In the 1970s, I began working in a salmon cannery of Alaska as a teenaged boy to finance my college education. I was the youngest in a Filipino crew numbering over thirty. They were all male…in their 60s…and they all came to America in the 1920s. They are referred to as Manongs…specifically, Alaskeroes.
Food was never a problem because all the cooks and waiters were Filipino. The problem was where the food was served and consumed. The dining hall was segregated. The Manongs ate on one side of the room eating Filipino food. While Whites sat on the other side eating food that I preferred since I was American-born. For example, in my first meal, I sat where steaks and fries were being served. This was the White side. The Filipinos ate fishead soup and rice. When the waiter told me I was sitting on the wrong side of the room, I took my steak and fries and sat among the Manongs. As I sat, I noticed a word neatly carved into the wall. The word was “Pinoy”. I asked the Manong beside me what that meant. He proudly answered, “…that’s who we are…Pinoy”.
Throughout my Alaska summers, I would sit on the Pinoy side of the room. However, I would indulge in American food with rice…i.e, roast beef with rice, steak with rice, fried chicken with rice…anything with rice. The Pinoys would eat mostly soupy meals….pork sinigang, chicken sinigang, tinola, nilaga, etc. I believe they preferred to eat softer, soupy meals because their dentition dictated what they could eat. Many had missing teeth and/or no teeth. Therefore, their diet was limited to soft foods because their dentition was compromised.
After all the summers working in Alaska, I would always bring back two items that were 100% Pinoy: bagoong and pendang.
Bagoong was made from fresh guts of freshly caught King Salmon. While manually butchering each fish, the Manongs would mix the guts with sea-brined salt and place into 15 gallon wooden barrels. For two months, these barrels would sit quietly in the corner of my bunkhouse. When we left for home, I would pick up my barrel along with the rest of my luggage and bring it home. I would always open the barrel during Thanksgiving. The mixture of salmon bagoong with chopped tomatoes and onions is by far the ultimate condiment to go with turkey. No cranberry sauce for me. Turkey and bagoong. A true Pinoy Thanksgiving meal.
Pendang is dried fish. However, true Pinoy pendang is only made in Alaska. It is comprised of salmon bellies from freshly caught red salmon. There are five species of salmon: king, red, chum, coho and pink. The belly of red salmon is the best by far because it is oily yet very firm and looks fresh because it is red. This is the ultimate, prime cut of salmon to be dried. I would cut out dozens of salmon bellies while butchering….marinate in vinegar, salt, pepper and fresh garlic for a day…hang each one to dry. As soon as I got home, I would stir fry a couple of pendang…dip it in a Pinoy mixture of vinegar and garlic…eat them with a bowl of hot steamed rice and wash it down with a cold beer. A perfect Pinoy meal good anytime when paying tribute to my Alaskero uncles.