Two years ago I got a gig doing sound for a play in Denmark. It involved staying about two months in Copenhagen, the farthest north I’d ever been on the globe. The gig involved creating sonic landscapes, something that I am good at and enjoy doing. The play—it’s probably better to call it an interactive theater piece—was called Paradise—A Pinoy Café, dealt with the social costs of exporting Filipina labor abroad. The word “paradise” was used in association with the conveniences that Filipinas offered their employers, and the longings of the Filipinas and the families left behind.
In connection with the central metaphor, I was hired to create sonic evocations of various ideas of paradise expressed in the play. A beach paradise. A jungle paradise. A paradisiacal small town in the provinces, and so on. The production put me in a little apartment they rented from a woman who had gone to Africa for vacation. I had a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen to myself, plus a bicycle (again borrowed from a friend of the production staff).
I didn’t have a lot of time on my hands, but what of the time I spent away from rehearsals I spent alone. I didn’t mind. Spending time alone is another thing I’ve also always been good at. It’s probably something most geeks and artists are good at. Doing it in a strange city is different from doing it where you live however. Even leaving out all the problems that arise from linguistic difference, you have to deal with an unfamiliar place, with things like unfamiliar forms of transportation and unfamiliar telephone systems. One of the more interesting things that you have to grapple with however, is what to do about food.
Granted, it’s always perfectly possible to just eat out, period. I did this before, during an art residency in Hong Kong, mainly because my sponsors boarded me in what was the equivalent of a business hotel. Without so much as a hot plate or toaster oven in the room, I surrendered to the pleasant inevitable of dining out every meal. There are definitely worse fates than being forced to eat out in Hong Kong, but I must say that as a rule, I prefer to have breakfast before I get out the door.
I view breakfast as part of a transition process between the civilization and the sleep of civilization. It’s something to have before gearing up and hitting the outside world in armor. It might even be something that makes the gearing up possible. If I had to go outside for breakfast in the winter, I think I would shrink a little bit inside every morning, until the day came when people passing me in the street would hear my soul rattling around inside me like a dried bean.
There’s probably a paper somewhere on the subject of colonial breakfasts compared with breakfasts in the empire. Something outlining the interaction of imperial customs with food preservation technologies and the processes of detour and substitution giving rise to mutant combinations that subsequently become cherished emblems of the colony. Fortified wines, condensed milk, evaporated milk. Colonial breads spread with salted butter and coconut preserves. Cured meats from the imperial center being supplanted with local salt fish, and so on and so forth. Random mutations of imperial recipes hardening into set meals that eventually become national emblems.
I mention this because I remember finding the signature Singaporean ritual of kaya toast and softboiled egg unpalatable, much preferring congee or a noodle soup. While I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater, I remember thinking of breakfast as an issue when I stayed in Hong Kong and in Singapore, the two places where I lived without a stove.
I suspect that I need comfort food in the morning and dislike the local variations on the theme of the fried breakfast that are similar to, but in the end resoundingly unlike some primal image of breakfast that’s apparently been burned into me without my knowledge. You’d think offerings of eggs and bacon/sausage would be a staple breakfast in ex-British colonies, but they aren’t. They’re indulgences served in hotels and hotel-associated restaurants and cost maybe two to five times what the average hawker meal would cost.
In Singapore I discovered that I could tolerate the blander Chinese dishes in the morning: buchi-buchi, soy milk, congee, some kind of noodles in soup—but that I couldn’t abide anything spicy—nothing from the Indonesian or Indian spectrum of flavors, not even nasi goreng, which is about as close to a sinangag breakfast as you’re likely to find outside the Philippines.
I didn’t have any such problems in Denmark. Aside from being free to make breakfast, the street was bursting with things I either loved to eat (like smoked salmon), or fresh versions of things I’d only ever eaten out of cans (like peaches).
Breads, cream and cheeses. Cured meats. The butcher on the corner made his own bacon; the fishmonger carried smoked salmon, eel and mackerel; the fruit sellers carried nectarines and blueberries aside from the peaches. I went a little bit crazy, maybe.
I’d have to say it was a good form of crazy. Before production went into full swing, I got into the habit of spending a half hour everyday making breakfast. Then I would photograph the plate and upload to Facebook before settling into my own little corner of paradise. I made something different every day.
Fried new potatoes bacon, eggs, tomatoes and goat cheese. Toast with creme fraiche and honey, topped with blueberries. Tomato arugula omelet, with roasted peppers and smoked mackerel. Blackberries in yogurt. Fried mushrooms with parsely, garlic and cheese. When I discovered an electric sandwich press in the back of a cabinet, I made fruit sandwiches and topped them with sour cream and honey.
I generally ate bread for breakfast, as it is the most convenient starch to eat. I think I have a high tolerance—as Filipinos go, anyway—for meals without rice. Still, I found that a day came when I found myself asking the titas that had hosted this huge Filipino party that their niece had invited me to, whether if, on top of the assorted foil-wrapped packages they’d loaded me with, I could have some of the rice to fry up for breakfast the day after. The titas seemed startled but approving. I think I was a bit startled myself. I’d always thought of rice/singangag as a delicacy rather than a necessity, but apparently it was one of those things whose necessity is only revealed in its absence.
Said day after was the play’s opening! I made singangag with mushrooms to accompany a fried egg, smoked salmon, coffee and a peach. A Filipino-Danish fusion breakfast for the day ahead. Given that rice was the only identifiably Asian thing in the fridge, I suppose it would have been hard NOT to make a fusion breakfast. Still, I remember liking the idea that it reflected the day’s coming enterprise. It was a good start to the day.