Filipino-American from Tennessee: Finalist at Paula Deen’s Recipe Contest (An Interview with an Asian Girl in a Southern World)

When Kraft invited kitchen-savvy women, not only to create their own recipe, but also to shoot, edit and upload instructional videos for its online promotional campaign for Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Dalena Benavente rose to the challenge.

Dalena Benavente

With celebrity chef Paula Deen as host, the competition received a massive response. Out of over 10,000 entries, only 16 finalists were selected. One of them was Dalena.

Dalena was born and raised in Tennessee. In case you didn’t know, Tennessee is one of the least Filipino populated states in the USA. In fact, Filipino population is so marginalized, one of the questions Dalena was often asked was, “What are you?”

Take a read below and find out what it’s like to be a Filipino in Tennessee. Meet the author of  soon-to-be-released, Asian Girl in a Southern World, an unconventional cookbook entwined with current, controversial issues, such as racism, bigotry and hope.

 MFB: Please tell us more about your Filipino heritage.

DB: Both sides of my mom’s family are from Pampanga.  Her father was in the Navy and they came to the United States when she was a teenager.  She met my father, who is Caucasian American, in Arizona while he was serving in the United States Air Force.  After they got married, they moved back to his home state of Tennessee.

MFB: You were the first Filipino to be born in the hospital where you were born. Please tell us more about that.

There wasn’t a special announcement, but there was definitely a bit of a fuss because many people had not seen a Filipino baby before.  White- yes.  Black- yes, but nothing in between.  I’ve been told that even the nurses who worked in different wards of the hospital came to see what I looked like through the hospital nursery glass, as if I was some kind of a baby exhibit.  I was the first Asian baby that many of the nurses had ever seen.  I actually write about it in great detail in the first chapter of my book.

MFB: In your cookbook teaser trailer, people asked, “What are you?”  How did you answer that question? Would you like to share how you felt about it?  

Video link:

I remember not understanding their question at first.  I grew up in a home where my parents were two different colors and from two different parts of the world, so racial variety was something that I lived with everyday.  Once I understood they were actually asking why I looked different from everyone else, I explained to them that my mother was from the Philippines and I looked like her.  No one knew where the country was. They asked, “Is that in Japan?” or “Does that mean you’re Hawaiian?”  I never considered their lack of knowledge about the Philippines or the phrasing of their questions to be something I should feel badly about, even if people asked them in a demeaning tone.  If anything, it showed me that I lived in a place that did not offer much cultural variety, and it allowed me to experience the effect of the lack of diversity in cultures can have on people and a community.

MFB: What was it like for you to grow-up in Tennessee? Please relate a point in your life when you became acutely aware of how your Philippine food culture is different from everyone else?  

Dalena and cousin
Dalena with her cousin

Looking back, growing up in Tennessee was quite an adventure, but I didn’t recognize it at the time.  It wasn’t until I became an adult and had children of my own that I understood I had quite a unique childhood.  I was half Filipino, half Caucasian American, living in a part of the United States that was extremely racist against darker skin colors, and had no experience with Filipino people.   For most of the kids in town and for many of the adults, I was their first “Asian encounter”.  That makes me  laugh ,but seriously, if I had been a negative child who got emotionally hurt or offended easily, I could have very well grown up to be bitter and angry. But that has never been my style.

I remember one time; a friend came home with me after school.  My mom prepared adobo, rice, and pancit- one of my favorites, for our after school meal.  My friend had never seen rice.  She had never seen food that was poured over rice.  She had never seen noodles except for spaghetti.  She almost seemed disgusted by what my mom had made and tried to shame me for liking it.  We ordered pizza for her to be hospitable, but once I saw how rude she was about my family’s food, I knew it was the last time I would ever invite her to my house.  Besides, for me personally, a friendship with someone who thinks cheap pizza is better than adobo is going to eventually come to an end anyway.

Bacon & Garlic Fried Rice
Bacon and garlic fried rice

MFB: How did you get started in food? Please share with us how you got to cook for Paula Deen. What was it like?

 Cooking with Paula Deen

(PHOTO: Dalena with Paula Deen)

I was in my late twenties and I had moved two thousand miles away from my little hometown in Tennessee to downtown Los Angeles in California for work.  After a few months of being in California, I got homesick and missed the food that I was raised on- a fusion of classic southern American food, and traditional Filipino food.  I didn’t know of any restaurant where I could get anything like it, so I started learning how to cook.  A couple of years later I saw that Kraft was having a recipe contest.  The contestants were required to submit a video of themselves making an original recipe on YouTube.  There were over 10,000 entries in all.  I put my video on YouTube, and a few days later Kraft announced on their website that I was one of their sixteen national finalists.  They flew me to Savannah, Georgia, where I worked with their professional film crew to cook on camera in their production studio with Paula Deen.  I thought I would be nervous, but I wasn’t at all.

MFB: What prompted you to write Asian Girl in a Southern World? Please tell us more about the cookbook. Are there any Filipino-inspired recipes in the cookbook?

People who meet me for the first time always want to know why I look Filipino but speak with a “twang”- a common sound Americans from the south speak with.  After I tell them that I was raised in Tennessee, they always want to know about my childhood.  Also, people respond very positively when I cook, so it was a very natural decision to write a book that combined both things.  The book is about adventures from my childhood with recipes that are inspired by the stories.  The readers will be able to see very clearly that the recipes are inspired by classic southern cooking in the United States and by traditional Filipino dishes as well.

MFB: Have you ever been to the Philippines? If yes, what was the experience like for you?  

I went with my Nanay (grandmother), mother, and my aunt after I graduated from high school.  I was really excited to go.  I had never left the United States before, and my mom didn’t prepare me for it at all so I experienced a big culture shock.  Groups of people followed me everywhere and I couldn’t understand why.  My mom had to pay six or seven of my older male cousins to be my bodyguards to keep me safe.  I spent most of the time traveling to visit family.  My cousins kept saying that protecting me was a lot of fun because all I did was drink 7-Up out of a bag, eat young coconuts, and chase the man who sold ube ice cream from his bicycle.  Of course when I bought for myself, I bought for them too, and I made them eat and drink with me, so they said it was like a dream job.  They cried when it was time for me to leave.  I felt a special connection with them and I was so thankful they took care of me.

MFB:  Do people now have an idea who Filipinos are in the South? What is the general perception about Filipino food/ Filipino people?

In general, I think Filipino food and people are still a mystery in Tennessee and the South. I just learned that there is a Filipino- American Association of Tennessee.  I would really like to see groups like this grow so that the Fil-Am community and culture have a presence throughout Tennessee and America.  I also hope my upcoming book sparks interest and raise awareness.

MFB: What can be done to boost Filipino food in the South?  

It would be nice if more Filipinos had the funding, confidence, and business knowledge to start more restaurants that appealed to their community’s specific demographics and aesthetics so that it could be sustained long term.  Until then, I say just keep making lumpia and take it everywhere you go. No one can turn down lumpia.

*Dalena Benavente is one of the contributing authors of our upcoming book, My Food Beginnings – a collection of Filipino food memoirs.

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