Remembering Clinton Palanca, who made food writing into an art form
The award-winning and prolific writer was renowned for his works that combined culinary literature with culture and history
May 31, 2019
Clinton Palanca’s earliest culinary memory was making gulaman when he was about five years old. “The recipe called for 1/8 teaspoon of salt. I didn’t know fractions then, so I just put in eight teaspoons of salt. My family tried to eat the gulaman so as not to hurt my feelings.” (Read: The other side of Chinese cuisine)
I thought of this quote he shared with Nolisoli.ph in 2014 after news broke out that the renowned writer has died today. A prolific food writer, Palanca sensitively combed through stories of cuisine that other writers may not have touched like the Chinoy food of his youth. “Saying that Clinton Palanca writes about food is kind of like saying Marcel Proust wrote about remembering stuff,” said fellow Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Ruel S. De Vera. In his writing, De Vera described, Palanca situates the readers within the context the cuisine came from.
“This equipoise between the pinnacle and the practical, the balance between the thought-out and the tasted, this is what makes his food writing special,” added De Vera. This was about his 2016 book The Gullet: Dispatches on Philippine Food, but it could just as easily describe the rest of his writing catalog.
In his wake, Palanca leaves behind a huge legacy of works. His cookbook My Angkong’s Noodles published in 2014 was a treasure trove of Filipino-Chinese recipes collected straight from the homes of Chinoy families. “We were able to get hold of the recipes from a pool of informants who were unbelievably generous with their time and willing to share what other families considered theirs.” But more than that, the recipe book is a celebration of the immigrant lives of the Filipino-Chinese community, a “tribute to the Chinese women of long ago,” Pepper Teehankee wrote in his review.
There’s also his 1998 book Landscapes, a collection of short fiction for children. As sensitively written as his later work, each story is devastating in its simplicity.
Of course, there are also the numerous articles he wrote within his decades-long stint as writer for Inquirer Lifestyle. In “Why we enjoy retro food,” he talked about the Filipino love for throwback. “Enjoying retro food is like eating nostalgia—but you can’t have too much of it, and at the end of the meal you have to come back to the present. And that’s a good thing, because in the present is where we have to live.”
Palanca’s writing wasn’t limited to food. He could write on a number of topics, like politics, best exhibited in his New York Times article on Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency and its effect on journalism, “Can Fearless Journalism Survive Rodrigo Duterte?” “The editorial offices of The Philippine Daily Inquirer did not have an elevator, the unofficial rationale being that any reporter no longer nimble enough to make the three-flight climb would have to give way to younger staff,” he wrote about the old Inquirer offices, before delving into the history of radical and activist journalism in the country.
“The Philippines is not a country without a conscience. But that conscience needs a voice. For an entire generation, The Philippine Daily Inquirer was that voice,” the article ends.
I do believe Palanca will remain an influence to fledgling writers. His unique vision of writing culinary reviews that didn’t simply talk about the nitty-gritty of food but also echoed his own voice and views on history is a blueprint everyone can follow. As he once wrote in The Gullet, “If you taste mediocrity and feel robbed after a meal, or you feel you’re eating hype instead of soul, walk away and don’t come back.” That’s not a plea anyone can easily forget after reading.
His death is a blow to the writing community, and he’ll be remembered for his unique and nuanced perspective on food and culture. All of us at Nolisoli.ph offer our respects to his family, and hope that there’s good enough food wherever he is now.
Featured photos from our 2014 feature on Clinton Palanca
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