In a time when every aspiring food blogger and their mother has internalized a need to broadcast in great detail the minutiae of their lives online, Clinton Palanca's latest book, The Gullet: Dispatches on Philippine Food, slices through the veneer of faddish eating and checklist tourism to say, "Bite Me, I'm Brown and Oily." Here, in his collection of candid essays, Palanca does what few can achieve so effortlessly, contextualizing each meal and exhibiting reverence for the ways in which food continues to affect us. Divided into five chapters of essays, the book raises important concerns of our time: What constitutes local cuisine? How does one critique a restaurant? What does it mean to travel? And the question plaguing everyone's thoughts this season, as Palanca puts it: "Why isn't Filipino food more popular outside the Philippines?"
The last few years have been monumental for Philippine cuisine. But in "What is Local Food, Anyway?" Palanca tries to disabuse his readers of the idea that what is truly local must be hiding in some remote forest, undisclosed to anyone but the most zealous of travelers. “There seems to be an idea, or at least a feeling, that real Filipino food is elsewhere, in another time, in another place: in a small rural village far off the beaten track perhaps, or lost in the past," he argues, doggedly resistant to conventional notions of "authentic" food. Palanca makes a convincing case for just how much our cuisine has developed, perhaps beyond the point of merely whittling down a meal to purely indigenous ingredients, slapping a brand on it and calling it local. "The idea of what is "Philippine food" encompasses so much, even that which is apparently inauthentic and nontraditional and mashed up with foreign techniques, that I don't fear it being trampled on or losing sight of itself in the fray," he writes of the burgeoning food revolution in the country. "Celebrating the local ends up celebrating what's foreign as well, simply because it's here and present and available to us, which is what local means, after all."
Having peripatetic interests allows Palanca to wear multiple hats at once: the intrepid traveler who wanders through grisly side streets and alleyways; the aesthete with an ear for good sentences and music; the legal alien in London trying to improvise sinigang in his flat; the chef with the aptitude to contextualize each meal; and even the restaurateur, who was forced to develop a prescient "third eye" for signs and portents that could make or break an establishment. All this plays into Palanca’s fascination with studying food, but it also points to his thematic preoccupation as a writer, as well as his primary strength. In mixing together personal memoir, travel narratives, culinary culture, national history, and anthropological study, he draws vivid and powerful insights about how food informs our engagement with the world around us.
"Being a foodie is not just about the feasts and fine wines, but also it is thinking seriously about food and the effects and origins of food—be it feasts or palipas-gutom," Palanca remarks. There's a reassuring comfort to be found in watching him scarf down what would probably send lesser beings into a digestive coma, but this has everything to do with the rapture spun into his words as it does with his rousing need to eat responsibly, and to do it well. What would probably send lesser beings into a state of speechlessness only makes his prose gleam with a triumphant, almost terrifyingly blasé contentment at the end of each degustation. Yet nothing provokes kinship faster than his eagerness to savor that which we all want most: good food.
Whether he is praising the delicate freshness of kinilaw in “The Old Man and the Seafood” or mulling over food's dance with life and mortality in an essay called “In the Beginning There Was Death,” Palanca’s singular bravery is his persistence to reconcile the beautiful mess that is our relationship with Philippine cuisine, training a spotlight on the ways it occupies our memory, teases our imagination, and splashes color into our history. His essays are rendered all the richer for the surprising connections they make.
"So what is good food? To this I have no answer," Palanca confesses. Here is a man who admits to not having all the answers; and yet, for many of his readers, we're tempted to believe that he does. In coaxing readers into the habit of thinking actively and seriously about what we consume, The Gullet invites us to join the author in his quest to discover what makes food so good, how it speaks to something deep inside us. Later, Palanca claims that the pleasure of food is what motivates him in this pursuit, and why, despite his previous attempts to give up on eating through Soylent, he continues to ruminate about it in a critical manner: "It's the ultimate text, more elusive and allusive, more satisfying than any novel. There is good food and there is bad food, but what we don't know, now more than ever, is what makes it so." It’s a noteworthy quest for something so slippery, continually evolving—perhaps one that becomes more honorable for its inquiry, rather than the likelihood of capture.