COLUMBIA — Lots of people barbecue on Independence Day, including Eli Perez. Most people, however, stick to relatively common cuts of meat like brisket or ribs.
Perez roasts a whole pig.
He is one of the few people in the mid-Missouri area who know how to cook a “lechon,” or pig, on a spit in the traditional Filipino manner. Perez, along with several friends, started his day before 6 a.m., slowly turning the pig by hand over a fire. The process takes hours, and this year it took longer than usual because the lechon was an extra-large one that Perez estimated weighed 120 to 150 pounds.
But all of the tedious turning and waiting was quickly forgotten at the annual July Fourth picnic hosted by the Filipino-American Cultural Society of Mid-Missouri, where the meat was nearly all cut and served in less than 30 minutes.
“A party wouldn’t be a big one unless there is a lechon,” Perez’s wife, Lorna, said. Other dishes at the picnic included “sinigan,” which she described as “a sour pork soup with vegetables”; “sago at gulaman,” a sweet drink with tapioca pearls and gelatin; mussels with coconut milk; assorted Filipino desserts, and, for both the brave and those used to Filipino cuisine, pork served in a sauce of pig’s blood.
Lorna was quick to point out that there is always something for everyone.
“For the younger generation, we have American food like macaroni and cheese, potato chips,” she said.
No one is exactly sure how long the Filipino community has had an Independence Day picnic, but they know it started with the Perez family. Eli Perez said he thought it had probably been about 18 years since the picnic started, but Lorna quickly interrupted, insisting that it was more like 20 or 21.
“We’re getting old. We can’t remember exact dates,” Eli Perez said, laughing.
Regardless of the particulars, the event has grown exponentially since it began. Eli and Lorna Perez originally spread the news about the picnic by word of mouth through an ethnic grocery store they used to own. Now the Filipino-American Cultural society sends out newsletters and e-mails.
What started out as a gathering for Filipino friends in Columbia now includes those from Jefferson City, Moberly, Fulton, Sedalia and other areas. Eli Perez estimates several hundred people now come to the picnic every year.
Besides being the date Americans celebrate their country’s independence, July 4 is also the date in 1946 that the U.S recognized the Philippines as an independent nation. The date was celebrated as Independence Day in the Philippines until 1964, when then-President Diosdado Macapagal changed it to June 12 because that is the anniversary of when the Philippines first declared independence from Spain in 1898.
The Filipino-American Cultural Society hosts other picnics and parties throughout the year around mid-Missouri. Gus Santos, vice president of the Cultural Society, said that picnics are held in the summer on Memorial Day and Labor Day and every winter there is a huge New Year’s Eve party.
But the Cultural Society does more than just host parties. Members volunteer with the Columbia Adopt-a-Spot program and are planning to start a volunteer effort for the Central Missouri Food Bank in the near future. In September, the society will host a garage sale to raise money to send to the Philippines, mostly for disaster relief.
In the meantime, Santos is content to eat food that reminds him of home and visit with others from the Philippines.
“We like to welcome everyone in the neighborhood,” he said. “We just keep on doing it every year.”