As “Filipinas” during the Spanish time (1571–1898) was an inscrutable blend of East and West, so were its traditions, customs, and manners. Picking one’s teeth with a little wooden stick at table was a horror in proper European households but perfectly acceptable in affluent Asian ones. It was an Oriental legacy, after all.
During the second quarter of the prosperous 1800s in “Filipinas,” the simple wooden stick was Europeanized, Hispanized, Sinicized —glamourized if you will — by making it sprout with exquisite leaves and flowers, fruits and birds, and other delightful conceits, all of painstaking whittlework (actual examples exist in the Luis Ma Araneta collection). They were so remarkable they were repurposed by well–dressed gentlemen as boutonnieres during dinners and balls.
All that Victorian capriciousness was taken a step further with the creation of whimsical stands, rendered in solid silver, to better display those fantasies. Affluent Manileños (specially in the rich “arrabales” of San Sebastian, Santa Cruz, Binondo, and Tondo), Bulaqueños, Pampangueños, Laguna Tagalogs, Batangueños, and Caviteños commissioned their family silversmiths to produce the fashionable table decorations, usually in pairs, sometimes by the dozen. Between 1825 to 1850, the unusual and fantastical dining table decoration called “Palitera” was born.
“Palitera” [derived from “Palitos”] was a Filipinism, since the proper Spanish term was “Palillera.” The “Palitera” was not an exclusive Filipino phenomenon as similar antique examples of “Palilleras” exist all over Latin America. In the early 1990s, Mme Teresa Battesti, curator of the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, recalled to a Filipino group that included this writer, Joey Panlilio, and Patis Pamintuan–Tesoro that three feet–tall examples of silver “Palilleras” existed in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
However, what makes Filipino “Paliteras” very special is the unmistakable painstaking native sensibility (“pagka–Pilipino” as per the late antiquarian Ramon N. Villegas) manifested in the rotund shapes, renditions of local flowers and leaves, exquisite piercework panels, and hidden details and structures (all of which took hours and hours of work), aside from the fact that so few have survived from the 1800s. Like the ownership of a genuine “Batangas Uno” mesa altar and a “Kamagong Manila Aparador,” possession of an antique silver “Palitera” confers considerable cachet in the highest and most serious circle of Manila’s art and antique collectors.
A rich family’s “paliteras” made their appearance on the formal dining table during the annual town “fiesta,” the owners’ birthday celebrations, and other occasions for showing off. They were never displayed as is, but bedecked and burdened with a slew of wooden toothpicks carved at the ends with flowers and leaves, birds and vases, and entire forests which made them look like floral bouquets at a distance.
Sometimes in even richer households, the wooden toothpicks were inserted at the ends of solid silver toothpicks which were just as fancy, making a more elaborate display.
The height of Victorian opulence was achieved in coffee export–rich 1880s Lipa town, Batangas where the toothpicks were —hold your breath—of solid gold. That simply couldn’t be outdone. On the table, aside from the “paliteras,” were displayed the family’s French centerpieces of sterling silver and crystal, groaning with imported fruits and some local flowers, Cristal Baccarat candelabra, as well as large baskets of flowers and fruits entirely in clear and colored spun sugar strictly in the French style ala Antonin Careme, which resembled Murano and Bohemia glass chandeliers, ordered from expert confectioners.
Atty Daniel R Williams (Private Secretary to Commissioner Bernard Moses; later, became Secretary of the Commission) in his book “The Odyssey of the Philippine Commission” (A C MacClurg & Co, 1913) remembered a surprisingly sumptuous dinner given for the Taft Commission (The Second Philippine Commission) by the Arnedo–Sioco family at their Sulipan, Apalit, Pampanga residence in 1900:
“Our arrival was the signal for an early visit from the village presidente and other leading citizens... There was also a procession of native women bearing gifts of fruits, dulces and various eatables... We ate to the accompaniment of a native band which persisted in serenading us during the entire meal... Our reception was a royal one, the ritual of hospitality among these people reduced to a fine art... Dinner was served at eight, and it was indeed a feast to remember. A great mahogany table glittered with the finest china and linen, its entire length set off by massive bouquets, pyramids of fruits, wonderfully ornamented cakes and stands of most elaborately carved toothpicks. The number and variety of courses were amazing, creating a sense of wonder as to where and how they were all produced. There were wines of all kinds and color, the effect of which doubtless added to the conviviality of the occasion.”
Thus did “Filipinas” entertain. Magnificently.
[The Palitera is one of the highlights of the Leon Gallery Spectacular Midyear Auction happening this June 5, co-presented by ANCX.ph, the urban man’s guide to culture and style, and the lifestyle website of the ABS-CBN News Channel. A preview is ongoing at León Gallery up to June 4, from 9 AM to 7 PM. For additional information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact +632 8856 2781. To browse The Spectacular Mid-Year Auction catalog, visit www.leon-gallery.com.]
Photos courtesy of Leon Gallery