Thursday, February 19, 2009

Where's the Ube?

My good Catholic-self should have seen the false idolatry. My Bourdain fawning had to come to an abrupt pause at some point. So, why not when he's covering my cultural homeland (and possibly yours)—the Philippines.

It wasn't utter disappointment but... Where's the ube? The ubiquitous purple yam used in jams, fillings, cakes and ice cream among other specialties was conspicuously missing in Tony's reportage. It was like a Jeepney without horns. And, speaking of Jeepney's, the show's pacing was like a Jeepney stripped by bandits sitting in a deserted mega-mall, living to rust.

(Am I exaggerating?
Perhaps, a bit... But, this show, simply and sadly, was not their best. I even caught a sputtered micro-reference to the Iceland episode from season 1. Was it textbook Tony? Using sarcasm to mask fear?)

Let's start off with the camera work. There are over 7000 islands in the Philippines yet there isn't one aerial showing bodies of water and lush landmass. Ultra-green rice terraces captured from the jumper seat on a bi-plane? No. Handheld shots POV'd off the back of a ferry? No. Tony moving among the massive throngs, wedged between giggling schoolchildren on a crowded jeepney? Nope, nope. nope. Where was the director on this thing? Did they have a director? To make matters worse, this was the first episode to follow last week's Food Porn special—So, where was the Filipino food porn? Where were the close-ups of hacking up that crispy, crimson-skinned lechon with machetes? The nat sounds of primal food forage. And, the cutaways of steam rising from the swines cooked haunches barely veiling the sweat-drenched gaze of accomplished cooks? If Cebuano lechon is truly the best open-pit roasted whole pig in the islands and this episode's pinnacle where's all that luscious eye candy? With exception of the pig's skin, not one camera did the lechon justice. Hello?

Like I said, It wasn't utter disappointment... Poetry and choice bits were scattered throughout: The montage of Manila's battle scarred buildings and pensive populace, the deep yet ambiguous American influences and scenes in the dried fish market were spot on. The dinner at home with artist Claude Tayag was an nice peek into the life of one of the many artists attempting to stay Pampangan tradition in a traditionally Americanized land. Even Tony's rabid observations of poor Agosto were appreciated...
Genuine sympathy for the cherubic fan who lured NR to finally tackle PI were noted with an ethnographic tone minus any hurtful edge. Busy and informative at best, emotionally reaching and idling at worst, this episode also lacked an essential element: The bittersweet national historian, or, the ravenous ex-patriot foodie planted in the show to spar with Tony or encourage him partake the latest cultural experiment or ancient food ritual. It cried out for someone or something to add zing. Oh, what I would have paid to see Tony dancing the tinikling!

ile they respectfully avoided the Fear Factor-esque exploitation of binging on tuba wine and balut, the show simply wasn't cohesive. Tony himself seemed to apologize in voice-overs, confessing the pressure he felt from Filipino fans. And, then there's the actual possibility that something went terribly wrong... production-wise. After checking the NR site's Philippines episode summary , I noticed the list does not jive with what made it on screen.

No Reservations waited four seasons to produce a show on the Philippines. Andrew Zimmern's show beat them to the punch which is embarrassing enough. And, now that they've been, Tony admits they missed out on a lot. I spent a bewildered twenty minutes or so post-episode harassing my TV: What about American influence on cuisine and culture? (Hot dogs and spaghetti! American Cheese Ice Cream!) What about Spanish, Malay and Chinese influences? The dozen different native bananas and how to prepare them? And, if they ever do this again, I thought, they definitely need to pick better music tracks.

Despite this show, Bourdain still rocks. He's observant yet cool. He processes and intellectualizes but still aspires for wonderment. On camera in the Philippines, he knew sh*t was going sideways. And, let's face it, as a television professional, I know better than to simply blame the "pretty" face on screen. Producers, associate producers, researchers, fixers and DP's (yes, even they screw up), play a plentiful part in poor booking, footage misfires and creating messes that cannot be fixed in post-production. Several fellow foodies even noted one shakey fact that made it into the final cut...

Dear NR:

For the record, the 'adobo template' is not just soy sauce, black pepper and onions. There is one other crucial component...vinegar. Originally used to preserve meat for mountaineers and travelers, vinegar achieves the essence of adobo. The salty, sour and sometimes sweet national dish of an equally pungent yet inviting country and its people. But, don't let that put you off the Philippines.

Peace out,



SpicyBrowngirl said...

An interesting insight into the philosophy behind making NR. At least circa 2008. I wouldn't expect anything less from AB.

Anonymous said...

No Halo-Halo!!! That was another V.I.P that was M.I.A.

You put onions in your adobo? I thought it was just: Garlic, Soy Sauce, Vinegar, Peppercorns and Bay Leaves? What part of the Philippines is your family from? I ask because I am befuddled by the addition of "onions."

SpicyBrowngirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SpicyBrowngirl said...

Hey Anonymous, I just reread this post. I didn't say I/WE put onions in our adobo. I said that Bourdain's guest on the show stated that onions are in the adobo template. Which, as you point out, is incorrect. It's all about the garlic, soy sauce, peppercorns and especially vinegar. I point out that the guest makes no mention of vinegar in the "adobo template"--which to my Illocano family means it's incomplete. Also, my father from San Narcisco did put bay leaves in his pork adobo (and my sister puts coconut milk in her chicken adobo), but he always had to remind us kids, "Don't eat the bay leaf!"