Yelling for an Egg: Filipino Food in Brooklyn


The Manila Restaurant on 47 Sands St, Brooklyn, NY, 1938. This photo used to be available for licensing through, but I can no longer locate it. So here it is in all its watermarked glory.

This article is one of a series I’m writing as a Visiting Artist at BLDG92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

I’ve always found that immigrated cuisines are best eaten at hole-in-the-wall type restaurants, for the most authentic experience.  But in my attempts to try authentic Filipino food, the hole-in-the-wall my husband and I found ourselves standing in front of was closed–permanently.  So a quick Google search for other restaurants in the area led us to not another Filipino restaurant, but a Filipino Gastropub.

It was fancier than I had wanted, but when my husband and I cozied up to the bar, I noticed that the menu included a dish that four people had insisted I try: balut.

“What is it?” I asked the bartender. After he explained it, I ashamedly admitted “I don’t have the strength.”

But that wasn’t true of the gentleman sitting next to me.  A Filipino immigrant, sitting with his wife and grown son, he ordered his balut and the staff let out a loud whoop! of celebration.

“All this yelling for an egg??” his wife asked in laughing disbelief.  Balut is a fertilized duck egg: you crack the egg to find a half-developed bird fetus, swimming in briny broth.

“It’s a special dish,” the bartender replied, smiling.  Then, to the husband: “Do you remember it from the Philippines?”

“Yes, I miss it!” he replied, in a way that nearly pained him, pressing his hand over his heart.  “I ate it all the time.  I sip the broth first, then eat the meat–such delicate bird meat!”

Food gives comfort when we long for home.  It’s all the good parts of where we come from and none of the reasons why we left.  This is as true today as it was in the 1930s, when a thriving Filipino population found their home just outside of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The Phillipines fell under American occupation shortly after the Spanish-American war.  The result was an increased American military population on the islands, but also an increase in Filipino immigration to the United States.  Many young Filipino men joined the Navy, for economic opportunity as well as adventure, particularly as the nation geared up for World War II. Many of these recruits ended up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; by the 1940s, The Navy Yard had over 70,000 employees, and was a key military base and constructed such infamous ships as the USS Missouri.


Washington Street & Sands Street, 1930. Source.

With so many employees in the yard, the population of the Brooklyn neighborhoods surrounding the Yard exploded.  At the end of a workday, or over a weekend of leave, A Filipino sailor could stroll out the Sands St. exit; he’d bypass the American lunchrooms and bars and head for the intersection of Sands and Washington Streets, where he could find Brooklyn’s Filipino community and a taste of home.

In 1939, WPA writers produced a guide book to every nook and cranny of New York City’s five boroughs; one intrepid writer recorded the area around the Navy Yard and its Filipino community:

Around Sands and Washington Streets is a colony of Filipinos; native food, extremely rare in the eastern part of the United States, is served in a Filipino restaurant at 47 Sands Street. Among the favorite dishes are adabong gaboy (pork fried in soy sauce and garlic); sinigang isda and sinigang visaya (fish soups); mixta (beans and rice), and such tropical fruits as mangoes and pomelos, the latter a kind of orange as large as a grapefruit.

A photo from 1938 lets us peak inside and glimpse a night filled with familiar food, music and friends. The Manila restaurant was probablly the first Filipino eatery in the city, having been established since at least 1927. It looks like a good place, the customers are relaxed, and you can just barely make out a menu hanging on the back wall.  An ad for the restaurant, uncovered by Purple Yam and Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Assistant Professor of the History Dept at the San Francisco State University, says the restaurant serves “Philippine, American, Chinese, and Spanish dishes.”  A sign of creeping Americanization, or of the diversity of Filipino culture?

No mention of balut, though. I bet those in the know could ask for it.

Today, immigrants from the Philippines account for 4% of the foreign-born population in the United States; only Mexico, China, and India send more of their sons and daughters to make a new life in this country.  There are easily a dozen Filipino restaurant in the city now, and probably many more, tucked away in the right neighborhoods, offering a little bit of comfort to those far from home.

The History Dish: 1001 Sandwiches


Welcome to the world of early 20th century sandwich making, when the advent of sliced bread gave birth to a booming sandwich culture.  The first bread-slicing machine was installed in a factory in 1928; within two years, 90% of store-bought bread was factory sliced. Standardized and convenient, housewives focused their creative energies on what went in between the bread.

1001 Sandwiches, published in 1936, is the expanded edition of 700 Sandwiches written about a decade previous. To give you a sense of common of ingredients in a 1930s sandwich, here are the “ sandwich ‘makings’” author Florence Cowles advises you to keep on your emergency “sandwich shelf”:

Peanut butter, packaged cheese, potted and deviled ham, corned beef, chicken, tongue, dates, sardines, lobster, salmon, pimientos, pickles, olives, salted nuts, jams and marmalades, honey, horse-radish, mustard, bouillon cubes, Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, mayonnaise and crackers.  With a good selection of these ingredients you can calmly meet any sandwich emergency which may arise.

I taste-tested four sandwich creations from this book, choosing recipes that sounded bizarre but potentially tasty.  I also subjected Jonathan Soma, co-founder of the Brooklyn Brainery, to my sandwich antics.  The recipes, and the results, are below.

Cheese and Cornflake Sandwich




This was a crunchy sandwich; definitely very auditory.  And scratchy–it really tears up the roof of your mouth.  Soma is crazy for cream cheese, so he said he would make it and eat it–he votes yaaay! I vote boo!

Potato Chip and Olive Sandwich



 I was out of mayonnaise when I assembled this sandwich, so I substituted tartar sauce.  Soma thought it looked like Thai food and tasted “like all of its ingredients individually.”  Very non-harmonious.

I liked it–it was super salty! It would fix a hangover in no-time flat.  I vote yaaay! This was my favorite overall. Soma votes boo.

Bacon and Prune Sandwich



 Soma informed me that prunes are no longer called prunes.  They’re now “dried plums.”  So this is a Bacon and Dried Plum sandwich, which sounds very sophisticated. We both agreed this was not bad–although I wouldn’t eat it willingly.  This was Soma’s favorite hands-down

Ham and Banana Sandwich



This sandwich was promptly re-named the Hamana Sandwich.

We tested these sandwiches in front of a live studio audience, and someone screamed out “It looks like someone already ate it!”

The weird part is really expected this one to be good.  It was instantly repulsive.  Soma described it as “Not the worst thing I could of had.”  I was nauseous. Horrific. Horrendous.

The Gallery: The Year of Two Thanksgivings

Photo by ohhmystarsandgarters.  Shop on Etsy!

I just finished an article for Etsy all about the legacy of canned cranberry sauce (you can read it here.)  While I was browsing around for historical Thanksgiving themed items, I found the wonderful piece of ephemera pictures above.

Take a close look at it.  What the hell is going on here?  “No matter which you pick…”  Why are their two Thanksgivings?

The Etsy shop’s owner dates this piece to 1939, and it was produced by the Jack Sprat grocery store in Wykoff, Minnesota.  This is slightly off topic, but the Wykoff family is one of the oldest in America.  A Dutch family that settled in Brooklyn–then Breuckelen–their 1652 family home is a museum, and it the oldest residence in New York City.

Back to the Thanksgiving–a quick Googling of Thanksgiving 1939 gives us the answer.  Stay with me, this gets complicated.

 Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863; he traditionally celebrated the holiday on the last Thursday in November, as did most Americans, although there was no official Thanksgiving day.  November 1939 had five Thursdays–as does November 2012.  Retailers in 1939 had a fit, because that meant the Christmas shopping season, which traditionally started the day after Thanksgiving, was shortened by nearly a week.  It’s the middle of the Great Depression, and the hope is that Christmas shopping will help restart the economy.  The retailers protest to President Franklin Roosevelt, and Roosevelt decides to declare Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of the month, not the last.

The American people FREAK.  Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, is invested with tradition (much of it highly fictionalized).   People felt that messing with the day to celebrate Thanksgiving was as bad as taking the turkey off the table.  The Thanksgiving on  November 23rd was dubbed “Franksgiving” in Roosevelt’s honor, and many people protested by celebrating on the traditional day, November 30th.  Some families had double Thanksgiving.

Eventually, we got over it, and to this day we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of the month, NOT the last.  But the end of the story is that it doesn’t freaking matter, because nowadays the Christmas shopping season starts on August 1st.