The American soldiers imprisoned hungry for three years in notorious Bilibid turned their conversation irresistibly to the food they had once relished and were determined to enjoy again. They gave reality to their dream talk by dwelling not on the flavors but only a careful accuracy in describing the ingredients of the dishes they longed for. Colonel Halstead C. Fowler collected their most cherished recipes, writing them in crowded penciled words on the inner sides of envelopes. There are Pennsylvania Dutch dishes, Mexican, Scandinavian, Welsh, Yorkshire and Scottish dishes, French and Filipino dishes, Swiss and Russian, Polish, Italian, Javanese, Chinese, and of course, Southern and Yankee favorites.
Dorothy Wagner's forward reads:
When my nephew, Chick Fowler, sailed for Manila in October of 1941, he carried with him a vast deal of luggage, for besides the necessary equipment of a mounted officer bound for the tropics he had supplied himself with a huge box of books and a case of champagne to ward off seasickness. When he returned to San Francisco forty months later, all his possessions were insufficient to fill a musette bag, and even his uniform was borrowed, the blouse from one man, the trousers from another, the cap from a third. As souvenirs he brought home three bullets still embedded in his body, and beri-beri, which had gravely impaired his eyesight.
But the limp musette bag held two treasures, a Filipino knife, which Chick had ingeniously hidden from his captors, and a little bundle of envelopes, which had contained the few letters the Japanese permitted him to receive. He had split the envelopes and used their inner sides to write in crowded penciled lines the recipes for unusual dishes that he had collected from his fellow prisoners of war.
Because the Japanese had hoped to use the interned civilians after the war they sought merely to weaken them; but they feared and were determined to break the men of the armed forces. Only the ones with tough bodies, disciplined minds, and indomitable spirits had even an outside chance of survival, and of those elect, only the few who got the breaks have come home.
Against frustration, suspense, and calculated or whimsical cruelty tney armored themselves with a humor incomprehensible and exasperating to their captors. But the ceaseless clawing of hunger, spreading from the nerves of the stomach to every fibre of their being they defeated by low, side-mouthed talk quickly broken off and as quickly resumed. No matter how the conversation began it always turned to food, the food the prisoners had once relished and were determined to enjoy again. For they talked in the future tense, harking back to the past only to make concrete their plans when they should finally be rescued. They gave reality to their dreams by dwelling, not on the flavors or sentimental recollections of feasts, but on a painstaking accuracy in describing the constituents of the dishes they remembered and longed for and resolutely purposed to enjoy again.
Chick began his collection after the Death March and his removal to Davao; he continued it till the day of his rescue from Bilibid. When the other prisoners learned of his project they became interested, and since they were constantly shifted from one camp to another, hundreds of men gave or sent to him, always by word of mouth, their specially prized recipes.
Many of the contributions were commonplace or sketchy. Only a few prisoners had been mess sergeants or ships' cooks or chefs in their prewar days, though a surprising number were amateurs who had experimented on hikes or hunting trips or in kitchens temporarily left undefended by the family cook. Most of the recipes that Chick considered worthy of a place in his collection came from men who, as boys, had again and again been drafted to assist their mothers in the preparation of holiday feasts.
Listening to Chick as he talked of the starving men who fed themselves on boyhood recollections, I tried to envisage the many kitchens in America and Britain, in Europe and China, Asia scattered across the Pacific islands that meant to each man the glowing heart of a beloved home. The women Who presided over them must have brought love as well as patience and skill to their endlessly repeated labor of feeding their families, for only women capable of giving themselves generously to their work could have impressed the memory of those dishes so accurately on the minds of their boys. Surely those mothers would be deeply moved to learn that their Martha-tasks had been transmuted into Mary-tributes, serving to sustain their sons in their long, unspeakably cruel ordeal.
Not only Chick, but every man who contributed to his collection benefited by it. Since their thoughts were inevitably and ceaselessly focused on food, the discussion of its preparation and the heated arguments concerning the superiority of one method over another served as more than an anodyne for their tortured nerves. It strengthened their resolution to survive, if only because it made more vivid, not what they sought to escape from, but what they were resolved to return to. It brought close to them the homes waiting faithfully for them, homes in which the primal need to nourish the body was recognized as a perpetually renewed adventure, a challenge to the imagination, an invitation to cheerful sociability.
I have always regarded cookery as an art closely akin to the drama. You sketch the plot, school and direct the characters, set the stage, ring up the curtain, and anxiously await the applause. Breakfast is usually a farce, relying on tempo and a preoccupied audience to gloze its lack of originality. Lunch is a revue, offering a hash of previous productions. But dinner is a gala performance, with the audience freshly tidied and anticipative. It is most successful when it presents a comedy of manners, though sometimes robust melodrama is enthusiastically received. Occasionally it rises to the heights of tragedy combining pity and terror-pity for the cook, terror for the diners. A star performer is essential, whether an old ham actor or so exotic a creature as wild duck. The minor characters, preferably in their salad days, add spice to solid dialogue or a spot of comic relief, though they are useful chiefly to provide the pause an audience requires to digest the playwright's epigrams. When the final curtain call has been acknowledged, the stage hands darken the house and put away the properties while the producer seeks frenziedly for a new plot With familiar characters cunningly disguised, novel stage devices, and a satisfying climax.
The war had thrust upon me the role of culinary producer, and Chick's smudgy, close-written envelopes offered me exciting dramatic material, while his tips on technique suggested odd and challenging stage devices. Ever since last spring my family has been entertained-and well-fed thanks to Chick's RECIPES OUT OF BILIBID. Though rationing and shortages sometimes forced me to make cautious substitutions and occasionally I jibbed at bizarre combinations, I learned to respect the penciled directions and to follow them confidently. Never did I find the time and labor wasted, for these dishes are worthy of the role they played. Though their substance was tragically wanting, their shadow, bright with memory and warm with hope, helped to keep alive men imprisoned by the war.
Situational vignettes accompany many of the recipes.
Try: Lemon Chicken, Corn Beef Spiced, Stuffed Eggplant, Old Army Mincemeat, Virginia Brunswick Stew, Edam Ale Spread, Brandy Pottage, Baba Au Rhum, Rijstafel (Ricetable), Barbecue Sauce, Tamale Pie, Buvala, Coluwitz, Danish Roast Goose, Yeoman Yorkshire Pudding, etc.