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Tinkering with Heirloom Futures: The Journey of a Few Grains of Rice

Carlos managing the back of the house at RiceBar | Elaine Gan
At the RiceBar | Elaine Gan | Elaine Gan
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Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with UCLA's Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS), with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA’s documentary film program in the School of Theater, Film and Television. The third storyline explores current innovations and visions for ecological, equitable food systems. Find more stories envisioning Food Futures here.

Close to 5,000 vendors of gems, gold, silver, and designer jewelry from all over the world fill downtown L.A’s Jewelry District. In the middle of this busy community, an unusual little food counter called Rice Bar serves valuables of a different kind, namely heirloom rice or grains that are grown organically in the Philippine Cordilleras. How are futures made through these heirlooms?

I dropped by Rice Bar one morning just before the lunch rush to find out about the heirlooms from chef-owner Charles Olalia, who opened the place to rave reviews in 2015 and has influenced a rising wave of Filipino eateries in L.A. since then. Olalia opened his second restaurant, Ma'am Sir, in Silverlake in June 2018.

Quiet and easygoing, Olalia was running the front that day with a watchful eye on each bowl served. Three large rice cookers hold court behind the marble counter. On any given week, they might contain Cotobato black rice from Mindanao, Ulikan red or aromatic violet rice from the Cordilleras, white Thai Milagrosa, or yellow rice sautéed with garlic. To any of these, a main viand — ulam in Tagalog — is added. The ubiquity of Spanish words in the menu, as with any Filipino menu, is a trace of the Spanish crown's long occupation from the 16th to the late 19th centuries. Consider longganisa pork sausage, free-range chicken adobo, bistek or braised angus beef marinated with soya and calamansi, caldereta or slow-simmered beef stew, and lechon kawali or twice-fried pork rind. 

Rice cookers at RiceBar | Credit: Elaine Gan
Rice cookers at RiceBar | Elaine Gan

One item in particular stands out because it embodies still other traces: Spam and egg sandwiched in pan de sal, a Spanish term for salt bread. Unlike the other homemade ulam, Spam® comes in a can, a throwback to the Second World War and American occupation. After the war, Spam was sold at Post Exchanges, or PXs, at Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base in Luzon, then the largest U.S. military bases in the Pacific. Spam has since become a staple in Filipino households. And the egg, well, eggs always take me to Donna Haraway's essays (must-reads) about the historical contingencies of the chicken industrial food complex.

Histories mix and worlds come together in each bowl of rice, in each Spam and egg pan de sal. How are futures made from traces like these?

Cooking is a tinkering practice. Philosopher Annemarie Mol describes tinkering as a "persistent activity done bit by bit, one step after another, without an overall plan." While eating at the counter, one is immersed in the lively sounds and garlicky smells of lots of tinkering. Much of this is done by the second person at Rice Bar: Carlos. 

RiceBar Chef | Credit: Elaine Gan
Carlos at RiceBar | Elaine Gan

I visited Rice Bar another day only to find it closed for a big event. Luckily, Carlos was receiving deliveries and invited me in for a chat. How did he come to work at Rice Bar, I asked. Carlos smiled and drew a breath as he whipped us up some bowls of adobo and sinangag or garlic fried rice, with atchara, a delightful relish of fermented papaya. 

Carlos' answer was a story about friendship, rather than employment. There was an afterschool program at his high school in south Central. Olalia was then the executive chef at Patina, a Michelin-starred restaurant serving sophisticated French-American cuisine at the Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown. Olalia was training summer interns as part of the program and asked Carlos — the most conscientious and talented of the bunch — to stay on. After high school, Carlos lost touch. A few years later, he was working for a restaurant down the street and happened to walk by Rice Bar, which Olalia opened after leaving Patina. They locked eyes, reconnected, and for a second time, Olalia trained Carlos to cook and run the kitchen, now at Rice Bar. 

Friendship, like cooking, is a tinkering practice: done bit by bit, one day at a time, making futures possible without plan.

The heirlooms at Rice Bar are grown by farmers of mountain provinces in northern Philippines. The term "heirloom" can be misleading. While it might suggest that the rice has been passed on like an antique piece of jewelry for generations, in reality, the rice is actively cultivated and harvested by hand every year, in synchrony with rain, water supply, soil, rock or mud walls, insects, plants, and forests, to name a few. These practices have been repeated and handed down for centuries. To farmers, rice is life and death — familiar, longstanding, everyday cycles that condense into different tastes, aromas, and textures. Heirloom grains are not objects to be inherited but a web of relations made through kinship, exchange, and a great deal of serious tinkering. It is these relations that connect this lunch counter in downtown L.A. to rice fields in the Philippine Cordilleras.

Mary Hensley has supplied Rice Bar with heirloom grains since it opened three years ago. Based in Montana, she runs a small operation called Eighth Wonder and the Cordillera Heirloom Rice Project which works with farmers' cooperatives in four provinces (Kalinga, Ifugao, Mountain Province, and Benguet) to gather, package, and market their rice in the U.S. Hensley knows the rice intimately, having worked in Kalinga as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1970s. The best part, she told me excitedly, was the rice — the daily tastes and smells of different kinds of rice. She returned to Kalinga 20 years later and sadly, found that many of the rice terraces that she had remembered from her first stay were eroding. 

In 2000, Hensley teamed up with a fellow graduate student from the Philippines, Vicky Garcia, and together, they began to design a business plan that could benefit farmers and raise money to repair their terraces. As their first step, Hensley and Garcia went back to the villages. For three months, they walked from one village to the next, visiting over 100 villages to ask farmers, mostly women, whether they would sell their rice for export. It was a novel concept. Farmers bartered their rice and did not sell commercially; a trader came by once in a while, but hardly constituted a market. Nevertheless, farmers agreed unanimously. Having received no assistance from the government or NGOs for decades, they had nothing to lose. 

By the end of the year, the farmers had harvested and hand-pounded 17.5 metric tons of rice in surplus (the equivalent load of a 20-ft. semi-trailer), ready for Hensley and Garciato export. It took another two years to raise enough money to prototype processing equipment that could handle the thick-shelled grains that are unique to Cordillera rice. (The machine design is now used throughout.) Eventually, the project was able to develop a standard selection of varieties based on volume, place of origin, and market tastes. In partnership with 18 villages, the project began grouping varieties that shared similar grain characteristics into a consistent product line, for example, Ulikan Red, Black, Violet, and Tinawon. By 2014, the farmers were exporting 30 metric tons per year. While the volume is miniscule in comparison to the millions of metric tons that the Philippines exports each year, the project has shifted how farmers see themselves in relation to food markets beyond their provinces.

After 18 years with Eighth Wonder, things on the ground are changing, Hensley tells me. Younger groups, such as Social Products, are partnering with farmers in Cotobato, Davao, and Mindanao in southern Philippines to put more organic farm produce on the export market. Some farmers have decided to market their own rice domestically; a few participate in international food conferences to put heirloom rice on the menus of famous chefs; many are moving away in search of jobs in larger towns. Multiple connections and futures that were previously unimaginable are being made in these terraces, living landscapes that have been shaped — mostly by hand, without electricity or chemicals — for thousands of years.

Tinkering makes and unmakes futures, bit by bit, one day at a time. Who is doing the tinkering and for whom?

Door at Ricebar | Credit: Elaine Gan
Door at Ricebar | Elaine Gan

Over the last few weeks, I have followed (and eaten) a few grains of rice that travel between a village rice terrace in Kalinga and a lunch counter in Los Angeles to consider precious connections that are often missed by big headlines, big models and big pictures. I think these gems might tell us something important about other worlds that are possible. Because they are already here.  

With special thanks to Allison Carruth, Szilvia Ruszev, Noa Kaplan, and Dave Lopez.

Top image: Carlos managing the back of the house at RiceBar | Elaine Gan 

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