon, so too did I drop my shame into the pot, wanting only to eat my guilt, reduce it to waste, and discard it forever. Armed only with a chef’s knife and visions of grandeur, I began the work, cutting into each ingredient, making the necessary incisions into myself.
I am no novice in the kitchen. When the recipe called next for finely crushed garlic, I minced the cloves and pressed them together with the flat of my knife, a technique I learned from making marinara from scratch. The ginger began browning. I threw the clump of mashed garlic into the oil, and as it began to swell, its pungent aroma was set free. I dragged a spoon, the sound of metal scraping metal, along the silver pot, releasing fragments of ginger and garlic that had begun to stick to its bottom. Everything began as it should have. Steam filled my eyeglasses, causing temporal blindness, as I lowered my nose to smell the cooking ingredients, which reminded me of the bowls of garlic fried rice, eggs, and longanisa sausage at Grandma’s house on Saturday mornings. I could feel the onset of tears pooling in the corners of my eyes, not knowing whether the cause was the medium-sized onion that I finely chopped or the intertwining aromas of my childhood.
There’s a big possibility that I wouldn’t have been in the kitchen if not for my grandmother. She would buy boxes of macaroni and cheese and packages of ramen noodles, then make them when I came home from school. One summer day at her house, begging her for food while Bob Barker was on the television, she taught me, in equal parts love and annoyance, how to follow the instructions on the boxes, measure ingredients, and boil water over the stove. Unspectacular as it was to learn to boil dehydrated noodles, she taught me how to feed myself for life. I cannot forget her when I cook because these one-pot dishes require the knowledge that she gave me – the basics of turning on a gas flame, deciphering tablespoons from teaspoons, and learning to be proud of my own accomplishments. Most of all, I can’t forget her because I would love to have her cooking beside me, teaching me her secrets, the ones she must have received from her mother and grandmothers and older sisters. I expected myself to cook this dish with relative ease, but how much easier it could be with her guiding me through her personal preferences – how high she likes the heat, how thick to cut the meat, how to stir, when to salt, and how to train my taste buds to taste like hers. It’s only as an adult that I’ve begun to miss her cuisine, and I felt the exact opposite as a child. I used to find ways to Americanize the food she served. When she made bistek, beef cooked in a marinate of soy sauce and lime, I would pat dry the seared meat in a paper towel and substitute it with A1 steak sauce. I knew then that these methods were disrespectful, as my grandpa would repeatedly point out and tell me, “You’re ruining your grandma’s food.” And in response, I’d shrug my shoulders and walk away.
My grandfather’s admonishing cuts deep into me today. I was always excited to eat the food he ate – especially if he brought left-overs from Tommy’s or sliced prosciutto from the deli. But I could always tell that Filipino food was his favorite. Between meals I’d watch him put purple shrimp paste on the flesh of green mangos and the sight of him eating steamed Chinese eggplants – dropping it whole into his mouth, like a bird feeding its hatchling a worm – gave me nausea. He took some pleasure in watching me squirm from the side of his eyes and told me that I was missing out. I can’t help but think about what he would do if he saw me now. Maybe he would smile and nod that I have, in a way, become like him, that I no longer scrunch my nose, stick out my tongue, and turn my cheek against his favorite foods. So keeping my nostrils flexed and pointed towards the sautéing vegetables, making sure that the stench of char never entered the air, I was prepared to eat this blood stew.
As the onions softened, I turned back to the cutting board and sliced the remaining skin from the pork belly that I bought from my neighborhood butcher. When I asked him if he carried pig’s blood, he shot me a skeptical look. A face full of furrowed eyebrows and lips tightly pulled back across his cheek. An expression for WTF. It’s the same face people have made when I told them that I’ve eaten intestines, blood sausage, and chicken feet. “We don’t sell that here,” the butcher told me. The look on his faced lingered and motioned for the following customer to come to the counter. His colleague, behind the butchering block, pointed me to Esposito’s Meat Market, whose butcher didn’t flinch when I asked for a quart of the red stuff.
As I started chopping the slabs of fatty pork pieces into blocks the size of my palm, I kept the blood I bought, like a naughty magazine, out of reach from my vegetarian girlfriend; although it belonged under the bed, like all dirty secrets, it sat in the back of my refrigerator, double-bagged in paper and plastic. My hand gripped the handle of the blade now smeared with lard. The tip of my index fingered rested on the knife’s spine, forcing its edge to cut through muscle fibers. The recipe didn’t specify whether to leave the pieces of meat large, like in boeuf Bourguignon, or chopped small, like in a carne asada taco. I tried to reimagine myself staring at the bubbling black stew that was left out in catering trays during family events. I would poke and prod it like it was a science experiment, lifting ladles of the tar-like substance, watching it ooze back down into the tray with a plop, and seeing my family willing shovel spoons of blood and rice into their mouths with nothing but grotesque admiration. Even though the recipe was precise and like all maps leading to new places, I was still unsure and left guessing.
I added the meat into the sautéed vegetables, added water, and placed the lid on. When I stepped out of the kitchen to throw away the trash, the smell of onions, garlic, and ginger permeated through the apartment building and wafted out onto the street. It was summer. The aroma overpowered everything, even the alleged stench of NYC street garbage, and it ignited my memories of when I used to deem dinuguan unworthy of my taste buds. I wanted it now. I craved it. I was hungry for a part of my culture that I had denied myself for years.
When I moved to New York, I was overcome by its diversity. I lived in Harlem, where culture spilled on the streets, turned up from boom boxes casually sitting on stoops, and shouted itself in languages my Los Angelino ears couldn’t identify. The first block party I attended was on 119th street. All of Harlem must have shown up, so it seemed. Sandwiched between two DJs at the intersections of Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell, a local high school band played Latin Jazz. Women who sat curbside on metal folding chairs two-stepped their way onto the street and danced in the summer heat. Some children rode their scooters, some blew bubbles, some cowered behind their parents’ legs, but all were waiting for the Fire Department to break open the water hydrant. I was first in line for fried chicken, and a woman spoke to me, telling me that she lived on the Ave, and just the way she said, “On the Ave,” made me appreciate my new surroundings.
In L.A., this never would have happened. Intersections and block parties didn’t exist for cultures to collide. Ethnicities concentrated themselves in certain cities, communities divided by freeways, and I was more likely to drive through them than to ever set foot on another city’s sidewalks or supermarket or sit on the stools of their most famous burger stands. I lived in the San Gabriel Valley, about 200 square miles of the Greater Los Angeles area, boxed in between the 60 and 10 freeways and the 605 and the 57. I lived in West Covina where Filipinos made up about nine percent of the population. South of us, in Hacienda and Rowland Heights, were other Asian communities, dominantly Chinese and Korean. Past San Gabriel’s borders, the largest Korean community was in Mid-City, Armenians in Glendale on the 134, and the Vietnamese in Gardena and Garden Grove off the 22, and based off someone’s skin color I could guess where they lived and know how to get there.
I waited for the slow simmering boil to break down the meat and make it buttery soft, paced up and down my kitchen floor, constantly checked the flame on the burner, and peered down through its glass lid. My grandma never looked nervous while she cooked, nor did she ever use a timer or ask for help in the kitchen. She worked with a thousand recollections of each dish she made for dinners and parties, while I had no memory of how dinuguan was supposed to taste and hadn’t even known what was in this dish. I removed the lid to see tiny bubbles emerging and pools of oil collecting in between the pieces of pork that jutted out from the broth. The instructions advised to pinch the meat for tenderness, but I grabbed a spoon and parceled out a piece. The morsel melted in my mouth, felt the broth ooze onto my tongue, as it gave no resistance when I chewed. I couldn’t help myself and tasted another. All seemed well. There were only two steps left before completion. I first poured vinegar, a common ingredient in Filipino cuisine, adding its important sour profile, and let it reduce. Then, the instructions read: “Here comes the gory part.” Although this has been made for family gatherings many times, there was an admittance that the process always will be in parts grisly, appalling, and something like a horror movie.
I pulled out my dark little secret from the refrigerator and took it from its wrappings. It was the color of the ocean’s surface during late sunset – a deep dark crimson. The liquid went to and fro within its plastic walls, and as I removed the lid, droplets of rosey watercolors dripped along the edges of my fingers. I thought about licking the blood that splattered on my hand, but decided against it. The sight of blood never made me queasy, but the chocolate myth was further dispelled. This was no mole sauce; there was no blend of mulato or ancho chiles, clove or cinnamon spices, or roughly chopped cacao fragments. Just blood.
The stew that I watched over, the stew that I sampled, savoring each bite, was blemished like a Rorchach test, and what did I see other than the thick dark substance of my culinary nightmares? I lifted the spoon into the air and watched the black tears of Satan fall into the pot. My face involuntarily drew back into one that best represented disgust, and I readied myself with a weak grin that steeled me from my own cowardice, a last-ditch attempt to banish any remnant of fear with a here-goes-nothing attitude.
My grandparents moved to the States in the 70s, and acclimated themselves to American culture in most ways, except for, food. They spoke English and Tagalog fluently and without heavy accents, but they denied me their native tongue. Much of growing up was like rummaging through my grandmother’s closet to find a pair of house slippers, mixing and matching at will, combining different colors and lengths and patterns. My identities never were the same. I loved being Filipino, but also hated Tagalog. I felt it was a language that could never be spoken in hushed tones. On the phones my grandparents blurted constantly, which made me turn up the volume louder on my Walkman or, if I was sleeping on the couch, push pillow cushions against my ears. Never did I think to listen to their voices and the happiness it carried. When I asked to learn, maybe in the fourth grade, my grandma bought me workbooks that I’d diligently work through in the morning, but as I asked her questions, she was more interested in playing her electronic poker game and maybe that was her way of telling me that it was too late to learn.
I moved to Harlem to work on a graduate degree, furthering my expertise in English. Tagalog was a figment of my imagination, but the move removed me further from any Filipino identification. I used to run around Marcus Garvey Park, and I was once called at by a man who mistook me for Marcus Samuelsson, a chef of Ethiopian descent and owner of Red Rooster on 125th Street and Lenox. At a grocery store, next to 116th Street Station, a cashier asked for my ID. She read my last name and told me, “You don’t look Spanish. You’re Asian.” I launched into an unbidden speech about my backstory, where I was from, explained about two hundred year of Spanish colonization only to hear her ask, “Where’s the Philippines?” I answered, but couldn’t wait to grab my groceries and get out of there. At a Burger King, the same happened yet again, but an employee guessed my heritage correctly, which made us both feel like we won a cultural lottery of sorts. I went on the tell him a joke that Filipinos are the Mexicans of Asia, and with a glint of sincerity in his eyes, he respectfully asked, “Filipinos are Latinos, too?”
Harlem saw me as unique and ethnically ambiguous, something I have never known growing up in Asian communities my whole life. An odd thing happens when you are constantly mistaken as someone else. The need to declare yourself eventually follows. I wanted to become Filipino. In the most diverse city in the world, where culture fluidity seemed pervasive, I was surprised nothing was known about Filipinos, so I asked myself, “Where are all my people?”
I scoured through forums to figure out the best places to get Pinoy food in New York. These websites suggested going to Woodside, Queens, by jumping onto the Orient Express, otherwise known as the seven train. I made this trip in the dead of winter. No one, especially those who have inherited the warm tropical blood of the archipelago, would brave the Artic Vortex to get a plate of Chicken Joy at Jollybee, but I did. I had the calling. I needed to see faces that resembled mine, hear voices that sounded like my grandmother’s, have the taste of home warm me just one more time. But when I arrived in Woodside, walked down from the raised platform and onto the street, it was empty, a ghost town littered with ads for a nearby grocery store.
I only saw a few hair salons and logistic companies, and the biting cold kept me from walking any more blocks further than the couple I had already walked. I settled into a familiar bakery that could be found in any Filipino community. The food was far from what I craved, like a hearty machaca of deep fried beef chuck with potatoes and peppers. I ordered two empanadas, filled with shredded chicken and carrots, then went home disappointed and lonely.
The pot was simmering, the black goop inside gently bubbling. I placed a single black stained piece of meat between my lips, and it still carried that sting of vinegar. The pork was tender, squished easily between my teeth, and a tinge of oil covered my lips. I took a second bite to make sure that I it was right, and it tasted the same. My expectations for a moment seemed fulfilled, and my wish for a new favorite Filipino food was coming true. I raised a heaping spoonful onto my tongue, but it tasted different this time. My overexcitement was the last ingredient to tip the balance of this recipe in favor of ruin. The stew was no longer salty, sour, and oily, but now heavy, tasting of iron, and gritty. I tasted something like a bloody nose dripping down my throat.
I called an aunt and told her that I had finished cooking a vat of dinuguan. A small groan escaped her when I said that the stew was pasty and tasted metallic. She instructed me that I didn’t stir in the blood the correct way, letting it sit too long and allowing it to coagulate. I wanted to make dinuguan for my family’s approval and reestablish the connection to them as they still lived Los Angeles. The move to New York severed me from my lineage and cultural inheritance because I drew my identity directly from my family. My failure was complete, but not wanting to waste food, I filled up plastic containers and set placed them in the freezer, still delusional whether to send these to friends, thinking they might not know whether it was, in fact, as good as I would say it was. Oddly, I was still proud, an accomplishment I knew no one in my second generation yet undertook. I wasn’t sure how long to keep the containers in that dark and cool place, but one thing was for sure, I would attempt to make it again. Next time with a little more confidence, a little less self-loathing, and a little better tasting.
I still believe that secrets to my heritage lay hidden in this bubbling cauldron – that a ladle full is all I need for reconciliation. But this family recipe is no more than an instruction to call forth the dead, to stand before my grandparents and the pride I had killed somewhere along the way to adulthood. Because even black magic requires a blood sacrifice, a knife’s cut along the palm releases me.
Philip De Guzman lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is a co-founder and editor at Ano Ba Zine.
Gilmore Tamny lives in Somerville, MA, where she writes proverbs, melodramas, novels, poems and songs (for the band Weather Weapon) and also produces a series of drawings using both the left and right hand. Her novel My Days with Millicent is being serialized online on the literary magazine OhioEdit.