Food sometimes becomes the symbol of a revolution or war– a unique dish that sustains us through the hard times of political turmoil. Tea became the symbol of our independence from Britain. With my Germanic heritage, “Liberty Cabbage”, what Cincinnatians renamed their sauerkraut, during the anti-German sentiment of World War I, is one of those foods. Cincinnatians like to say that eating another Germanic dish, goetta, is eating back into our family history. It transplants us back in time to when our great-great grandparents were struggling new immigrants fighting the Know Nothing hysteria of the 1850s, or the anti-German sentiment of the World Wars.
For my high school friend Chris, that dish connecting to his Filipino heritage was pancit, a staple his family brought with them when they left the Philippines and the corrupt Marcos regime in 1973 to start a new life in Cincinnati. That dish had a lot deeper meaning and a more current connection for his family, than the pre-World War I heritage foods of my family. Pansit was that tie to their family and life back in Baggio, the village outside of Manilla, where they were from. Marcos was their King George, and pancit their bohea tea.
Until recently you couldn’t find pancit outside of a Filipino family gathering in Cincinnati. Now there are several restaurants where you can find it with other Filipino dishes like eggrolls and Filipino barbecue. It’s still not as common as Vietnamese Pho, but I have faith that it will become another of our city’s most popular dishes. One place to find it in awesome form is at Christine’s on Harrison Avenue.
But back when I was first introduced to pancit by Chris’s family, it was the most amazing dish I had encountered. Along with eating pancit came stories of life back in Baggio, where Chris’ grandparents and a whole host of aunts, uncles, and cousins still lived.
I have often wondered why there weren’t Pancit Parlors in Cincinnati like there were chili parlors. It sort of resembled our threeway, without a cheese layer. At least there should have been one in Forest Park, where a great deal of Cincinnati’s Filipino community lived.
I ate a lot of pancit in high school at my friend Chris’s family gatherings, where it, along with trays of delicious Filipino eggrolls, were a staple, even at Thanksgiving. For me it was something fantastic, way outside of my family’s Germanic and American comfort food standards. For Chris’ family, it was as common as spaghetti and meat sauce was to us. Plates of a twinkie-like sweet bread called puto, often accompanied the pancit and barbecue feasts.
Noodles are said to have been brought to the Philippines by Chinese immigrants, but the pancit noodle originated in the Philippines. It’s a rice cellophane noodle that has a texture all its own and is brilliant for taking in the sauce in which it’s cooked. To make pancit, the rice noodles are soaked and mixed with a combo of stir fried shrimp, pork or chicken, garlic and vegetables like carrot, cabbage, and onions. Add garlic, teriyaki and soy sauce and you have this delicious dish.
Chris’s mom, Vilma taught me how to make pancit, and although I haven’t made it in a long time, I still have the recipe I transcribed from her, in a plastic sleeve, as if it’s an illuminated Bible passage. I remember Vilma chuckling at me as I asked her questions and took notes in her kitchen for that recipe. Pancit is something that every Filipino woman knows how to make from memory, and with their own family variations – no recipes needed. The men focused on the pork barbecue. But for this German Gringo for whom pancit was the most exotic dish he’d known, I had to record the secrets to its creation. I have also made puto, from a packaged box mix I found at Jungle Jim’s, but it could never match the perfection of Vilma’s homemade version.
Vilma and her husband, Dody, came with their young family to Cincinnati from the Philippines over 40 years ago, fleeing the martial law dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos silenced the media, modified the constitution, and used violence and oppression against his political opposition. According to a US report, the Marcos family plundered between $5 and $10 billion dollars from the Filipino people, to support their own lavish lifestyle. At the end of the Marcos regime, the U.S. media seemed to focus on the number of shoes Imelda Marcos had in their presidential palace to drive home their extravagance.
Dody is now a retired architect, and designed many houses throughout the northwestern Cincinnati area. Vilma is a retired teacher. When the family returned to visit relatives in 1986 after the downfall of the Marcos regime, Vilma was shocked at how much more poverty there was since they left. So she decided to stay a few years and help rebuild. She used her experience working with the Franciscans in Cincinnati to get vegetable and flower seeds for the Filipino poor and stayed until she saw them being planted.
Vilma and Dody hosted Benigno Acquino and his wife, Corazon, at a talk in Cincinnati in 1980, during his exile in the United States, three years before he was executed stepping off a plane in Manilla. After Corazon became president, Vilma’s niece by marriage, Margie Lucio became the President’s protocol secretary, helping to break down the sexist opposition to the country’s first female president.
The Philippines faces its own challenges today, much as America does. Current President Rodrigo Duterte is not held in high regard for his tactics to quell the drug problems. And solving twin insurgencies of communists and Islamist separatists, poverty, and terrorism load his lengthy to-do list.
But there will always be pancit, to sustain and remind.