On Sunday, CHOW’s John Birdsall had a seat at the judges’ table for the Kulinarya Showdown 2012 in San Francisco, a competition designed to bring greater awareness of Filipino food. Here, Birdsall recalls his first taste, two decades earlier, of the last Asian cuisine to go mainstream in America.
I’d already swallowed my first bit of gray, crumbly mystery meat, and had only started wondering if it was really pig’s blood that tasted that sour, or was it merely vinegar? My first taste of Filipino food was on a dare, tacit but unmistakable, with a tiny woman who moved around her kitchen as if propelled on tightly twisted rubber bands. I’d fallen in love with Prespedina Lucina’s son, Perry, in San Francisco. Now, just a few months later, I’d followed Perry to Chicago to meet the family. What the hell was I thinking?
We’d flown in late the night before, got to Prespedina’s house after midnight, and went straight to bed. This morning Perry was still asleep, and when I ventured out to the kitchen, Prespedina—Presie—was sitting at the kitchen table in the muggy summer weather watching Oprah on a little TV in the corner.
She’d offered me breakfast in a voice that was either shy or wary. “I could make you cornflakes…” Then she added quietly, “Or you could try some of our food.” She paused. “I have chocolate meat.” She drew out the last two words, laid them out like a challenge, but voiced so quietly I had to strain to catch them over Oprah.
Chocolate meat. Perry had told me about that. Warned me, actually. Dinuguan was the one dish in the whole Filipino repertoire that separated those who might merely be curious about the cuisine from hard-core devotees. Dinuguan: a pork and offal stew, its sauce enriched with pork blood, fermented shrimp paste, and vinegar. Filipino parents like Perry’s would call it chocolate meat in front of the kids so they’d eat it. And for a white boy like me, raised on pot roast, salmon loaf, and spaghetti, the freak-out factor was almost unimaginable.
But faced with Presie’s options, what could I say? There was no way I could reject her cooking without being some sketchy dude only in it for the nookie, the guy who’d eventually dump her son. So even though, at that moment, all I really wanted to do was slurp a bowl of cereal and make small talk before excusing myself to go hit the shower, I said yes to the chocolate meat.
And really, once I got through the gray, crumbly bits and convinced myself that if nothing else, the high proportion of vinegar in Presie’s dinuguan probably had the power to kill anything evil lurking in the pig’s blood, chocolate meat wasn’t bad. The black sauce was velvety, and big spoonfuls of rice had the power to muffle textures otherwise terrifying.
“It’s delicious,” I said, nodding. “Really tasty.”
“Oh,” she said, turning away from Oprah to face me. “You like it?”
I did, or at least the four spoonfuls I actually swallowed. But by then it didn’t matter. I’d already passed whatever test Presie’d laid out for me on her shiny vinyl tablecloth.
In the two decades since, I’ve eaten lots of Presie’s cooking, heard about recipes, descriptions of making rice wine or vinegar in Ilocos Norte, sat through arguments she had with Perry’s dad about whether or not you eat balut with soy sauce, driven miles and miles down gray Chicago roads to find that market where Auntie Joanie said they sell pork barbecue sticks and foil pans of pancit luglug. It fascinates me, Filipino food, the mystery and breadth of it, the strangeness and surprise of it.
That morning in Chicago, over my first taste of chocolate meat, I thought I was meeting my boyfriend’s mom. Turns out I was marrying a cuisine.