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It is fiesta morning. Before dawn, even before the church bells ring out the Saint's Mass, the band strikes up a brassy march, warming the night air and waking the populace. The cooks have been up a brassy march, warming the night air and earlier, stoking kitchen and backyard fires. The lechon, a sucking or full-grown pig, is turning on its bamboo spit. Stuffed capons are roasting, soup bubbling, rice cakes baking. Embroidered tablecloths are being pressed and spread. The entire house-from front door, now opened as wide as welcoming arms, to the yard swept clean of every dry leaf-is ready to celebrate the rituals of this special day.
Fiesta in the Philippines means many things. A celebration of the Saint's feast day. Thanksgiving for the Lord's and the land's bounty. A testimonial to labor and its fruits. An affirmation of human bonds. A toast to the good life.
It is a universal Philippines feast, the spirit prevailing in rural barrio or upscale Manila suburb. The difference between one and the other is marked only by the trappings of the feast: the richness of the board, the folks' manner of dress, the range of hospitality. Although words apart, both communities are caught in the fiesta spell, neither less spiritedly than the other.
Centerpiece of the fiesta is the festive table Whether it be an heirloom or something a Sunday carpenter put together, it is proud testament to the host's goodwill. It is set in the most conspicuous part of the house, dressed in the family's best linen adored with silver and flowers, and laden edge to edge with delicacies of the field and sea , market and grocery. It is both cornucopia of bounty and sacrificial altar, the last harking back to the Filipino ancients' practice of offering to nature spirits the best of their own gifts, in the hope that plenty would bring plenty, generosity beget generosity.
In place of honor is the lechon, stuffed with fragrant tamarind leaves or lemon grass, and spit-roasted a golden brown, its skin crips and crackling, it ears and tail emblems of delight awarded to special guests. So important is it in the Filipino feast that in Balayan, a coastal town in Batangas Province, a festival is held in its honor. The lechon, festooned with leaves and flowers, is paraded around town before meeting its destiny on the laden table.
Radiating from the lechon are choice dishes: beef rolls called morcon; chicken and turkey luxuriously stuffed; sausages and ham; fishes dressed in mayonnaise and a rainbow of vegetables and eggs garnishes; steamed crabs, prawns and lobster; noodles fat, thin, transparent and thick. Filling in every empty space are crystal dishes of relishes, dipping sauces and pickles in translucent strands, or cut like flowers and stars.
Desserts are on a separate side table, a testament to the national sweet tooth. Fruits freshly picked, or last season's harvest carved in floral shapes and preserved in syrup. From the native tradition, rice cakes and puddings sprinkled or glazed with coconut, and the milk candy called pastillas, wrapped in thin paper with intricately hand-cut tails. Chinese sweetmeats. American pies and cakes ,and a slew of Spanish sweets.
Part of the festiveness is working together in preparation, which is in fact pre-celebration that begins days ahead. Pigs, goats and cows are fattened, native cornfed pullets cooped up to encourage fat and prevent muscle, rice ground in stone mills.
The women of San Miguel de Maayumo (literally, Saint Michael of Sweetness) in Bulacan Province cut out with small sharp scissor-without a guide except for folk memory and skill-the hearts, flowers, stars, leaves and words like Remembrance and Mabuhay(long life/welcome) that decorate pastillas, wrappers. In Pakil, Laguna Province bakers mold cookies in the image of the Virgin of Turumba, the town's patron. In the towns of Sariaya and Lucban in Quezon Province, edible folk art comes in the form of brilliant wafer-leaves called kiping.
The best cooks from the farm or among one's relatives come unbidden, bearing their favorite knives, and all the skill and devotion of the living generations of one's clan. Grandmothers and master cook direct the kitchen; mothers, aunts and household help hang curtains, even as they whip up their specialties. Daughters and nieces polish the silver, wash the crystal and china, arrange flowers.
On visperas, the eve of the fiesta, the colored bunting-handmade and hang by the young-already flutters in the streets. The church has been cleaned from belfry to patio, the altar filled with flowers, the crowns and halos of images burnished bright, the wheeled palanquins for the procession decked with lights.
On the day of the fiesta, every home is an open house. The host, who had earlier called on the mayor, and parish priest, family elders and business associates, friends and friends of friends, now welcome all, even the stranger.
He leads the guests, in protocol as strict as that of a state dinner, to seats of honor: the men of the cloth, government officials, town professionals, members of the clan, and so on, in a hierarchy of regard and all-day table to which guests come in waves, not sitting them to gather around, sip the vino tinto, start on the soup, and eat, eat, eat.
Everyone shares in both the bounty and the spirit. As the close, or favored, guest leaves, he is given pabaon, a food package to take home, something that extends the hospitality to his family, to the next day, to memory.
By then the festive table is in disarray, a good sign. It has done its role: as a symbol of the Filipino's regard for family and friend, church and town; as pledge of his fealty to community, given in the language of eating and sharing, feasting and giving.