Photo: Emily Long
It’s hard to describe yourself in a sentence; how can you reduce yourself to just a short series of nouns and verbs? But Laurel Fantauzzo, 28, does an admirable job. After being initially thrown off by the qustion, she responds, “I’m portable, I’m open-hearted, I like to ask a lot of questions, and I’m often hungry.”
She’s not kidding, especially about that last adjective. Laurel’s love for food informs her life. She is a walking Zagat guide and seems to know all the hot spots, the underrated holes-in-the-wall, the best places to eat. In the past, she even penned restaurant write-ups for New York magazine’s Web site, NYMag.com.
Laurel put all this gustatory expertise to work last year when she traveled to the Philippines on a Fulbright research grant for her project, “Jolli Meals: The Rise of Filipino Fast Food.” She spent seven months in and around Manila, sampling local fare, studying the history and culture of Filipino fast food, and writing, writing, writing.
“I’ve always been fascinated with how food shows a people’s history and identity, especially with the Philippines, where the food so often gets an unfair bad rap,” she says.
Laurel, who is Filipina Italian American, says the trip was inevitable. “I knew a long stay in the Philippines was something that should happen in my life, personally.” This trip had been brewing since 2007, when Laurel submitted her Fulbright application for the first time. In 2009 she submitted a second application, and in April 2010 she was named an alternate. In June 2010 she learned that she had been chosen as a principal candidate, and finally in May 2011, she packed up her things and headed to the Philippines.
When asked how she felt upon learning she’d been made a principal candidate, Laurel said she was happy. “It felt like I’d been throwing my body against a wall and all of a sudden it was like a door had opened and I toppled through it,” she added.
Laurel grew up in southern California, where Filipino food was abundant. She spent two years at UCSantaCruz and then transferred to Sarah Lawrence College. After graduating, she lived in Brooklyn for five years. Currently, she is enrolled at the University of Iowa, working on her MFA in creative nonfiction.
“I’ve always liked Filipino food, and I grew to love it more after moving away from California, because it wasn’t as widely available to me,” Laurel says. She got the idea to combine this love of Filipino food with her other love, writing, after doing a routine write-up for NYMag.com. The first Jollibee location on the U.S. east coast was about to open in Queens and she had been asked to pen a blurb about the insanely popular Filipino fast food restaurant.
“Jollibee is nothing less than a fast food and business deity in the Philippines,” Laurel explains. “And the opening day line was about six hours long, with Filipinos and Filipino Americans driving in from Maryland, Vermont, Virginia, and so on. So I thought, there is something quite deep to this, as far as the experience of nationalism as enacted through fast food. And eventually Fulbright agreed.”
In addition to gaining knowledge about Filipino culture and acquiring a series of excellent writing clips, she has evolved as a person as a result of her Fulbright research project. “I suppose the biggest thing is, I feel more portable, I have a much bigger community of people who care about me and support my voice as a writer, and I feel like Manila is certainly a home I’d be comfortable in,” Laurel says. “I suppose I learned that I’m quite open and flexible for most things, and that I am also capable of community in a more intense way, since the Philippines has a more collective society.”
The concept of Filipino food, especially fast food, is a tough one for some to understand. Many folks still have low opinions of it. But Laurel encourages people to become more aware of the rich history of Filipino fare and its tasty offerings. “Amy Besa is the godmother of Filipino cuisine in America, and anyone invested in learning more about it should learn about her Culinary Heritage Institute,” she urges.
After all this, I’d like to add an adjective to Laurel’s one-sentence bio: “full.” Full of wit, full of life, full of curiosity, and–with any luck–full of Jollibee’s.