An anthropologist as she or he wanders must have food. As an anthropologist who is deeply involved with food, cooking and associated wanderings, I have decided to post thoughts on a special food
Sky Flakes crackers are the Philippines version of American saltines. And no, this is not an infommercial. Sky Flakes are simply a beloved fast slow food or slow fast food or maybe just food for my soul…soul food. My most recent brush with Sky Flakes was mixed blessing. I decided to make a chicken liver paté consumed with a good red wine and, yes, Sky Flakes. The cooking went well. Then, the pate had to be cooled. By the time that was done, two days had passed. So, I decided to unmold it. Catastrophe. Even with heating the mold, it stuck and then came out messed up. Bad mood. Bad bad mood. Then, sat down to have wine, pate and Sky Flakes. A dog got in the way; dogs likes paté. Argument over the dog. End of pate and wine…and Sky Flakes. I did return, alone, another day, to the pate, and it was tasty. But except for the crackers, the fun was gone.
Sky Flakes, however, go way back in my Philippines oriented life. I always loved saltines back in the State of Maine, or oyster crackers with oyster stew. There’s something homey and comforting about this kind of food. So, I had a predilection for this style of crackers. Simply put, Sky Flakes became a comfort food in the Philippines and later in Hawaii. I traveled to the Philippines in the summer of 1972, shortly before martial law was declared. I visited Palanan, Isabela and the Agta along Disuked beach and north up to Malibu River in Cagayan. I ate Sky Flakes. I had no idea how essential the crackers would become as my wife Annie, our son Marcus and I returned for long-term anthropological research among our Agta hosts. The Agta are an ethnic group, one of the Philippine’s many, but one which still then lived in little family clusters and by hunting forest game, riverine fishing, and gathering of forest and littoral foods. Food was never plentiful; hungry days were frequent. Among the Agta all food is shared. Tucking away a bit for a private moment is not the everyday pattern.
Annie, Marcus and I lived with families of Agta, first in Palanan and during our second field session on coastal Cagayan by the Malibu and Nanadukan Rivers. We lived in in lean-to shelters in the dry season and in tiny thatched houses during the rains from October or November through into January. Usually we stayed two or three months before a break. The rainy season was cold and wet. A struggling fire of wood collected from the forest kept us warm. Cans of Sky Flakes and, with luck, butter cookies kept morale high. We shared Sky Flakes with our Agta hosts when we arrived from a trip out to Palanan town or from Manila. We didn’t share all our supply. I admit it; we engaged in mild hoarding. We needed late night pick-me-ups, as some need a drink of gin or whiskey. Oh so quietly we’d pry the lid off the can. Yes, in those days Sky Flakes came in reusable cans with lids that were air tight unless abused and bent. Lid off, a few crackers were carefully, silently extracted and slowly savored nibble by nibble. Then, lid back on, the can went into semi-hiding. Empty tins were useful and treasured as water proof containers for cameras, film, anything that rain splattering into the lean-to might soak and ruin. The tins were sized right for carrying in a backpack as we moved from campsite to campsite or back and forth from Manila. But the heart of it all is a lean-to dwelling, by a river up in the mountains or in back of a surf rumbling beach on the Pacific coast, a low fire smoking, and cups of instant coffee , or perhaps ground burned corn kernels, with butter cookies or Sky Flakes. Best of all Sky Flakes. This kept the anthropologists safe and sound -psychologically. This is food nostalgia at its best.
Annie reminds me of Sky Flakes in her past and a context a bit less nostalgic. Growing up in a provincial Philippines town, she knew Sky Flakes earlier than did I. When ill one of her foods was, yes, Sky Flakes. So sometimes the two are brought together, yet illness and food provisioning has it upsides too. Her beloved grandmother, her mother’s mother, cared for her in many ways, so in illness she may not only recall her food but her grandmother’s presence. So with me, in rural Maine, USA. No Sky Flakes when sick, but when lucky my mother and grandmother, my mother’s mother again, providing toasted bread laden with butter and poppy seeds right out of the oven, or Nabisco saltines with hot soup.
Back in Hawaii one encountered little pleasures. Imagine visiting China Town down King and Beretania Streets, visiting Chinese and Filipino stores and discovering up on a back shelf, Yes! Sky Flakes in the great square tins. Life was good. And year later, in Chesapeake, Virginia, where Marcus worked and where innumerable Filipinos lived, finding plentiful Sky Flakes. Surely this is part of the Filipino diaspora. Now that Annie and I have returned for good to the Philippines, Sky Flakes are always in the cabinet by the bar, back from the dining table (where I began with wine, paté and the crackers.
Sky Flakes have evolved, for good and bad. Now one can buy tingi-tingi packets, three crackers in a cellophane wrap, or buy scads of these in a larger pack. Keeps things fresh and crunchy, I suppose. I usually buy these as it favors limiting my intake. But I do miss the metal boxes. The plastic boxes are ok but not for carrying into the wilds. Here in the house they are used to store rice, cookies and so on, and to sit empty one on top another in the panty. Sky Flakes have evolved other ways too. No longer is one limited to the unique taste of the white original. An explosion of variants tempt one. Garlic flavored, Omega 3 (ugh), Oat Fiber, and as I sit here and write, I am testing Onion & Chives Sky Flakes. Not bad, but my standbys are the oldy and goody, the original. As an aside, I refuse to try the latest thing, Sky Flakes with sweet flavored fillings between two “original” crackers. I know its is good marketing; Filipinos are mad over sweetness and flavors, but one has to draw a line. Heavens, I stopped at an expressway gas station convenience store back along and sought to buy Sky Flakes to munch on as we drove on to Baguio. None! Or only a variety of filled “cookie” Sky Flakes. No way, Jose.
Sky Flakes have lots of uses. A meat loaf is enhanced with crushed crackers. A mac and cheese is best baked with a Sky Flakes topping. Classy imported jams and jellies, or even the overly sweet Baguio strawberry jams make a coffee and Sky Flakes offering for drop-in guests. I might even deign to eat this if the jam is from Europe. Sky Flakes and French blueberry jam! Or the Maine, USA, Peach Amaretto Jam by Stonewall Kitchen from Rustans…hoo boy. The plain crackers with Clara Olé Mango Jam is A-OK. Sky Flakes and Philippines made durian jam can’t be beat. Well, lots of Philippine products go with the crackers. Sardines, liver spread, boiled tongue, peanut butter (of course!) and you name it.
As I write I live in a house with nine dogs. I call my residence Dogistan. So what, you say? Well, EVERY TIME I go to the cabinet to get a pack, Sam is immediately by my side. As soon as the plastic wrapper crinkles, Pinky, Pablo and Buddy are standing by. I have to take two packs. I have to share. It is expected. Dogs like Sky Flakes too.
Sky Flakes did give me a small crisis of conscience back along. Shopping in Holiday Mart on Bokawkan Road, I had picked up some Sky Flakes when I walked past a rack that featured Rebisco Whole Wheat Crackers. Now anything with whole wheat attracts me. I looked. I thought…I wonder…am I being disloyal? Unfaithful? Is this like adultery? I would like to try, to taste. I weakened and grabbed a package. You know, they tasted good. Sweet as sin. I do add Rebisco to my diversified palate now. No regrets. I can still always have Sky Flakes on hand. And someday, hopefully in the far future, as I lie on my deathbed, someone will hand me Sky Flakes. The original please. Just leave the box.