This essay won first prize in this year’s Doreen G. Fernandez Food Writing Award. Founded in 2002, the competition is dedicated to the memory of the eminent food anthropologist Doreen Fernandez who wrote books and many articles about food during her lifetime. The competition is the first of its kind in the country, and aims “to inspire research into Philippine culinary culture and sustaining a pool of increasing new talents in food literature and journalism.” This year’s theme is “shellfish.”
Food and sex are inextricably linked. We can have our sex words and eat them, too. Filipinos love these wordplay as much as they love their shellfish fresh and their sex enjoyable.
Among our foods, it is shellfish that we can more than speak of, quite directly, as regards sexual inference, reference, preference, or even deference—words like juicy, soft, meaty, tender, oozing, succulent, delectable and mouthwatering, are but some of its mouthfeel that can be luscious or plainly sensual.
While avoiding direct discussion of sex, we can talk about the birds and the bees and the thing called shellfish. Because one may not avoid being reminded of the female sex when breaking open a talaba (oyster), tahong (mussel) or tulya (clam) or the male sex with the rigid phallus-like protrusion out of a large bamboo shell.
Filipinos enjoy the talaba succulent and fresh, still quivering in its juices. It is a sexy food said to be in demand on Valentine’s Day. It gives both the victual pleasure and sensual delight as we break open its tight shell, then bring it closer to the mouth, slurp the flavorful juices while lapping the tender flesh, and savoring every bit of its delicate morsel in a mouthful of shivering delight particularly when swallowing it with that anticipated tingle of pleasure from a vinegary sawsawan (dipping sauce), or the wholeness of its creamy flavor created by dripping melted butter and just right sopping of the squeezed tang from a plump juicy lemon.
Without any semantic noise, the sarap (deliciousness) we experience can praise both a wonderful meal of talaba or applaud joyful sex. Remember that controversial billboard ad that run a teaser campaign for a local brandy with its tag “Nakatikim ka na ba ng kinse años?” Though quite problematic to translate, it definitely caught the attention not only of its targeted audience but more so the unequivocal ire of our moral guardians.
Interestingly, the billboard was pulled down not because it could have promoted juvenile alcoholism but rather for the implied, if not evidently subliminal solicitation of having sex with minors. The engendered controversy only proves, without doubt, that indeed the language of victual pleasure is the language of sexual delight. Putting it another way, we cannot think of any food term that will not in any way relate to sex. Here, even kinse (number 15) can have double meaning.
In popular culture, we understand them as semantic commonality or “doble sentido” which is used to their advantage in situational comedies for hilarity. It is an accepted device to avoid direct affront to the prevailing norms of decency and morality. It is also for this reason that our moral guardians find initial difficulty with, though allowing still, these “harmless” food terms like Gutom, Uhaw, Talong, Kangkong, Saging ni Pasing, Patikim ng Pinya, etc. as titles of some “titillating films”. For how and when we learned to have doble sentido—one is expressed, the other, suppressed—can be as biblical as Adam and Eve’s primal experience with the red apple.
Mussels and sex share not only common semantics. It is said, mussels are not only delicious, but make sex even more delicious. Long considered as aphrodisiac, rumor has it that frequent consumption of mussels lead to greater arousal, thus rarely, if not at all, are they served in conventos and seminarios. They instead serve papaya, a known meat tenderizer in Philippine cookery.
Folklore also tells us why mermaids are forever lonesome and enticing good-looking fishermen like a curse — for mussels are mainstay in their seafood diet.
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The dig sites archaeologists love to investigate are shell-midden like that of Lallo, Cagayan. It is an archeological dumpsite of consumed shells of clams, oysters or mussels over the millennium, from—according to archeologists—“clearly recognizable single-activity event with one purpose, that is dinner.”
But was it just dinner? When anthropologist, Margaret Visser describes a meal as a ritual in which "desires are aroused and fulfilled," is she defining dining and/or copulating? This is perhaps the reason why Filipinos call sex as luto ng dios. It becomes an innocuous device to speak of sex behind the meal primed by nature to arouse and satisfy an innate craving as original as that in Eden. They have the same lexis, using one and the same lexicon.
Food and sex as well as their texts are inextricably linked. Food guarantees subsistence while sex assures persistence, thus declaring our continued existence. Beyond biology, making love and eating food share the same psychological powers of sarap that explain why we are still here. Both can provide a sense, almost biblical, of nurturing, comfort, love as well as fulfillment. These bivalve shells will be half empty if we only see dinner and not the other thing called luto ng dios. Doble sentido or not, the shell-midden without doubt served both, even without saying.
About the author: Elmer Nocheseda is no stranger to the DGF Award since he has won four times before, two as top winner. Nocheseda lives in Pateros and has authored three books--Palaspas, an Appreciation of Palm Leaf Art in the Philippines; Rara, Art and Tradition of Mat Weaving in the Philippines; and Pateros.