Gilda, photographed by Isa Lorenzo.
Food & Drink Features

Gilda Cordero Fernando may be wheelchair bound, but her creative spirit is as free as ever

This renowned writer and publisher celebrated Philippine culture, art, food beyond its elitist confines, through her books, newspaper columns, artworks, and fashion—and she continues to live her life in vibrant color
Michaela Fenix | Oct 20 2019

Gilda Cordero Fernando always had something to say about culture, relationships, art. But she did that mostly in her writings. Her earliest was in her newspaper column “Tempest in a Teapot” in the old Manila Chronicle that my English teacher in high school would read to us every Monday morning as an example of good writing.

Gilda Cordero Fernando at Art Fair 2018.

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Gilda Cordero with husband Marcelo on their wedding day. Photo from The Last Full Moon

Her latest column was “Forever 81” in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The column name already projects her sense of humor and her ability to be in touch with the current culture and report on it, like the vocabulary of her grandsons that she translated for “golden girls” and beyond. Sadly, her “Forever 81” column stopped when she suffered a stroke. That genius within, that exuberance, that curiosity is now trapped within her frail frame. But up to today, she still goes around to parties, lunches, and launches, still dressed in antique wear or in the latest fashion the way she used to, and she never forgets the lipstick.

Holding a sculpture of her by Aba Dalena in June 2019.

 

GCF in books

Her books live on, so many of them. They contain her ideas, her experiences, her insights. They touch on history, art, culture, both ancient and current, the body and the mind, and food. Her earliest books were commissioned, but the latter books were published under her GCF (her initials) company.
Two of my friends were fortunate to have worked with her on a series of books. Cora Alvina, now director of the Museo ng Kaalamang Katutubo (MusKKat), was the production manager of the seminal series, Filipino Heritage: The Making of a Nation (Lahing Filipino Publishing, Inc, 1977), involving short articles on history, art, culture in 10 volumes. She enumerates other books she was involved with as well, either commissioned or produced under Cordero-Fernando’s publishing house, GCF Books: Culinary Culture of the Philippines, JeepneyStreets of Manila, Being Filipino, Philippine Ancestral Houses, Philippine Antiques and Heirlooms, Folk Architecture, The History of the Burgis, The Soul Book, The Body Book.

The History of the Burgis published in 1987

Assessing that work experience, Alvina recalls, “Working with GCF was exciting: she always had innovative ideas, a fresh approach to making books—we were not making coffee table books, but rather researched and illustrated cultural history books.”

The History of the Burgis (Bookmark, 1987) by Mariel N. Francisco and Fe Maria C. Arriola, published by GCF Books, I thought was brilliant. It was illustrated like a comic book making for fun reading and I thought especially for young readers. It was no surprise that later on, GCF would do several stories for children.

Another friend who had worked with GCF was Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, award-winning author of several books. She first met GCF’s husband, Marcelo Fernando, and when she casually asked him that she wanted to meet a writer with the same surname, he told her she was his wife and they should have lunch. 

Gilda Cordero and Marcelo Fernando celebrating their 50th anniversary.

Sta. Maria’s writing life began with GCF encouraging her to submit a short article for a magazine. Later GCF asked her to join the roster of writers for the books Filipino Heritage and Culinary Culture of the Philippines where, not only writing was important, but research as well. “Lesson learned,” Sta. Maria says. “Research before writing because it enriches the article’s main storyline. Also save your research because what one did not use could be reused later.”

The groundbreaking Culinary Culture of the Philippines published in 1976.

That lesson served Sta. Maria well as she went on to write many books on history and culture such as Household Antiques and Heirlooms (GCF Books, 1983), In excelsis: The mission of Jose P. Rizal, Humanist and Philippine national hero (Studio Five Design, 1996), The Governor General’s Kitchen (Anvil Publishing, 2006).

At the launch of Sta. Maria’s latest book, Kain Na: An Illustrated Guide to Philippine Food (RPD Publications, 2019) just this September, the food writing community was surprised that GCF was there in spite of her health challenges. It is the kind of support that Sta. Maria treasures since the very beginning of her writing career, that included encouraging talks and calls from GCF about her projects, especially when she went on her own the first time to write a column with Alvina called “Halupi: Spirits of Reminiscence” for The Manila Times.

GCF with Via Mare’s Glenda Barretto and Felice Sta. Maria at the Kain Na launch this September 2019.

On her books on food, my reader, GCF would say, was her husband Marcelo because it was he who ruled the kitchen and cooked. In her Ladies’ Lunch & Other Ways to Wholeness (GCF Books, 1994) written with Mariel N. Francisco, she writes, “In our family the men cook, the women (my daughter, daughter-in-law and I) sit around the dining table, very quiet, hoping the men will not notice that we are not in the kitchen.”

Ladies’ Lunch author Mariel Francisco with GCF.

GCF’s own life and thoughts can be found in The Last Full Moon: Lessons on my Life (UP Press, GCF Books, 2005) and Ladies’ Lunch. She had given me the latter and I was so engrossed that I read the book cover to cover overnight. In my review, I wrote how it felt like a Cursillo confession because everything was so personal and that I couldn’t imagine myself writing such private thoughts and actions.

 

GCF in person

My friends, including her son, Mol Fernando, presumed I knew her and he even said I was her groupie. But my first meeting with her was not about writing or food. It was exercise. As aerobics mates, I was amused at how she would do her own thing most of the time and not follow our instructor’s steps. I suppose all she needed to do was move, but in her own way and in her own time. And that is probably an apt description, as well, of how she lives her life and does her work.

Gilda Cordero Fernando with family during Christmas 2016.

I had just a few interactions with GCF. She would invite to a tertulia (small gathering) in her house and a few lunches outside. She would send cards that featured her paintings that taught us how age didn’t matter if one wanted to pursue another career. When we came to a dinner at her son Mol’s house which was beside hers, she did not join us because she said she had to watch her diet. Most of my later experiences with her were mostly reading her “Forever 81” column which would always make me laugh. In one keynote speech, she describes how she was “Apolinario Mabini on a wheelchair but without the brains, since I can’t even memorize my own speech.”

GCF at Art Fair 2017.

But the few interactions between us was made up for by this one out-of-town trip because it involved so many experiences and stories to tell. “Do I want to go with her to Laguna on a Good Friday?” It was a strange invitation, but having heard how trips with GCF were always an adventure, I said yes.

Celebrating her 80th birthday.

We met at her place before sunrise and drove to Lumban first. She wanted me to experience the Lenten rites by the townspeople. First, the men who participated in the flagellation arrived dressed in skirts instead of pants and all wearing lipstick. She explained that apart from flogging, dressing and looking like women was the ultimate insult and punishment for the men. And then the children arrived next to atone for their parents’ sins. They were wrapped in leaves from head to foot, rolling down the mountain so that swishing sounds were emitted as they did. When they landed, they hopped like frogs.

Later on when I bought the book Cuaresma (Bookmark, 2000), I saw her name again as editor with Fernando Zialcita. No wonder she was so familiar with those rituals. There would still be references to books she would later make as we moved to the next town.

At Pakil for lunch, she had a local cook do ginataang hipon (shrimp in coconut milk). It was part of her research for the book, Philippine Food and Life (Anvil Publishing, 1992). That lunch was an opportunity to see how she worked, how she took down notes, how she assessed what we were tasting, but very quietly, as if we were merely having lunch. When the book was launched, I asked her why she stopped at Luzon. GCF looked at me and said matter-of-factly that it was up to me to continue the work.

Philippine Food & Life published in 1992.

There were two other activities going on during that Good Friday trip. One was a heart-to-heart talk she had with a friend of ours who was thinking about an important decision that would not have been good for her and her family. It was the “mother Gilda” I was to see.

A younger GCF with her family. Photo from The Last Full Moon

The other activity happened in the car going to and from Laguna. GCF was busy sewing mostly appliqués into what looked like an antique kimona. Later, it turned out that she was preparing for a fashion show called “Jamming on an Old Saya” where old native wear was jazzed up, patched together. The clothes would be published in a magazine called SAVVY (when I subbed as editor) and would later be published in a book (Anvil, 1995).

Later, I found out that sewing at the time kept her mind occupied so she wouldn’t be nervous about the kidney transplant her son, Bey, was to have the next day with her other son, Mol, as the donor. It was Bey who told me later that his mother brought him a notebook while he recuperated at the hospital to write down whatever he wanted. Bey said that he surprised even himself when he wrote down recipes.

Nothing like that close quarters whole day experience would happen again. When she saw me at the Kain Na launch, she smiled and then ran her finger through the strips of woven Cotabato cloth which I had sewn on my plain white blouse. It was for me a sign of approval for my sort of “jamming” and that she still recognized and appreciated art when she saw it.

 

Family photos courtesy of Wendy Regalado