GJ Sevillano

GJ Sevillano (he/him) is a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Studies at George Washington University. He holds a M.A. in American Studies from George Washington University and B.A. in Politics and certificate in American Studies from Princeton University. His dissertation titled, “Ang Sarap, Sarap! Filipinx American Culinary Imaginaries and Diasporic Gastropoetics,” examines cookbooks, recipes, menus, novels, and digital media to trace the sociohistorical and literary foundations of Filipino American foodways of the 20th and 21st centuries. His work can be found in Alon: Journal for Filipinx American and Diasporic Studies and is forthcoming in Verge: Studies in Global Asias (Fall 2023). He currently serves as a Co-Editor of the Graduate Journal of Food Studies (GJFS) and is a former Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow (MMUF), an Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers (IRT) associate, and an alumnus of the Leadership Alliance-Mellon Initiative (LAMI) program. 

Review: A Taste of Empire. Jovanni Sy. Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2017. xix + 75 pp. $16.95 paper. ISBN 9781772011609.

Originally presented in 2010 by Cahoots Theatre Company (Toronto, Canada), A Taste of Empire, a play written and performed by Jovanni Sy, is a fête of fact, fiction, and flavor that dramatizes the cooking processes of Filipino fiesta classic, Rellenong Bangus (stuffed milkfish).[1] Two parts parody, one part pastiche, the play takes advantage of the growing role that food media plays in today’s digital landscape to offer a biting critique of contemporary alimentary programming’s blasé attitudes about the politics of eating. Steeped in satire, Sy’s script and performance playfully outlines the historical and political landscapes in which the alimentary decisions about what we eat, how we eat, and why we eat the things we do are contextualized. In doing so, Sy serves—on white ceramic plates—an unsettling, yet apt, reminder that colonialism and its resides remain thoroughly entrenched in our daily lives.

A Taste of Empire places the audience in a world in which “Imperial Cuisine” popularized by the wondrous Chef Maximo Cortés, has taken over and become the latest food trend to win the hearts and minds of foodies, gastronomes, and alimentary connoisseurs who are able to afford the chance to “eat the world.”[2] Chef Cortés—no confirmed relation to the sixteenth-century Spanish conquistador—boasts a long list of accolades for his food that threatens “a different philosophy from the current, trendy ‘locavore,’ ‘farm-to-table’ craze.”[3] Instead, Chef Cortés’s cuisine is all about “Taking all the goodness of the earth and letting the bounties trickle down.”[4] Perhaps there is no better national cuisine to represent this culinary and cultural mixing than Filipino food. As Filipina culinary historian and cultural critic Doreen G. Fernandez describes “Philippine foodways clearly reflect Philippine history: the foreign influences being indigenized into a changing culture.”[5] For example, sous-chef Jovanni praises, “Although the Americans only officially ruled for a half-century, they had a profound and lasting effect on Filipino culture and cuisine.”[6] However, as Lisa Lowe reminds us, these geopolitical intimacies are a result of the subordination of the colonized and dispossessed peoples who’s physical and material labor created the very conditions that made such sociopolitical, economic, and alimentary visions conceivable, while their own freedoms were regulated, exempted, and readily denied.[7] It is in this tension—which perhaps can only be called tension (rather than explicit violence) from the privileged vantage point of the metropole—that Sy concocts the play’s masterful mixture of the theatrics of culinary arts, tastes of globalization, and telos of neoliberal value.

Although the play centers around the infamous Chef Cortés, he is swiftly substituted with sous-chef Jovanni, who politely reminds the audience that refunds—like reparations—are unavailable. Jovanni, both holds captive and captivates the audience as he journeys through the ingredients’ roots and routes in Chef Maximo’s recipe of rellenong bangus. From the components of Spanish sofrito (a sauté of garlic, onions, and tomatoes) mass produced and handpicked by Mexican agricultural laborers “legalized” under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program to the milkfish farmed in Dagupan, Philippines by Chef Cortés’s corporation, Imperial Seafood, Jovanni recounts the various ways in which these ingredients were procured.[8] Through a kind of kuwento, or Filipino mode of ethnic storytelling, Sy’s script narrativizes the disruption and genocide of indigenous aquacultural epistemologies, the subsequent (en)forced precarity of transnational laborers, and the reinvestment and reconfigurations of neoliberal value; ultimately, fostering disillusionment about the seeming neutrality of globalized foodways.[9]

Jovanni anthropomorphizes the milkfish by naming him Bong-Bong after “Filipino action-star-turned-senator Bong Revilla” and not the “gun-enthusiast-turned-Filipino congressman Ferdinand ‘Bong-Bong’ Marcos Jr.”[10] Though updated for its 2017 publication, Sy’s playscript could not have anticipated the return of the ex-dictator’s family to the Malacañang Palace with the latter’s controversial presidential election, but this ironic naming makes the play all the more ripe for review.[11] Piag Ibasan, the last fisherman to handle Bong-Bong before the demonstration, is a descendent of the Aeta fishermen that were displaced by Imperial Seafood.[12] Jovanni boasts that Imperial Seafood generates “ten thousand times the yield of the Aeta tribe” with its “patented hatchery biofeedback system,” which allows it to “feed the Gulf…sell throughout the whole country, and even…export overseas to people like you [audience].”[13] According to historian René Alexander Orquiza Jr., “Improving food in the Philippines…became a justification to overhaul the Filipino farmer and inspire him to adopt multiple facets of American consumer culture.”[14] In other words, the disruption of local economies and supplantation of indigenous aquacultural epistemologies are direct ways in which Spanish and American colonization have had lasting impact on the Philippine islands, people, and culture.

As Jovanni cuts off Bong-Bong’s fins, incises slits below the gills, and breaks the neck and tail bones, he parrots Chef Cortés’s assertion that “It isn’t Imperial Cuisine™ without a little blood.”[15] Just short of narrating individual instances of colonial genocide, Jovanni asserts that if the Aeta weren’t so “stubborn” that they “would have been spared so many needless premature deaths.”[16] The juxtaposition of the violent preparation of Bong-Bong and the kuwento of the attacks against the Aeta is an obvious, yet effective, reminder of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism or “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”[17] Sy’s pairing of the visceral imagery of Bong-Bong’s dissection and the narration of historical trauma dramatizes scholarly arguments proffered by critical race scholars such as Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Mel Y. Chen, and Anne A. Cheng, who have evidenced the uneven power dynamics between white conceptions of the human and violent racialization that links non-white bodies to characteristics of animality, disability, and ornamentation.[18] In doing so, A Taste of Empire puts on stage (and the menu) the intersecting networks of violence that structures a colonial mise en place that sought to “put everything [and everyone] in its proper place.”[19] Through the genre of the live cooking demonstration, Sy is able to grapple with and proffer critiques of the intersecting narratives of systematic colonial violence occurring on different scales: human, non-human, animal, land, and epistemology.

However, not all ingredients in the recipe are used to evoke violent colonial pasts but to signal globalization’s “improvements” on society. Jovanni uses a frozen bag of peas to illustrate the collapsing of geographic space onto the plate. He says, “In this one bag, these peas might be from three of four different countries. But that’s the way we like it. In Imperial Cuisine™, we want to scour the four corners of the earth to bring you the best.”[20] This moment of satire links together both a multicultural fantasy of surface-level diversity and a production-driven definition of neoliberal value.[21] This satirical scene parodies contemporary food media and corporate interests that weaponize the rhetoric of diversity to champion the asymmetric axes of power across globalized food systems. While the success of satire relies on the consumer’s ability to decipher between literalism and sarcasm, Sy’s script leaves little room for interpretation: foodways are political and consumers are beholden to their alimentary decisions and their consequences.

What makes rellenong bangus such a challenging dish to make is separating the flesh from the skin without puncturing the surface. Jovanni does this by what he calls the “evacuation method,” which is done by loosening the flesh from skin with a Maximo-brand palette knife and squeezing out the meat, bones, and guts—like toothpaste from a tube.[22] To complete the dish, a mixture of the meat, sofrito, carrots, potatoes, and peas are combined and reinserted into the limp skin, creating a head-on fish sausage that is then breaded and fried. While Jovanni evacuates Bong-Bong’s innards, he narrates the gruesome colonial beginnings of the water cure, an American counterinsurgency tactic during the Philippine-American War.[23] Although this narrative choice is aptly critical of U.S. intervention in the Pacific at the turn of the twentieth-century, I find it more useful to understand the stuffing process in the context of Jovanni’s self-introduction at the start of the play. Somewhat offhandedly, Jovanni mentions that he was excited to make this Filipino dish because he “used to be Filipino” before Chef Cortés rescued him from a Romanian orphanage.[24] Rather than understanding this as a throwaway line, placing it in the context of refilling the fish skin encapsulates underlying questions of the entire production: how have centuries of colonization sought to “evacuate” Filipinos of a sense of identity in order to be replaced, from the inside out, with imperial notions of subjectivity? Moreover, how have foodways been used as a tool of refashioning and repackaging of Philippine corporeality and ontology? Using Bong-Bong as the alimentary metaphor for this process of cultural transformation, Sy underscores how the violence of colonization is not a relic of the past, but continues even through our quotidian foodways.

Though I reserved limited room for critique of Sy’s intricate use of alimentary metaphor and visual mimesis in this review, these literary and artistic strategies for dramatizing the “hidden intimacies” between foodways and colonization are not without their shortcomings.[25] One missed opportunity is the exploration of Jovanni’s complicity within the oppressive food systems as a Canadian settler of color. The complexity of Jovanni’s role within the “settler-native-slave triad” was underexamined, rendering the play’s overall arguments regarding decolonization somewhat underdeveloped.[26] This is evidenced during the rather unsatisfying final scene of the play.

Before serving up the completed rellenong bangus, Jovanni received notice that he was being fired and replaced by Neha, the sous-chef under Jovanni that he had been berating throughout the entire cooking demonstration. As he exits the kitchen, he turns to the audience to remind them once more of the price of tonight’s meal. Sy writes, “This is the key to Imperial Cuisine™: you get to eat the world. Anything you want is yours—no matter how expensive—because Piag and Carlos and Bong-Bong and me…we always pick up the bill.”[27] Instead of being named as complicit within the violent colonial system, Sy aligns Jovanni with the other exploited characters.

Sy is unable to fully indict Jovanni for his role in the quotidian violence occurring on stage and in larger food systems. Though subtle, I think Sy’s choice to fold in “and me” to the palimpsestic colonial violence mischaracterizes the relationship between his experiences of bodily harm and emotional abuse, which are mainly used for comedic effect, and the expertly narrativized epistemological, environmental, and familial consequences of colonialism and globalization throughout the play. To say that settlers of color, particularly those that are displaced from their homelands, do not experience harm, precarity, or violence due to colonialism and globalization, would be a complete farce (not to be confused with the culinary homophone referring to a stuffing). However, by lumping together these differing experiences of violence, Sy commits an infraction of what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang would call a “settler move to innocence” or strategies of cooptation of Indigenous struggle that evacuate any real meaning from calls for Indigenous sovereignty and decolonization.[28] These “moves to innocence” often detract from and can even inhibit liberatory praxis. If Sy had held Jovanni more accountable for his own role in perpetuating colonial violence as a settler of color, I think Sy’s overall argument would have been easier to digest.

A Taste of Empire forces us to take stock of the uneven effects of racial violence, globalization, and colonialism that simmer just beneath the surface of our alimentary decisions. Though the play presents more questions than any explicit answers for how to ameliorate the issues of colonial afterlives and aftertastes, its strength rests in its ability to offer the audience and its readership some food for thought: to eat or not to eat the rellenong bangus.

[1] On nomenclature: To distinguish between Jovanni Sy as actor versus playwright, I use the name Jovanni in reference to the character sous-chef Jovanni and I use Sy in reference to playwright Jovanni Sy.

[2] Jovanni Sy, A Taste of Empire (Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2017), 51.

[3] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 26.

[4] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 23.

[5] Doreen G. Fernandez, “Colonizing the Cuisine: The Politics of Philippine Foodways,” in Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture (Revised and Updated) (Mandaluyong City: Anvil Publishing Inc., 2020), 196.

[6] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 29.

[7] Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

[8] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 39. In the updated and published version of the playscript, Sy parodies the problematic rhetoric of then-President Donald Trump who villainized Mexican laborers as racial scapegoats for economic and social decay.

[9] Korina M. Jocson, “Kuwento as Multicultural Pedagogy in High School Ethnic Studies,” Pedagogies: An International Journal 3, no. 4 (2008): 241-253.

[10] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 8.

[11] Lian Buan, “36 years after ousting Marcos, Filipinos elect son as president,” Rappler, May 10, 2022, https://www.rappler.com/nation/elections/ferdinand-bongbong-marcos-jr-wins-president-philippines-may-2022/.

[12] In Footnote 5, Sy admits that some of the claims that sous-chef Jovanni makes about the mountainous Aeta tribe are falsified and do not meet standards of “academic rigor.” However, many coastal tribes in the Philippines engaged in fish farming utilizing net fishing techniques that Sy details. Overall, this should not derail our historical understanding of how colonization affected indigenous aquacultural practices. Sy, A Taste of Empire, 9-10.

[13] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 11.

[14] René Alexander D. Orquiza, Jr., Taste of Control: Food and the Filipino Colonial Mentality under American Rule (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2020), 14.

[15] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 12.

[16] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 14.

[17] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 28.

[18] Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press, 2020); Mel Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012); Anne A. Cheng, Ornamentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[19] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 20.

[20] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 28.

[21] Indigenous scholar Hi′ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart uses multicolored/multiflavored Hawaiian shave ice as an alimentary proxy to similarly deconstruct colonial epistemes of multicultural paradise. See: Hi′ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart, Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2023).

[22] YouTube has a number of videos demonstrating this “evacuation method.” See: PagkaingPinoyTv, “How to Cook The Best Rellenong Bangus Recipe,” YouTube video, 14:04, March 20, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-Nfd9Uh-nY&ab_channel=PagkaingPinoyTV.

[23] Paul Kramer, “The Water Cure,” New Yorker, February 17, 2008, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/02/25/the-water-cure.

[24] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 7.

[25] GJ Sevillano, “Hidden Intimacies: Food, Colonialism, and Culinary Authenticities in Filipino American Cookbooks,” Verge: Studies in Global Asias 9, no. 2 (2023): 186-213.

[26] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1-40.

[27] Sy, A Taste of Empire, 51.

[28] Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” 9.