FERDINAND Marcos liked to say that he preferred to eat “simple, Filipino food.” He claimed to like mainly fish, seafood and common garden vegetables: sardines eaten with leafy malunggay, ludong, a now rare and very expensive freshwater mullet found in the Cagayan River in Northern Luzon, and scallops stir-fried with broccoli. Like most dictators who did all they could to prolong their lives, Marcos believed that an unadornedfish diet slowed the ageing process and enhanced the libido. Every now and again, however, according to Victoria Clark and Melissa Scott’s amusing book, Dictators’ Dinners: A bad taste guide to entertaining tyrants,published last year, Marcos would abandon his ‘fishophilic’ inclinations and tuck into deep fried ribs slathered with salad dressing.
Actually, one can imagine how difficult it must have been for the dictator to keep to a diet of “simple, Filipino food.” His wife, Imelda, showed little patience for the disciplined rigors of culinary nationalism involving so much restraint and parsimony. As in other aspects of theformer First Lady’s extravagant lifestyle,the dinner table was ruled by opulence, excess and wildly international tastes.Her private parties were great gastronomic affairs. After their ignominious ouster in 1986, reports of their uninhibited entertaining surfaced. Mere mortals finally got a glimpse of the Marcos family’s golden meals. The New York Times revealed the lavish post-shopping lobster and steak feasts held at her East 66th Street Manhattan townhouse. There were the magnanimous gestures. We got to know howImelda hosted an exclusive dinner party for Rosario Diaz, crowned Miss Philippines and 1985 Miss World runner-up, at which was served Dom Perignon champagne by the case-load, smoked salmon, and roast capons stuffed with chestnuts. There were the decadent birthday parties for her husband and adult children she liked to throwonboard the presidential yacht, AngPangulo. Strayclipstaken from a vast home video collection that has remained mysteriously missing, show how hard the Marcosesate and partied with celebrities and even on some occasions, with the highest echelons of the Catholic Church. Not even Jaime Cardinal Sin, who later amplified the voxpopuli against the dictatorship, turned down the glamorous goodies and treats proffered by the Marcoses. In one clip, Sin and his fellow clerics, wearing pristine clerical vestments, appear seated at a fabulous banquet, receiving sumptuous boxes of shiny wrapped gifts from Imelda. In a 1985 clip,Irene, the youngest of the Marcos brood and already married with children, is seenecstatically celebrating her 25th birthday. She is the sibling who thought nothing of having daily Philippine Airlines flights deliver her freshly expressed breast milk to her baby in Manila, while she honeymooned in Europe. Party footage shows her brother Bongbong, the then governor of Ilocos Norte, so he too hardly an innocent, in a flashing bow tie, waving around a cocktail andgustily singing, karaoke-style, the charity song in aid of African famine, ‘We Are the World’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDl3u6xyV70).
Much like his dictator father, Bongbong Marcos is keen to portray himself as an everyman given to “simple, Filipino food.” Returning from a recent trip to Beijing, Bongbong postedan Instagram picture of himself wearing an ordinary T-shirt and doing a spot of cooking. “The food in Beijing was delicious but there is nothing like homecooked Filipino food,” he quips. Appearing as someone with unpretentious and inexpensive tastes in tune with ordinary folk, a man who isn’t afraid to be seen in the kitchen doing the cooking, and who prefers to eat the food of the mother country, is an astute and common image-making trick of male politicians.
Bongbong veers towards Ilocano cuisine rather than the Visayan food of his mother’s region. As a congressman, Bongbong appeared on cooking shows where he cooked up for the cameras staple dishes consisting of humble vegetables, such as pinakbetand other everyday foods from his home region. He fondly recalled eating tupig, the Ilocano sweet rice cake snack, while accompanying his father on local campaign sorties.Like most of us, he claims to be comforted by steaming beef broth, nilagangbaka, drinksbukojuice, and professes a penchant formaasim,the distinctive sour taste found in Filipino cuisine and flavors, incalamansi limes, green mangoes, and in local dishessuch as paksiw, the vinegar stew of fish and vegetables.
Of course, there is no reason to doubt him. Except that there is.Eating so-called “simple, Filipino food” can get terribly tedious and he, unlike the truly ordinary man who is forced to watch every centavo and has little choice, does not have to put up with the drudgery of culinary monotony. His patriotic food preferences are part of an inventedeveryman image that isfashioned strictly forpublic consumption. He, just as his father before him, knows that local food choices, especially when eaten in public, make good public relations gestures. He understands that being seen savoringkare-kare, the peanut-flavored oxtail stew, another of his favorite Filipino dishes, does more to enhancehis political image than any speech, especially among a general populacewho love to see some down-to-earth authenticity in their politicians.
Bongbong is being disingenuous. He privately breakfasts onWestern-style muesli and yoghurt. He will jet off to far-flung destinations just to sample the menu of an award-winning restaurant.His favorite tipple is cognac.He adores Mediterranean cuisine and such rich Italian meat dishes as ossobucoand the creamy, salty flavors definingspaghetti carbonara. He digs into the complex ethnic food offerings found in the major capital cities of America. The late Gabriel ‘Bong’ Daza, the flamboyant Filipino restaurateur and bon vivant,was a major influence on him since he was young. This eclectic knowledge about food, both foreign and familiar,this cosmopolitan appreciation for world gastronomy, is the hallmark of a sophisticated gourmand with unfathomably deep pockets.
There is scant evidence of Imelda doing much cooking of her own in a home kitchen, or indeed showing any interest in domestic cookery. Yet Bongbong has said that he most associates food with his mother. What he means by that is anybody’s guess. Imelda may never have cooked a single meal for her family. She demonstrably has an ambivalent relationship to the cooking of her region and homeland. But she knows instinctively what to do. To her detractors, critics and enemies, Imelda once ruthlessly said she would “fry them in their own fat”. This is perhaps the piece of culinary wisdom that her sonrelishes with the most gusto.