Every reference to food in F. Sionil José’s “Dusk”

There is an overwhelming preoccupation with food in this book. Part of this is emblematic of the central characters’ struggle and drive to survive: as refugees, the food they bring and gather to see them through their flight is crucial, as is the prospect of what they will grow and eat when they finally arrive. José’s repeated assertions that “they were Ilokanos—they would not starve anywhere” and “Ilokanos can eat what other people cannot,” are both a descriptive and symbolic. The industrious and persevering Ilocano characters of the book are set in contrast with the overbearing but sloppy Spanish rulers who make their lives so miserable and who, ironically, dismiss all “indios” (native Filipinos) as lazy and stupid. “As for patience and industry,” José writes, “they were Ilokanos born to these virtues—it was in their blood, in the very air they breathed.” Istak and his family are resourceful and resilient, overcoming hardship and scarcity to carve a new life for themselves.

Food is used to illustrate social differences, as distinctions are drawn between the meals of the poor farmers of Istak’s family and those of the the wealthy Spanish priests and landowners. Food is tied to sickness and healing, with marunggay and guava leaves being indispensable to the treatment of illnesses. It is used to form alliances and broach distances between strangers. Barely five pages goes by anywhere in the book without some mention of food or eating, and so I’ve compiled all the mentions of food throughout the book into a (long) list. There are spoilers, obviously, so read at your own risk.

“A lightness of spirit lifted him; he would have the first good meal ever since he left the convent. In the late afternoon, before he went to the fields, he had watched his mother dress the chicken; he told her he must have the gizzard and the liver.” (11)

“Mayang had prepared a tasty broth; she had chopped fresh ginger together with green papayas, and now the scent of chicken and spice came to his nostrils.

‘Here is the gizzard,’ his mother said. She picked the piece from the still-steaming pot …” (11)

“Her head bowed, Mayang cupped with her fingers a small ball of rice from her plate.” (12)

“Bit-tik continued eating, unmindful of what was happening. He straightened the pot and stirred the broth to see if there was some special piece he might yet pick.” (14)

“It was like this, too, when the birthday of Padre Jose was marked as the birthday of the new priest was now being celebrated. Istak recalled how mountains of food and fruit from as far away as Manila would be set in the hall of the convent and the crowds would spill beyond the church doors into the yard.” (16)

“Ba-ac ordered An-no to unhitch the bull cart and invited the young woman up to the house, where a bowl of chicken broth awaited her.” (20)

“In a while, he heard his mother stirring in the kitchen. Breakfast would be ready soon–fried rice, perhaps, and coffee brewed from roasted corn and flavored with molasses.” (26)

“They sat down to a breakfast of corn coffee and bowls of rice fried in fresh coconut oil.” (28)

“He carried the Iloko missal, the holy water, and candles; on their two-pack horses were their ration of water, some salt, sugar, hand-rolled cigars (which the old priest was addicted to), salted meat, rice, and their iron cooking pot.” (32)

“In the shade of a camachile tree, Dalin had already laid on the stubby grass a palm-leaf mat with their food—chunks of leftover rice that she had cooked the night before, scraps of salted meat cooked in vinegar, salt, and oil, and small peanut cakes.” (37)

“Here was the chipped china, the polished candelabra, the frayed gray napkins, and Padre Jose’s simple dinner of chicken broth, some vegetables, and rice that was cooked soft.” (39)

“His bushy eyebrows would lift, his grey eyes glazed, and he would then start those soliloquies—about his sister and brothers, his parents, and that sparkling whitewashed village in Andalucía where he came from, the skies that were always blue, grapes as big as chicos, the golden oranges, the sherry, and most of all, the bread his mother baked.” (40)

“At this time of year, the frogs found refuge in the deep cracks in the earth, where they were sought and speared with barbed hooks.” (51)

“The churchyard was not yet cleared of the litter of the revelry which marked the new priest’s birthday, the palm leaf and banana wrappers of rice cakes, the orange peels and frayed paper wrappings of candies, the blackened remnants of rockets and firecrackers.” (52)

“True, he had not given work for two weeks, but let him pay for that with four weeks’ labor if it had to be paid double, for that is how long the rice which he brought with him would last.” (59)

“An-no followed him as he rushed up the stairs to the kitchen where Mayang, her eyes red from blowing at the earthen stove, was letting a pot of rice simmer.” (60)

“‘How will we live with little grain? Will we eat the seed rice?’ his uncle Kardo asked.

“‘We will live as we have always lived—frugally. We will eat bamboo shoots, the green leaves of the mango and butterfly trees. And the forest provides—we can trap deer, wild fowl. We have known difficult times—remember when we had so little food we ate the pith of the big palm?’

“They murmured approval. They were Ilokanos—they would not starve anywhere.” (63-64)

“‘Stay behind, then,’ his brother said, ‘and recite your Latin. Maybe the fruits of the trees will fall at your feet.'” (66)

“They were ready; a big pot of rice had been cooked and coffee had been brewed from roasted corn and flavored with thick molasses.” (67)

“If they were lucky, they could even have wild boar or deer meat.” (71)

“Even this wooden mortar on which he sat, its smooth hollow recessed deep by the constant pounding of pestles. As a boy he had helped his mother pound rice in it after the stalks were first threshed in a long wooden trough hewn from solid wood…It was not the grain which he enjoyed pounding, though; it was the boiled bananas mixed with young coconut meat and cakes of cane sugar. The bananas became pulpy and sticky, they sucked at the pestle, and part of the skill in pounding was in the ability to withdraw the pestle quickly before the next came crashing down.” (73)

“After dinner, in the evenings, he would indulge in his only vice—a glass of tinto dulce, which Istak served. He had once caught Istak tasting the wine and he had roared with his only expletive: ‘¡Carajo!‘ But he had, perhaps, immediately felt so miserable at having to scold his favorite acolyte that he gave the young man instead one glass—one full glass—to sip in his presence.” (74)

“They had onions and garlic; the two pigs that had squealed when they were still in the riverbed were quickly butchered, their meat salted. Not all the meat could be salted, however, so they feasted in the evening and for a moment forgot that they were fugitives.” (80)

“That night Mayang gave him a piece of roasted pork. It should have given him pleasure; it had been a long time since he had had pork, not since he left Cabugaw. But it tasted bitter and he had no appetite.” (80)

“Children splashed naked in the stream behind the cart and the women were cooking the morning meal. The rich smell of roasting pork drifted into the cart.

“‘I do not know,’ Dalin said, lifting his head a little so he could drink the bittersweet coffee Mayang had brewed.” (81)

“Mayang drifted in and out, feeling his brow and bringing him bowls of broth. Outside, the women prepared the meals, pounded rice, and the men mended their fish nets…” (81)

“…she had learned it as a child when her parents sailed up and down the coast, selling coconut sweets, salt, and shrimp paste which they made from the tiny shrimps caught in fine mesh nets in the gulf…During the dry season, they gathered the dry leaves of coconuts and heated the huge iron vats which had earlier been filled with salt water and then left out in the sun until the water had evaporated. Her mother bought the shrimp from the fishermen and then stored them in earthen jars.” (82-83)

“Toward midnight, they gave her cold chunks of rice and salted fish which were like rocks in her throat. They let her drink a bowl of coconut water…” (83)

“In the morning they transferred the salt, the shrimp paste, and the husked coconuts from her father’s boat, which they tied to their big sailboat.” (84)

“They had a jar of basi and they took long draughts from it after they had supped on rice and salted fish.” (84)

“That night she ate for the first time and never before had rice and green tomatoes dipped in salted fish tasted so good. But he forbade her to eat or drink too much. He made a soup with marunggay leaves which scalded her insides and warmed her all over. He was right in warning her, for hardly had the food settled in her belly than she started to vomit.” (88)

“He had not eaten anything except several spoonfuls of broth his mother had prepared from marunggay leaves.” (91)

“And beyond it, the dining room with its giant fan overhead, a table laden with sweet ham and other exotic meats…And after the dinner, Spanish brandy, preserved sweets, and the elegant music of a string quartet.” (92)

“Mayang was saying there should not be too much salt in the chicken broth. How sweet her voice sounded!” (95)

“Bird twittered outside, and the delicious smell of meat roasting over an open fire drifted to his nostrils, lifting him, and for the first time, he craved food.” (95)

“They brought him newly cooked rice and roasted pork and sliced tomatoes; aroma flooding his senses. He had not eaten for days except broth; now was the time to practice self-restraint… He took just a mouthful of rice, a tiny piece of pork, savoring the meat fully, letting it linger in his mouth, and a cup of the chicken broth.” (95)

“We have been harvesting wild bananas and green papayas.” (97)

“Dalin had calculated the distance very well; they left the hollow after they had supped on green papayas with pieces of chicken. She had cooked the food before sundown when the cooking fire would not reveal their presence.” (101)

“Ba-ac and Bit-tik returned while they were about to eat a meal of catuday flowers, eggplants, and tomatoes scrounged from the marginal farms they had passed.” (108)

“There was the day’s work, the gathering of grass for the bull, the preparation of food or the search for it—green papayas, wild bananas, and the edible leaves of trees.” (112)

“Padre Jose…even gave them rice for their meals and galletas to eat with their coffee.” (113)

“They cooked rice and vegetables for the next day’s breakfast as well so that all they would have to cook in the morning would be coffee to warm their stomachs before they started out again.” (123)

“There is rice in the pot—it is still warm and the coffee is still hot. There is also a piece of dried meat on top of the rice.” (125)

“Istak pointed out to Dalin what they could eat, the tops of ferns which could be cleaned like bamboo shoots and cooked. No one need starve in the forest, he told her…He showed her the fruit of the rattan vine which they could eat and that she already knew. There were other wild fruits and berries—they could all be eaten.” (133)

“They also brought back one of the carts and loaded the python into it. Its meat was good—like chicken, the Ilokanos always said—and the women cut it up and salted it, for it would not do to dry it; the sun no longer shone regularly as in the season past.” (136)

“They brought out the salted python meat to dry whenever there was sun; the white strips were laid on flat bamboo baskets balanced atop the carts. They continued to worry about food—they had barely enough to last them through one planting season.” (138-139)

“There was more variety in their food now. The saluyot shrubs had started growing in the fields and alongside the roads more catuday trees had bloomed, and they gathered the pink and white flowers and cooked them.” (139)

“Dalin called happily from where she was cooking rice. These are May beetles, she cried, and like a madwoman, she started flailing and catching them, storing them in a fish basket…They were northerners and though they ate everything, even the small white larvae of the big red ants and the young green leaves of mangoes—food that was unusual to Dalin then—they had never tasted these beetles. And that evening, they sat down to their first supper of May beetles cooked in cane vinegar and coconut oil. They were not queasy eating it, and they liked the bottom best, the milky, juicy taste of it.” (140)

“They were going all the way to Manila and may they just cook their meal with them? They had dried meat and leftover rice which needed to be fried.” (144)

“Istak did not want to distress the others. He let them brew their coffee and roast the dried python meat on the open fire.” (145-6)

“For supper, they ate cold chunks of rice and the dried python that was roasted in the morning; the cold rice stuck in their throats and had to be washed down with water.” (146)

“But at least they were alive; they could subsist on weeds and insects. Ilokanos can eat what other people cannot.” (153)

“Else they would have to eat banana pith and all those weeds meant for pigs.” (157)

“They left Don Jacinto by the creek, then they headed toward the forest, beating a path through the high grass, disturbing pigeons in their nests, and gathering their eggs in their palm-leaf hats.” (162)

“…the rats were herded into bamboo traps—lured there with grain and beaten to death. They were as big as cats, and were skinned carefully, dried in the sun or broiled in open fires, their fat sizzling on the coals. Like chicken, they all said.” (170)

“In the flooded paddies, frogs were plentiful and they filled the night with their croaking. It was easy to catch them—they seemed mesmerized by the light of the lanterns and they were brought back in strings for the women to skin.” (170)

“…he worked on, sometimes thinking of what awaited him at home, steaming ginger broth flavored with cane sugar.” (171)

“They gathered the ripening gelatinous grain and roasted it over slow-burning strips of old bamboo that had rotted and dried.” (171)

“There would have been no wedding feast, for Istak had nothing, but Don Jacinto, who was their godfather, gave them a goat to butcher.

An-no was better prepared. Not only had he built a new house by then, he had also raised two pigs for the wedding feast.” (171)

“Dalin and Orang often cooked his ration, usually gelatinous rice boiled in coconut milk—it would keep for three days—dried meat already roasted, and a cake of cane sugar.” (173-4)

“They had little money; they had come to Tayug to sell dried meat and mountain fish preserved in fermented rice, and the big jars they carried slung by a rattan net on their shoulders were filled with salt which they would bring back to their village.” (174)

“‘Where do you come from?’ he asked. ‘I have no place for the night, and I have to heat roasted meat for supper.'” (174)

“One of them left, then returned with what seemed like a short length of bamboo cut on one end. He raised it to his lips and the water was sweet, almost like the water of a young coconut.” (176)

“On the low eating table, as if it had just been placed there, was a plate of steaming rice, pieces of dried meat, slices of tomato, and yes, real coffee—its aroma seducing him.” (177)

“They set the low eating table again with roasted meat, a bowl of steaming rice, and roasted green peppers. There was also a plate of greens. It tasted like saluyot but was not slippery.” (180)

“The old man brought in a jar covered with dried banana leaves and told him to drink his fill of basi. The basi tasted so good, unlike any he had had in the past. It was slightly bitter but it must be a special brew.” (181)

“Beside it was their parting gift, an earthen pot filled with mountain fish in fermented rice.” (182)

“Tomorrow, when you waken, there will be a guava branch in your yard. Boil its leaves—the broth can heal the sick. The fruits though sour can fill the stomach.” (186)

“Dalin had prepared the usual offering—a coconut bowl of soft sticky rice cooked in coconut milk. A shelled hard-boiled egg was embedded in the middle, and beside the coconut bowl Istak would place a hand-rolled cigar and a betel nut…” (191)

“They had done all this and now it was high noon—time for the lunch of rice with strips of dried deer meat which Dalin had wrapped in banana leaves, time to dive again for those sticks of pine washed down from the mountain.” (191)

“The soft-boiled rice was spiced with strips of onion but the aroma escaped him and so did its taste. It scalded his mouth and tongue. The gritty gruel sank quickly and brought a warm glow all over his middle.” (197)

“Again, those days when An-no, Bit-tik, and he were small, roaming the green fields in May, searching for the first growths of saluyot that their mother cooked with grasshoppers which they had caught to eat as well, three brothers swimming in the river, gathering the fruits of camantres and lomboy that grew wild there.” (200-201)

“One evening, when Istak was already well and could stand and walk around the house but not venture into the yard as yet, Bit-tik and Orang came with a big bowl of wild-pig meat stewed in vinegar.” (201)

“The produce from the farm sufficed and there was additional grain, pork, chickens, and eggs his teaching earned for him.” (204)

“At one time in the early part of the dry season when the watermelon and pomelo were ripening, two interlopers tipsy with basi thought they could simply snatch a few fruits… One had seen fat pomelos dangling from the trees, and without asking permission, simply walked through the uneven fence of thicket and bamboo and started to reach for the fruits.” (205)

“‘Your Dalin and your two boys have been very good company. I even had a taste of suman and a cup of your new basi. I say it is ready, although Dalin says it is not.'” (213)

“Dalin wanted them to eat supper first. She had broiled a big mudfish and the pot of rice on the stove was already bubbling.” (213)

“His meal came in—the new rice still steaming and fragrant, salted eggs, a small dish with salted fish and sliced tomatoes, and dried meat which was fried.” (219)

“Dalin had cooked the new rice and its scent filled the house. She had also fried some dried pork, and the low eating table was already set.” (221)

“With his hand he shaped a ball of rice and then dipped it in a dish with fish sauce and sliced lemon.” (222)

“His granary was always full, the bangcag and the guardian that watched over it had been kind, too; the bamboo thrived, the orange trees bore sweet fruit, vegetables grew even during the dry season—all he shared with relatives and neighbors who were too lazy to plant.” (222)

“In the morning, at her urging, he had a breakfast of coffee, fried rice, and dried roasted venison.” (224)

“The cook came with their breakfast in trays and Don Jacinto left them. The Cripple’s food—upon Istak’s order—was now almost without salt, and he grimaced as he ate the broiled fish and fried rice.” (225)

“Istak had finished the hard-boiled egg, the fried rice from Don Jacinto’s kitchen much tastier than what he had at home; it was fried with pork fat and had bits of onion and garlic.” (227)

“Istak had believed; he had wakened in the mornings, smelling real coffee brewing in the kitchen.” (230)

“The guava tree had borne fruit and the well was full and flowing ceaselessly into the bamboo conduits that carried the gift of life to the seed. He would bring some of the fruits to his patient and boil some of the young leaves in water from the well. Mushrooms had also sprouted in the pit where he had stacked the dead trunks of bananas and hay, and he filled his fish basket with them. The Cripple would like a tasty meal even if there was no salt in it.” (230)

“Daylight again, Dalin preparing breakfast in the kitchen, the smell of corn coffee, of dried fish frying in coconut oil.” (238)

“In the late afternoon when he asked Istak up to the azotea to have a merienda of cocoa and galletas, he had asked Istak about his boyhood, how he had learned so much without formal schooling.” (244)

“Slung across the horse’s back was the bag with cakes of cane sugar. He would add to his pack rice, salt, and dried beef. It would suffice. With money, he could always buy provisions on the way.” (251)

“He left her so she could finish her cooking, the smell of the vegetable stew clinging to his nostrils. This was the pleasure of home he would certain miss, and briefly, he wondered where he would have his breakfast; the road to Bayambang was not within his compass and he did not know of a single eating place along the way.” (252)

“Supper was waiting in the big house; the stew was steaming on the low eating table, on top of it a big black mudfish which had been broiled. The new rice in the open pot was red and fragrant. A small coconut bowl was beside the rice pot; it was half filled with salted fish sauce flavored with lime juice and roasted red pepper. A plate of boiled camote tops completed the meal.” (253)

“He was hungry; he wanted to cook his breakfast and roast the dried beef. But the man’s wife, who was among those by the well, said there was still enough rice, coffee, and fried fish waiting in their kitchen.” (259)

“He was eating a breakfast of dried fish and freshly cooked rice, and a couple of fish were still roasting over the coals in the stove by the hut. The strong aroma reached out to Istak.” (260)

“The bran that Istak wanted was already mixed with molasses in a wooden trough, and Kimat had started eating.” (265)

“Istak did wait, though, for a plate of hot rice and a piece of roasted dried meat.” (267)

“As a matter of fact, the children were given candies. They were waiting for those candies.” (271)

“It was dark at last and he had not eaten anything save the sugar cake that was for Kimat; he had slaked his thirst in the first stream that he crossed and his stomach was full.” (272)

“The dried carabao meat and the rice were long gone, so when hunger struck, he gathered a few green guavas along the trail.” (277)

“How often had Padre Jose and he stopped here for a bath at the village well, for provisions, sometimes dried meat and dry-season fruits…” (279)

“They did not go into the house; there was a table by the bamboo stairs, and the food was placed there in a battered tin plate—cold chunks of rice and pieces of dried carabao meat that had been roasted and burnt in places… They let him eat alone, which he did, swallowing the hard lumps of rice quickly.” (287-288)

“Nearby were papayas with fruit. The birds had eaten into the very ripe ones; he did not like them too ripe, for these often harbored tiny worms. He picked one or two and walked on; along the way, there would be guavas, too, or tree mushrooms.” (293)

“In a while, another soldier came with a cup. It was hot coffee sweetened with cane sugar, and it warmed his insides quickly. Then came another with a plate; he could see the pieces of dried meat, the white chunks of rice. He ate gladly, thankfully.” (298)

 

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