Seeing And Being: Kiam Marcelo Junio Fuses Genderqueer Identity And Filipino Food Culture In Webseries And Cookbook
The headline of an April 21, 2015, Washington Post article by Tim Carman declared, "At long last, Filipino food arrives."
And yet, haven't Filipinos been here in the US all along? Since the 1760s, yes, we have.
While defining "existence" can be a game of perspective or semantics, existing in the recognized public, in the cultural, political and social arenas, and in commericial and business worlds also connotes visibility and hence legitimacy. Filipino food may not have existed for some audiences in the US because there were no recognized Filipino restaurants. Across our wide experience, Filipinos live with, negotiate and transcend such invisibilities.
With their genderqueer performance persona Jerry Blossom, Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist Kiam Marcelo Junio addresses visibility and presence in "Filipino Fusions," a six-part online cooking show and cookbook.
WHO WILL BE THE NEXT FILIPINO FOOD NETWORK STAR?
In 2013, Kiam was approached by Inside the Artists' Kitchen, a food and arts journal that chronicles an artist's practice through a conversation at their home while cooking and sharing a meal. Kiam pitched the idea to create a cooking show with Filipino food hosted by their performance persona. (Author's note: Kiam's prefered gender prounouns are 'they' and 'their.')
"I decided to approach it through a queer lens by using my alter ego, Jerry Blossom, who I had performed for several years, in semi-drag," said Kiam.
They developed Jerry Blossom, initially, for burlesque -- an orientalism subversion and empowered pseudonym -- but it quickly became a way for Kiam to explore and express queerness and femininity.
"All of these things that I had [been] told not to be, growing up in a Catholic household, and then going into the Navy -- into this super-hyper-masculine environment. I needed a way to let out who I was, and all of the parts of me that I had been hiding."
Along their artistic career, Kiam has used Jerry Blossom in performance to claim spaces for queer expression. As the alter ego in Filipino Fusions, Jerry's confluence of various identities and experiences converge -- a queer one, a vegetarian one and a Filipino one simultaneously. This confluence of identity is where the name, "Filipino Fusions," comes from, not the inauthentic, anachronistic manner that most food historians understand the same term, according to this February 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal, "Don't Call It Fusion."
Before this project, Kiam had not used cooking or food in their artistic practice, though it was an idea that intrigued them for a long time. Kiam recounted why they wanted to do a cooking show. "[I told them,] I really want to delve more into Filipino food and Filipino cuisine, and reconnect to that culture because I feel like I've kind of been taken away from it -- some of it by choice, some of it by circumstances," Kiam remembered.
Filipino Fusions can be seen as a result of Kiam's desire to reconnect to their roots and to publicly represent their intersections of identity and culinary heritage amongst the resurgence of popular food culture in the US.
"I don’t know why, there’s not a lot of Filipino restaurants, and it’s fascinating to me because Filipino Americans are the second largest Asian-American population in the US," said Kiam during an Inside the Artists' Kitchen question and answer session in May 2014. "My work as an artist is questioning that invisibility and finding out why exactly that is, and what can I do to change that, because I do think it needs to be changed."
Kiam developed the Filipino Fusions show into a six part series, professionally produced by Inside the Artists Kitchen as a year-long digital residency.
Kiam chose the recipes for their social and historical value and to comprise a complete meal, coursing from appetizer to dessert: arroz caldo, lumpia, kare kare, pancit guisado, adobo and halo halo. In each video, Jerry Blossom introduces each dish with history before delving into the necessary ingredients. With these Filipino vegetarian versions, Kiam gives viewers seitan instead of ground pork, for example, in their lumpia, they also explain the departures taken from the traditional recipes. In this way Kiam respectfully modifies the standard. See Episode 3 on Kare Kare for a great example.
Describing their cooking show as "straightforward," Kiam said the goal was to leave viewers "hungry and [with] a need to cook and share... while looking fabulous."
As I watched the series unfold the vegetarian recipes, I found myself comparing it with the 'pop standard' Food Network shows hosted by celebrity chefs. Often during these cooking shows, the celebrity chefs share personal anecdotes and histories around food and food traditions while explaining the ingredients and techniques used to create a dish. Perhaps naturally, in echoing that medium, I found myself again falling into a cult of personality, asking who Jerry Blossom is and wanting to know how were the recipes significant to Jerry personally.
By design, Jerry Blossom's character, in semi-drag and in this form of narrative, feels personable and like a person.
Kiam explains the artistic choices behind the physical representation of their alter-ego. "Jerry Blossom is a little more accessible, less made-up, more as if you're just talking to somebody who looks different. Also Jerry Blossom exists on this feminine-but-not-quite-caricature of a woman. I keep my mustache sometimes just to throw things off. I don't completely go towards caricature, I try to humanize it." In presenting the character this way, Kiam asserts their queer and Filipino reality, their existence in this in-between space.
And, what could be more real than food? Something that is grown, touched, transformed, smelled, tasted and ultimately, that nourishes the body and sustains life itself?
"This version of Jerry is the most tangible, and is rooted from the figure of the "bakla" in Filipino culture as someone who transcends gender but is still tied to the present society and culture (and religion)," wrote Kiam to me in a direct Facebook message.
"With Jerry, I am always asking, 'If I were fully liberated, from societal norms and gender roles, what would I look like as a cooking show host, or a karaoke lounge singer, or a militarized Madam, or an alien goddess warrior?' Jerry is a shapeshifter and functions in many ways and looks different ways but is always rooted from the idea of total personal liberation while still tied to the corporeal form. Which, really, is just a metaphor for daily existence."
FILIPINO FUSIONS: THE CRITICAL COOKBOOK
After the digital residency finished, Kiam and Inside the Artists Kitchen wanted to put a capstone on the year's work. While the cooking show medium allowed Kiam to express ideas quickly and well; with other themes like colonization, diaspora and occupation, the same medium proved incapable. With Kiam's military service and previous art critiquing power and imperialistic systems, Kiam surely will have much
The book is authored by Kiam and includes artistic contributions from others, including recipes and other work. Kiam notes that the Critical Cookbook will "always talk about diaspora -- growing up in the US and knowing that you are from somewhere else."
Importantly, the main restriction of the online cooking show was that the audience never got to eat the food. During their year of residency, Kiam gave live cooking demonstrations as Jerry Blossom, and let the live audience sample the results. Watching a cooking show is a passive way to interact with food, which normally is a multi-sensory, immediate experience.
Kiam said, "That's always the drawback for me of these cooking shows -- and I love cooking shows -- is that you can't fucking taste the food!"
Empowering the audience to be able to cook Filipino food at home, and to have these recipes live, in the medium of a cookbook, on the audience's bookshelves, was a big motivator for Kiam.
"I want to give that to people. And that's my point, too, with the book: You can make this, here it is, here are the steps. You can do it," said Kiam.
Postscript. The Kickstarter campaign to fund the cookbook will only be funded if their total goal of $2000 is pledged by Sunday, May 10 at 2:45 AM CST. Currently $780 is pledged to the goal by 20 backers.