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The Delight of Recognition: Buko Pandan on "The Great British Baking Show"

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Part 4 of 4: The Delight of Recognition

Introduction:

In this four-part post, Kathleen DeGuzman examines seeing a Philippine dessert from her childhood on The Great British Baking Show. She combines autobiography with her training in Caribbean studies to undertake a kind of self-ethnography that rethinks Filipinx American colonial mentality within the context of Netflix, race, and representation.

The Delight of Recognition

The ultimate highlight of watching Magallanes on The Great British Baking Show came in Episode 5, where bakers were challenged to use “alternative ingredients”—first, a cake with no sugar for the Signature Bake and then gluten-free pita bread for the Technical Challenge. The final bake in each episode is called the Showstopper: contestants are encouraged to impress with style, technique, and flavor. In this episode, the Showstopper called for dairy-free ice cream rolls. Magallanes used what he called a “classic Filipino flavor”: buko pandan. “Buko” means coconut in Tagalog, and “pandan” refers to bright green leaves from a tropical plant used to add a layer of flavor to coconut- and rice-based dishes. When Magallanes described his ice cream roll to the judges, he allowed Hollywood to smell his bottle of buko pandan extract. Repulsed, Hollywood likened the extract’s scent to sunscreen. Hollywood’s reaction upset me, but also reminded me of my initial interactions with buko pandan. At family gatherings in South Florida, buko pandan was often present as a fruit salad with gelatin-like cubes made from sago, a tropical starch. The dish’s shockingly bright green color reminded me of Gak, the putty made by Nickelodeon Toys in the early 1990s, rather than an appealing dessert. But buko pandan’s mild, cool sweetness was the perfect treat in South Florida humidity. Even my mom was surprised I enjoyed the dessert so much and always made sure to take some home with us when our parties ended with families packing to-go containers of leftovers.

And here the was the beloved dessert of my childhood—not within the overwhelming dining landscape of the Bay Area (where options for Filipino-inspired cuisine alone range from vegan to “fusion” with the food trucks No Worries and Señor Sisig, respectively), but on public broadcasting via Netflix in my San Francisco living room!

I am aware that my thrill seeing buko pandan on The Great British Baking Show can suggest that I did not value the dessert until I saw it on a popular cooking show. This idea of requiring such legitimation is precisely what Lamming critiques in his reflection about the BBC that I quoted in my previous post. But colonial mentality does not capture the delight of recognition. If, following Hall, identity is “always is constituted within…representation,” then seeing buko pandan on The Great British Baking Show produced for me an unexpected moment of affirmation. My route toward understanding my connections to the Philippines may be roundabout and indirect. As I have recounted here, this path is shaped by my parents’ knowledge, theory drawn from Caribbean studies, and a baking competition that at times seems nostalgic for British imperialism. But perhaps this makes perfect sense for a racial group that sociologist Anthony Christian Ocampo describes as “the Latinos of Asia.”[1] Such complex yet illuminating formulations remind us to remain open to the productive surprises we might find when ostensibly withdrawing from the world to watch a show about cakes.

Kathleen DeGuzman is Assistant Professor of English at San Francisco State University, where she teaches courses in Caribbean literature and the novel. She received her Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University in 2015 and is completing a book manuscript that compares the Anglophone Caribbean and Victorian Britain as archipelagic cultures with surprisingly similar approaches to literary form. To learn more, visit her website.

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[1] See Anthony Christian Ocampo, The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).