And so it begins: the vilification of the Pinoy, the denigration of national identity… over a burger.
Not just any burger: the KFC Cheese-Top Burger.
Before anything else, I don’t work for KFC. This isn’t a paid post, nor am I doing this to manage KFC’s online reputation. This is just to call for some sobriety over the undeserved hate given to one chicken burger that just so happens to have cheese on top. I’m not saying that the Cheese Top Burger is the best burger in the world, or it’s one of the best ideas in the world. But I, for one, would seriously cast doubt on the idea that even at the lowest point of our identity crisis, this burger should define who we are.
I’m not saying that the KFC Cheese Top Burger is not a bad idea. What is a bad idea is to use this as an instrument of cultural cringe.
When you come to think about it, the cuisines of the world are replete with curiosities that are much like the Cheese Top Burger, but are not as vilified. Americans, for one, dip the roast beef sandwich twice in roast beef stock, and it’s featured on a travel show. The Koreans have made a soup of “army base” ingredients: ramen noodles, corned beef, Spam, and stock in one soup that would probably be right at home in a Monty Python sketch. Just a few days ago, Shanghaiist reported a burger that’s guaranteed to mortify even the most die-hard of Wendy’s Baconator fans. Then there’s the weirder stuff Japan has to offer, including box-shaped watermelons and cookies garnished with wasps.
But let’s keep things in perspective. KFC is an American chain. This burger is topped with American (processed) cheese (product). This burger would not have been launched without the consent and clearance of a regional group that probably has an American, a Singaporean, an Indian, and/or a Malaysian. And yes, lots of breads have cheese on top of them: pizza, for one, is essentially cheese on top of bread.
Those cheese-topped breads you see at Bread Talk or a specialty bakery, are just that: cheese on top of bread.
The Krispy Kreme bacon pull-apart has cheese on top of it, and it sells by the tray.
Fries have been dipped in sundae in this country, or are stuffed in the burger and eaten with gusto, and no one ever dared complain about it, much less use such behavior as an instrument of cultural cringe. And don’t get me started on putting a cheese-covered crouton on top of onion soup, baking it, and making it an icon of French cuisine.
Yet they’re perfectly fine, over there: the patriotic grub-eating in Australia, stinky tofu as a hallmark of classic Chinese cuisine, and here we are, beating ourselves up over a cheese-topped burger - American processed cheese on top of a European sandwich with an American-style fried chicken fillet - and oooh and aaah over balut featured on Fear Factor. I don’t “criticize Filipinos” a lot but it really weighs heavily on our problem with priorities and perspective.
It’s a burger. The rice burger sold by the millions in this country when it was around; the cheese-topped ensaymada selling by the hundreds of thousands everyday. And yet for some of us the analogue of national identity is a variation on the American chicken burger prepared in the Philippines. And a burger is “supposed to be” made of ground beef, besides: what does this make of turkey bacon, or fish patties, or vegetarian bacon bits? I hope, probably against it, that those few statements highlight and underscore the problems and pitfalls of what we try to pass off as “cultural criticism.” What’s valid is to vilify the burger for what it is. What’s invalid is to reduce the country’s complications and complicatedness to a novelty that isn’t even identified with our cuisine.
Which brings me to another crux of the matter: our self-loathing has expanded to – and somewhat reduced to – the nitty-gritty of a burger. A burger. A lot like making reviews of movies you never watched. Or going to a restaurant, getting served food not to your liking, and comparing the entire nation to the crusts and crumbs of a dish that didn’t even come from here. We’ve somehow become so alienated with our culture but so embroiled in its criticism that we, the people who are actively participating and living in this culture, are outside looking in, calling it “critical” and “objective” when it never really is, taking quite a skewed view of who we are, and a skewed view of the metaphors we use to skew and skewer ourselves with.
And there’s where cringe really starts: not “colonial mentality” (we are, after all, products of our colonial history, but more on that when I feel like it), but cultural alienation. Had we known about the curiosities of our neighbors and the curiosities of ensaymada and a Krispy Kreme Pull-Apart, it would have been a different story.
Not that there’s anything invalidating with that or making the opinion wrong, it’s just all the more tragic that the tragedy we’re painting for our nation is much more tame than the tragedy we paint for ourselves. That we become the cheese-topped burger of our own being: curiosities in a world full of people coming into terms with their selves and the idea of selfhood, but we try all the more to get out of the grasp of our own coming-to-terms.
And a burger factors in on that. Believe me, when you eat it, it isn’t so bad.