I bought this cookbook a few years ago. When I first saw it, I was eager to look through it because my Uncle Pete was interned at the infamous Bilibid camp in Manila as well.
While the book does not have any recipes from my Uncle Pete, I discovered a remarkable story about hope.
I do not think that what took place in Bilibid was unique during WWII, and at some point I plan to research the subject further. I do believe any time human beings are forced to exist in circumstances where fear, abuse and extreme physical hardship are constant companions, they will turn to sources of comfort to help them hang on. This is what happened in Bilibid prison.
When Colonel Halstead C. “Chick” Fowler returned home after the war, having been a POW for 40 months, he had with him a small bundle of envelopes that he had saved from the few letters he was allowed to receive while a prisoner. He had carefully split these envelopes open, and then written down on the inner sides, scores of recipes collected from his fellow POW’s. Halstead’s aunt, Dorothy Wagner then compiled these recipes into a cookbook.
In the forward Wagner wrote for Recipes out of Bilibid, she draws us a portrait of these men:
Against frustration, suspense, and calculated or whimsical cruelty they armored themselves with a humor incomprehensible and exasperating to their captors. But the ceaseless clawing of hunger, spreading from the nerves of the stomach to every fibre of their being they defeated by low, side-mouthed talk quickly broken off and as quickly resumed. No matter how the conversation began, it always turned to food, the food the prisoners had once relished and were determined to enjoy again. For they talked in the future tense, harking back to the past only to make concrete their plans when they should finally be rescued. They gave reality to their dreams by dwelling, not on the flavors of sentimental recollections of feasts, but on a painstaking accuracy in describing the constituents of the dishes they remembered and longed for and resolutely purposed to enjoy again.
Most of the men who shared recipes had no formal culinary training, but were simply recalling times they had been enlisted to help their mothers prepare meals. Debates about correct ingredients and proper cooking techniques sometimes became heated, but in the end, either by word of mouth or scraps of paper, many men sent their favorite recipes as they remembered them to Fowler, when they learned what he was secretly doing.
Wagner goes on to say in the forward that she prepared these recipes for her own family, and that they kept her family not only well fed, but entertained as well. The book is divided by countries-American, British, Chinese, Filipino, French, Mexican, and so on, and shows not only how diverse the POW population was, but that finding comfort in the discussion of food was universal.
I found this passage especially poignant in that Wagner tells us how implicitly she trusted the recipes as they were written.
I learned to respect the penciled directions and to follow them confidently. Never did I find the time and labor wasted…
Though their substance was tragically wanting, their shadow, bright with memory and warm with hope, helped to keep alive men imprisoned by the war.
I can’t help but wonder what Pete’s favorite recipe might have been. I can only pray that it gave him the hope of happier times to come.