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Some thoughts, reflections on boiled octopus

A news release recently deposited itself on my e-mail screen, as they are want to do, with the predictability of a well-fed pigeon leaving its mark on a newly washed car.

Some of these deposits include items of actual interest, unlike pigeon messages, and contribute to my growing wealth of knowledge about things as mundane as guaranteed weight loss regimens or as unusual as technology that could revolutionize agricultural production. Most fall somewhere between the extremes.

This particular item clings closer to the interesting mark than to the mundane. The Philippines, according to the report, is moving toward self-sufficiency in food production. Biotech, the article stated, will play a key role in increased productivity.

I know a little about Philippine food resources, having spent all of two weeks in the country back in 1980, visiting my brother, who graduated from college and ran away to join the Peace Corps. I learned, for instance, that self-sufficiency comes in various guises in developing countries.

Somewhere north of Manila, about five hours by bone crushing, tail fatiguing, slow-as-Christmas bus, carved into the side of mountains, are rice terraces, which catch water from the frequent downpours of the rainy season to nourish the rice plants.

The natives harvest by hand and carry sheaves, equal amounts on each end of a pole balanced on their shoulder blades, down the mountainside. Sheaves dry on tin roofs and are threshed by hand, stored and used as needed.

The process has been thus for more than 4,000 years.

Self-sufficiency on a tiny island south of Manila depends on the sea. I remember early one morning watching a small boat, filled with some of the most colorful fish I've ever seen, pull onto the beach. Word spread that the fishermen had returned and soon a crowd formed as villagers rushed to select the best specimens for dinner.

The previous night my brother and I had stayed with one of his friends in the village. Earlier in the day the family had caught a small octopus in a tidal pool and were excited to have such bounty to share with guests. Boiled octopus, if anyone wants to know, tastes like rubber gloves marinated in fish bait. One should take small bites, because the more you chew, the more you need to, and you really don't want a bigger chunk in your mouth than you can gulp down whole.

I remember watching water buffalo pull plows through what I can only describe as mucky soil, preparing land for rice planting in the lowlands. Occasionally, a rice farmer used a slog-behind roto-tiller instead of the large, benign buffalo. On pineapple farms, owned by large food companies, workers used modern technology, but a lot of manual labor for harvest and packing.

The fresh-picked Philippine pineapple was the best I've ever tasted. Fish heads and rice, however, leave both palate and digestive system unsatisfied and somewhat suspicious of your intent.

I don't remember seeing a supermarket, but colorful open-air, farmers' markets plied brisk trade in every village. Rice was fairly abundant, as were diminutive, sweet, red bananas.

Packaged, canned, frozen, and preserved selections took up no shelf space. Sliced bread could still be the best thing; it was in such short supply. I don't recall hearing folks complain much about the selection, lack of brand name products or dearth of “designer” food items. Folks generally bought what was available and seemed glad to get it.

I'm sure supermarkets existed then in Manila and other larger cities, but back in the villages people lived pretty much hand-to-mouth, spending a good part of each day, fishing, hunting or shopping for food and then preparing meals from scratch.

It would be interesting, I think, to put modern day suburban consumers in that kind of situation and see how they fared. Perhaps they would begin to realize what a bargain their abundant supply of food is and would start to respect the folks who provide it.

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