Understanding who we are by what we eat.


In 1900, the premier hotel in Manila served a mix of Spanish and American dishes for New Year’s Eve. Four decades later, American soldiers who survived the Second World War feasted on comfort food on Christmas. In Malolos, in 1940, an unidentified event coincidentally held on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception seemed to poke fun at those in power. In the menu cards collected by food historian and author Felice Prudente Sta. Maria lie fascinating stories about historical holiday meals and how the times affected the way people ate.

Ms. Sta. Maria’s interest in food history began in the 1970s when she occasionally wrote food-related stories for a women’s magazine. “I used to read books about foreign cooking in the 1960s and 1970s. There were no similar articles or books for Philippine food. We had recipe books but that was all,” she told High Life. “There is material about food history, but nobody had compiled it and figured out the chronology. So that’s what got me interested. Why don’t we have it? We should have what everybody else has and it must be a credible history.”

She began collecting menus, books, and old documents about Filipino food for research. The documents, many of them acquired from local antique dealers, are now archived at the Lopez Museum and Library. “I collect anything and everything that provides primary material for understanding who we are by what we eat.”

The concept of menu cards originated in the early 1800s in France, specifically in famous restaurants in the Palais-Royal, which was then the gastronomic heart of Paris. We have the French Revolution to thank for this flowering of the fine-dining scene: aristocrats living in luxury were either chased out of their estates or executed, leaving behind kitchen staff without their masters.

“All the royals and noblemen had their own cooks. But then, their heads got chopped off,” said Ms. Sta. Maria, giving an abbreviated history lesson that led to the rise of restaurants. “Chefs were fleeing for their lives. They started finding other businesses—they would open up restaurants.”

According to the food historian, it was in these establishments that the escriteau (an old French word for “bill of  fare”)—lengthy menus that were used by the kitchen staff of a royal or noble household as a guide to the sequence of dishes to be served—evolved into poster-menus (placed on the front door of a restaurant) and, eventually, smaller menus placed on the table.  This origin story, she added, is consistent and remains uncontested to this day.

Menu cards are snapshots of history. The New York Public Library, for instance, is transcribing approximately 45,000 menus dating from the 1840s to the present into a searchable digital archive. Once complete, the database will contain “specific information about dishes, prices, the organization of meals, and all the stories these things tell us about the history of food and culture.”

On a smaller scale, Ms. Sta. Maria’s collection of documents does the same thing. Perusing the menus, for example, shows how food changed in conjunction with historical milestones such as the cessation of the monopolistic Galleon Trade between the Philippines and Mexico in 1815; the end of the closed-door policy of Spain in 1834; and the completion of the Suez Canal, a more direct route between Europe and Asia, in 1869.

These developments opened up the Philippines to the world. “When foreigners came, we needed hotels,” Ms. Sta. Maria said. And these hotels needed to provide not just room, but board. The need to import food became especially pronounced during the holidays, a time for feasting.

Built in 1889 in Plaza Calderon dela Barca in Binondo, Manila, Hotel de Oriente was a popular first-class hotel that featured three stories, an attic, red clay tiles as flooring and roofing. On New Year’s Eve of 1900, the hotel menu offered a mix of Spanish and American dishes that included fresh oyster cocktail, fillet of mullet with parsley sauce, loin of pork and apple sauce, Australian turkey with cranberry sauce, and prime ribs of beef au jus.

Menu cards can also tease us with bits of information that hint at a larger narrative. In the 1940s, said Ms. Sta. Maria, it was fashionable to give food funny names. A menu card from an unidentified event dated Dec. 8, 1940, in Malolos, Bulacan, is pointed and political in its humor. The 12-course meal included dishes that were christened Sinigang a lo “Court of Appeals” (a sign of sour feelings, perhaps?); Pavo Presidencial 1943 (wait, was someone just called a presidential turkey?); Pansit disidente (noodles of the dissident); Enpanadas Imperiales (imperial patties); and Ensalada “Asuntos Terminados” (salad “matters finished”). Who prepared this menu, one wonders? What did it mean? The fact that the event took place in Malolos, the birthplace of the first constitutional republic in Asia, adds yet another layer of intrigue. 

Shifting gears, a Christmas 1945 menu for American soldiers stationed at Sangley Point in Cavite—an area that was severely bombed during the Second World War—included cream of tomato soup, roast turkey, baked spiced ham, buttered green peas, baked kernel corn, sweet pickles, mixed candies, and mixed nuts. In other words, comfort food.

Ms. Sta. Maria noted that people get a sense of well-being and happiness from food. In Filipino culture, there are two words that capture these emotions: ginhawa or comfort; and the Visayan naya-naya spirit, which means “to serve food” and “to be a happy person.”

“There is a happiness in serving food—that’s probably the basis of our hospitality,” she said. “What food is saying is that we are a social people and food is part of that social relationship.” The joy of eating, she added, is derived from satisfying a hunger that is not just physical but emotional as well.

Ginhawa and naya-naya reflect who we are, she continued. “When you put them together, it says really good things about who we are,” Ms. Sta. Maria said. “We see food from many angles because we are feeding the body, the mind, and the emotion. That is our food and we enjoy it when we are with people.”