Ancient Food and Modern Food Security

Mostly historian says that you can only learn one ethic group’s culture by tasting their own foods.True enough, as I am sharing with your through this press release on how Batanes makes their culture rich through their own cuisine.

A new book about old food speaks to future food security.   A Delicate Balance: Batanes Food, Ecology, and Community describes food in the Batanes Islands as a complicated system that remains essentially a non-cash blueprint for long-term survival.

Authors Corazon S. Alvina and Marian Pastor Roces brought together up-to-date work on Batanes by archaeologists, folklorists, historians, and local Ivatan experts.  Collectively, these experts paint a picture of a stable food culture based on yams and tubers, fish, land and marine mollusks, the occasional pork and goat dish, and the daily pickings from a remarkable variety of seeds, flowers, and growing tips.

The archaeologists’ findings are enlightening. As re-told with their permission by Alvina and Pastor Roces, the Ivatan people continue to farm, collect and hunt the same food farmed, collected and hunted by their ancestors for 4,000 straight years!

The bones of dolphinfish turn up in Batanes archaeological digs of that age. This same fish is at the heart of Ivatan fishing culture, which ritualizes reciprocal relations in certain fishing communities; and solidifies these relationships outside any market, thus maintaining deep bonds that assure social cohesion.

The authors (one of whom, Pastor Roces, insists she “is not a foodie writer”) shift food discussion away from gourmanderie, into a lite application of Complexity Sciences.  The book recognizes and describes food tradition as created, in the past, in-between the ways a society is organized internally and the dynamics

Both authors quickly qualify: the ancient ways still exist in Batanes. The ancient foods also exist, which likely means that the Ivatan people knew well how to husband resources through aeons, without depleting or otherwise compromising nature. And while the authors make sure to point out that food habits are radically changing, particularly with thoroughgoing links with the cash economy now in place, there remains enough facets of the old nature-and-culture system to recognize its form and its reasons for enduring.

The book introduces these complicated matters with a lightness of touch. The stunning Neal Oshima photographs support the authors’ impulse to bring in more people to see what a “delicate balance” looks like. That Oshima is a veteran photographer shows in images that clearly communicate the Ivatans’ dignity and quiet joy. One understands that this dignity comes from rare knowledge of survival.

It is that knowledge the book successfully calls attention to. It is knowledge that can play a significant part in discussions about disaster preparedness, especially in the Philippines, which is vulnerable to the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The Ivatan people have survived annual numerous typhoons in their rocky, isolated, and tiny islands for thousands of years.

The basic elements of their system is a very strong cultural emphasis on collective life (no house, boat, event is made without intricate patterns of participation); an interweaving of ritual and food hunts (most especially the annual season for catching the dolphinfish); continuing cultivation of effective food preservation techniques; and, until recently, a complete reliance on endemic and indigenous species.

Just the numerous yam and tuber varieties alone — of great colors, textures, and consistencies — make a case for endemic and indigenous staples. But yam and tubers are moreover survivor species as well. They are underground, still growing, beneath weather difficulties.  The Ivatans plant and pull them out in cycles that are in rhythm with the seasons and the different challenges posed by these seasons.

It may very well be true that food security for the future, of communities of great size, can no longer derive wisdom from ancient ways. However, as in the Batanes case, 4,000 years is a long to time survive. The food security experts may be remiss in not giving this cultural achievement enough attention.

“A Delicate Balance: Batanes Food, Ecology and Community” is available for purchase and priced at P3,850 via

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *