Migrant Filipino Food Stories & Recipes Get a Book Deal— Against All Odds!

Less than two months ago, a sudden surge of energy spurred me to jump in the air till I cramped, shimmy till I was blackmailed and fist pump till I felt I was Pacquiao. No. I didn’t snort crack or anything like that. I simply received an offer to publish our Filipino food anthology project. Oh, so you think I’m exaggerating? You won’t think so once you read this story.

More than a year ago, I had the privilege of speaking with someone who’s been-there-and-done- that in the book publishing world. When I asked about the chances of getting a collection of stories and recipes traditionally published (meaning book publishers, not I, pay for the cost of publishing), her initial reaction gave her away. I knew it was going to be, not just an uphill struggle, but a HELL of an uphill struggle.

Truth be told, the expert, who to this day I regard with high esteem, didn’t stomp my hopes and dreams right off the bat. Instead, we looked high and low for similar books on the market and researched how they were doing. An apples-to-apples comparison was rather difficult, as this project is one of a kind: more story-driven than most other cookbooks. Anyhow, the most similar books we could find were Filipino cookbooks. To say the least, the number of traditionally published titles on Filipino food in the food category of Amazon were probably as little as the number of Filipino restaurants – not in America— but in Europe as a continent! That’s heartbreakingly miniscule. In fact, if you go to Amazon’s Books: Asian Food Category, a drop-down list of cuisines includes Korean, Vietnamese and even Wok Cooking, but not Filipino. Out of the few Filipino food titles, not a single one at that time, ranked within the 100,000 of Amazon’s Best Sellers Rank. Apparently, publishers look at these markers when deciding whether it’s worth their time and money to publish a book.

I’m sure you’ve heard how difficult it is to have any kind of book published in the uber-competitive land of the U.S. these days. If getting a book published is like climbing the Matterhorn, publishing an anthology (which is reputably more difficult to pitch), in an untraditional format (part memoirs, part cookbook), centered on Filipino food (which historically hasn’t demonstrated blockbuster potential), written by mostly new authors, and an editor (moi), who’s not even from the US for that matter would be like climbing the Matterhorn in a wheel chair, on a foggy day and with snow on the route.

Luckily, our prospect of getting published went from almost zilch to very likely when I delivered a 100+-page pitch aka book proposal that I’d labored over with blood, sweat, and tears for several months. Before I knew it, the project has a book agent.

An excruciating wait followed. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, strands of my hair turned into grey, still—no offers. Though publishers, even imprints of some of The BIG FIVE, bit the pitch and requested for the full proposal, even a newbie like me knew that interest hardly translates to an offer. More weeks and months passed. NOTHING . . . just a slow torturous trickle of “we’ll pass” replies with some odd demoralizing comments. I started giving self-publishing some thought.

On July 10, the moment I’ve been dreaming of came. AN OFFER! A week after—ANOTHER OFFER! But it wasn’t over. The painful process of waiting to cement the deal ensued and the state of being in limbo commenced again. Many more sleepless nights of bridled excitement, fear and uncertainty paralyzed me from moving on. A litany of what ifs seized me.

Sunrise-Crete
Watching the sun rise on the island of Crete while reading the publishing contract

Thanks to our agent, details were negotiated, the contract was reviewed and discussed, re-reviewed and re-discussed, rinse, repeat. Without her I would probably have signed the contract blindly just to spare myself from the agony. One day, when I thought I couldn’t bear the suspense any longer, the deal was signed with Agate Surrey. Agate Surrey has published award-winning writing on food for 30 years, with authors ranging from Food Network stars and James Beard Award winners to former food editors and contributors to the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune. Thank you, Agate, for believing in the power of Filipino food and people.

I won’t forget comments we had received from others, such as, “I’m not seeing a Filipino cuisine trend coming,” or “We have tried without success to rouse an interest in a book on Filipino cooking,” or “We’re not confident we would be able to break this project out on a large scale.” These words will continue to haunt and challenge.

Let’s prove them wrong.

We’ve climbed the Matterhorn. Now we’re going to tread harsher terrain with a series of strict deadlines to meet, before setting off on the next gargantuan challenge: The Mount Everest of all uphill struggles—how to get this book a top-ten spot on the bestselling lists published by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, or the USA today on a shoestring budget and at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is raging through the Western World. I know I can’t do it alone. But together—we can. PEOPLE’S POWER!

Tentative book release: Fall 2018.

Foreword to be written by two-time James Beard award-winning writer, John Birdsall.

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John Birdsall

A huge thank you and congratulations to the 30 amazing contributing authors, including The White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford! I’m also very grateful to our food photographer and stylist, Rowena Dumlao-Giardina; she soldiers on with the daunting task of styling and shooting the dishes on a tight deadline.  And last but not least, many thanks to all of you, who liked, followed and supported My Food Beginnings. Thank you for your continued belief and support in this project and what it represents. We can’t wait to get a copy in each of your hands.

ContributingAuthors

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Migrant Filipino Food Stories & Recipes Get a Book Deal— Against All Odds!

Most Influential Filipina Joins Our Filipino Food Anthology Project (a Q&A with the author of “Ampalaya Epiphany”)

Happy New Year!

If I should sum up 2016 in just one word, that word would be “OVERWHELMING” — in the most extreme, positive kind of way. 2016 was the year we launched My Food Beginnings to help promote appreciation of Filipino food and understanding of Filipino people. And the support we’ve received from people around the world has been nothing short of overwhelming. (THANK YOU!)

One of the numerous responses that overwhelmed me was from a third-generation Filipino-American professor, a Plaridel Award-winning writer and a Filipino food advocate who comes from a big family of good cooks. She has been named one of the “100 Most Influential Filipino Women in the World” by the Filipina Women’s Network. She is none other than Lisa Suguitan Melnick.

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Lisa Suguitan Melnick

In “Ampalaya Epiphany”, the story Lisa contributes to our forthcoming Filipino food anthology, Lisa is reminded of the hands of her Uncle Epifanio (Epiphany) as she looks down on her hands chopping ampalaya (bitter melon) usugiri (thin cut) style. She describes how her family “fortifies her delicate third generation ties to her Philippine heritage” and reflects on how she identifies oneness with the bitter, prickly- exteriored vegetable.

ampalaya

Ampalaya (Photo credit: Apron and Sneakers)

I guarantee. You’ll enjoy reading our Q&A with Lisa. Her answers read like a delicious narrative and will make you long for food, family, and Filipino-ness. Find out, too ,why she says, “Hence, it’s NOT Filipino food which needs to evolve…”

MFB: Please tell us more about your heritage. Where were your grandparents from and when did they immigrate to the U.S.?

LSM: My maternal grandfather, Celestino T. Alfafara, was from Carcar, Cebu and came to the U.S. in 1929, and maternal grandmother, Juanita Cayton Alfafara, half Filipina and half Chilena, was born and raised in San Francisco, California.  My paternal grandparents, Silvestre and Victorina del Rosario Suguitan immigrated from Laoag City, Ilocos Norte, Luzon, in 1927.

MFB:What was it like for you to grow up in the U.S.?

LSM: My paternal grandparents provided the solid ground to my Filipino roots by having the whole family to dinner at their house in San Francisco’s Richmond district every Thursday and Sunday in addition to Christmas and New Year’s Day.  By “whole family” I mean my nuclear family of four, the families of my father’s two sisters, Lucrecia (family of seven), and Lourdes (family of four), my two great uncles, and grandparents.  The Uncles cooked dinner — that’s right — for nineteen of us, twice a week!  This tradition went on until I was about eight, when the families decided to reduce the gathering to once-a-week—Sundays, and holidays.  My mother, who was a very good cook, passed on when I was nine. Among the Filipino dishes of hers, I remember comfort foods such as, arroz caldo, arroz valenciana, oxtail soup,and sotanghon.

arroz-caldo

Arroz Caldo (Photo credit: Apron and Sneakers)

My father remarried and we moved to Los Angeles.  Seven years later, upon graduating early from high school, I returned to San Francisco, reuniting with the rest of the family.  It was during my university years that I learned how to cook Filipino dishes from my great uncles, Epifanio and Serviliano, who taught me Ilokano dishes.

MFB: When was the first time you visited the Philippines?  What were your impressions?

LSM: My first trip to the Philippines was in 2012. While there, I celebrated my 56th birthday in Davao with the “Al Robles Express” group—Vanessa V, Kathy B, Nena C–led by author/educator Oscar Peñaranda.  As I mentioned earlier, my biological mother, Anita Alfafara Suguitan, passed on at the young age of thirty-three. She had never gone to the ancestral homeland.  Unexpectedly, my travel to the Philippines, and meeting our relatives in Carcar, Cebu, allowed a reconnection to her that had been veiled and elusive to me for over four decades.

My impressions of the Philippines? Well…the Philippines is profoundly beautiful, sensuously intense—breathtaking in its level of poverty as well as in its vivid beauty.  The myriad and deeply felt experiences inspired the stories in my book, #30 Collantes Street.

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My “impressions” I think, resembled that of a first love encounter. That crowing, doodle-ing chickens and baying barking dogs conversed all day. That the distinctive aroma of fresh durian snuck up my nose a half block away and from then on, I experienced its creamy taste in a whole new way. That tropical fish suckled my fingers though turquoise colored water. These experiences, which could never be captured in photo image, fulfill me. All the while, I’m humbly aware that I journeyed as a member from the Filipino- American tribe; thus, having only been to the motherland twice, I am not in a position to comment about politics, economics, or some of the “hard” images I also observed on the streets.

MFB: You’ve been named one of the 100 most influential Filipina women in the world by the Filipina Women’s Network.  Please tell us about this and the work you did/do in your respective field that earned you this award.

LSM: I was nominated by longtime community activist, historian, and author Evangeline Canonizado Buell, who knows me as an educator and author.  Though I am a college/university professor in the Language Arts division, the recognition was given for my work as a qi gong/yoga practitioner/instructor and the course I designed for my campus community. My work in this area is also influenced by Philippine indigenous healers and culture bearers with whom I have connected through the Center for Babaylan Studies founded by Dr. Elenita Mendoza Strobel.  In addition, I served on the American Federation of Teachers Union 1492, and as a faculty advisor for the Filipino Students Association.  I’m  also an active board member of Philippine American Writers & Artists (PAWA) and a member of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS).  One common denominator in these areas is that I work with people to identify personal goals and then create space for them to work on achieving those goals.  For the work in these various organizations, I was recognized in the category of Behind the Scenes Leader.

MFB: Based on your observations, how are Filipinos and Filipino food viewed in America?

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LSM:On the one hand, I enjoyed celebrating Filipino food through events such as Savor Filipino 2014 which presented our cuisine in new and creative ways, and provided an arena in which to think outside the box of our own mothers’ home cooking in order to elevate Filipino cuisine into the mainstream. I saw pork adobo made with pork belly and served on a crisped rice cake.  By assisting chefs Tim Luym (Buffalo Theory, Attic) and Miguel Trinidad (Maharlika, Jeepney), I received hands-on experience on fresh, amazing ways of preparing traditional favorites: sisig tacos, and kinilaw offered with three choices of top grade fish.

This event allowed participants to view Filipino food and consider the notion that the cool platings may not ever be “better” than our childhood experiences, but indeed, it was an exciting new way to present it to the general public.  I felt so proud that 30,000 people partook in Filipino food in San Francisco that day.  I also admire the events given by young chefs such as, Yana Gilbuena’s Salo Project, and Hood Yums’ kamayan.

But here’s the thing, aside from events and chefs such as the ones I’ve named (and there are many more) in which we celebrate ourselves,   I’m not all about sharing Filipino food with a culture which I observe still views my heritage—our food included– through a whitesplaining, privileged lens.  Jeez, dinuguan (“dinarduran” in Ilokano or pork blood stew) and balut (boiled fertilized egg) are offered as “fear factor” food challenges!    My experience is that most Americans, if they have any exposure to Filipino food at all, still haven’t ventured much beyond lumpia, pansit, and adobo.

Hence, it’s NOT Filipino food which needs to evolve…

MFB: Describe your perfect Filipino meal.

LSM: It hails back to dinners with my grandparents and Uncle Anong at their home in the Richmond district. Uncle Anong would take New York striploin steaks and cut them lengthwise, creating a thinner piece of meat—a perfect portion.  A piece of that steak, simply fried in an iron skillet with salt and pepper, pinakbet (vegetable stew), a bowl of boiled mackerel with ginger, garlic, and vinegar and hot rice. That is my favorite meal.  It’s very simple, I know, but my heart wraps around the whole memory of its aromas, the place at the table, the time of my life, with them.

*Lisa Suguitan Melnick and White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford  are two of the many  contributing authors of the forthcoming, My Food Beginnings, a collection of Filipino food memoirs and recipes.

Connect with Lisa Suguitan Melnick:

Website: www.lisasuguitanmelnick.com

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Most Influential Filipina Joins Our Filipino Food Anthology Project (a Q&A with the author of “Ampalaya Epiphany”)