One time, as I was having a late lunch, a man quietly sat down and lingered at an empty table beside mine. I glanced at him and I saw he was avidly eyeing me, or rather what I was eating. He appeared like a normal person, not untidy at all.
I could intuit what he wanted so I hurried to finish my meal. Then as soon as I pushed back my chair and stood up to go, I could sense him tense up, poised to pounce on his intended prey: the pieces of beef and mushroom rice that I deliberately left for him.
I walked off and after a beat, I looked back just as he was sliding into the chair that still had the warmth of my butt. Totally self-absorbed, he ate with gusto, wielding the fork and spoon I’ve just used and insouciantly sprinkling sauce over the tidbits. I watched him for a while, glad that he liked what I chose from the day’s menu.
Have you ever seen a jackal or hyena, the scavenger of the African wilderness that devours carcasses of animals left over by other predators? That’s the image I had in mind when I composed a short poem about that incident.
Then there’s this story my friend Del related to me some time ago. He usually collected his family’s meal leftovers and would leave the assorted bits outside the gate of his home for the stray cats in their street. Then one evening, as usual, he put the “simi” or “tira-tira” (leftovers) on the plastic container outside their gate. Suddenly from out of nowhere, an unkempt man rushed to snatch the said leftovers, ahead of the cats. He smiled slightly at Del as if to thank him and then slinked back to his wife and kid waiting in their kariton.
It was then that he discovered that there are homeless scavengers who manage to survive on pagpag. The term comes from the way scavengers shake the dirt off the morsels or pieces of meat they recover from garbage bins outside restaurants, which they then cook or heat again. What for us is leftover waste is for some a day’s meal.
In old China, and even among Chinese today, when they meet an acquaintance or neighbor in the alley, they don’t say the usual “how are you?” Instead their standard greeting is ni chi le ma translated as “have you eaten yet?” This should not necessarily be regarded as an invitation to have a meal together.
So what does this colloquial greeting actually mean? Where did the phrase come from?
Cheuk Kwan, a documentary filmmaker, wrote a book entitled “Have you eaten yet?” According to him “because of war, famine and poverty, people in old China did not always have enough to eat. Perhaps that is how these words became an expression of concern for someone’s well-being.” No wonder in traditional Chinese culture, food is strongly regarded with the utmost importance. An old Chinese proverb says, “The common people regard food as heaven.”
Remember our old folks who used to make us eat the last morsel of food on our plate? Otherwise you wouldn’t be allowed to leave the table until you’ve consumed everything on your plate. Take only what you can finish. Their usual refrain was that people in Africa don’t even have food to eat, so be very grateful there’s food on the table.
But from what I see nowadays, the day may come when the phrase “kumain ka na ba?” would become our customary greeting like the Chinese ni chi le ma. We could be facing a future where food will become so scarce that eating will be our main preoccupation.
Lately, more and more kids from the informal community living in makeshift homes along our creek are going out on the streets and knocking on gates, asking for a little money to buy rice, or scraps of food and even just biscuits. It was never like this before.
Inflation continues to take a big bite on prices of food, specially frozen meat and fish and fresh vegetables.
According to a SWS survey, 10.4 percent of Filipino families have experienced hunger in the second quarter of 2023. That’s an increase from the 9 percent in the first quarter. As if this were not bad enough, breaking news are telling us the price of rice is seen going up by P40 per kilo.
In America, the reputed land of abundance, I learned that as much as 40 percent of America’s food supply gets thrown away every day. This, according to estimates, could feed the world’s nearly one billion malnourished people.
Shockingly, forests are being destroyed to make space for growing food, which will never be eaten and just discarded.
Yet we are induced to eat and eat, sometimes beyond contentment. Eat all you can! Smorgasbord galore! Unlimited rice! Unlimited barbecue! Day in and day out, I’ve observed people lining up in eat-all-you-can restaurants.
What I find most repulsive are the Korean produced mukbang videos that feature a person gorging on copious amounts of food while talking to the audience about it. It’s supposed to be entertaining!
Often I wonder what happens to the excess food and other perishables that are not consumed at the end of the day? I don’t know if this is true but many supermarkets have a policy of locking up food that is just past the sell-by date and disposing of it, instead of giving it to feed the homeless.
We are all guilty one way or the other of being “takaw mata” (greedy eyes). We can change things around by buying only the food we are going to eat. Let’s be fastidious and moderate eaters and take only whatever we can finish. Let’s normalize recycling leftovers as well as reheating dishes and creatively combining leftovers to make new and unique meals.
Even if you cannot stand to eat leftovers, you can still find a way to offer the food to others and that includes the cats and dogs that are out there in our street.
We need to set up food banks in the Philippines where excess or unsold food can be deposited for distribution to the poor and the hungry.
Most of all, we need to change our attitude. Never take food for granted, because it is precious. Let’s respect the food itself because its nutrients will add life to our years and years to our life. Have an appreciative heart as each dish opens its treasures to you.
Be mindful always of what someone said: “Whenever excess food is thrown out, it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry!”