Delicious little secrets

I still remember clearly how the apples and oranges looked — up to that point I had never seen them so pretty, little wedges arranged in neat little circles on a big, white plate, from the edges all the way to the core. It was the height of summer in Cebu, many, many years ago, a couple of hours after we had all finished lunch, and everyone was pretty much alternately drifting to or away from the big round dining table, as was often the case, in Lola Carmen’s home. Our Manila-based cousin, Bernadette, was visiting for the summer, together with her other cousin, Apryll, and paternal grandmother whom we all called Manteeh.

Back then, I was not very fond of fresh fruits, unless they were baked into some pie, used as a topping for ice cream, or cooked in sugar syrup. In their natural form they were pretty, yes, and nice-tasting, but I have a sweet tooth and fruits were very rarely sweet enough for me. Little did I know that hot afternoon would change the way I looked at fruits, and other things in general, many thanks to Manteeh.

Amidst the buzz of laughter and casual conversation, she brought a chopping board to the table and slowly, melodiously started to handle a bowl-full of washed apples and oranges with love. I say love because it was almost magical, the ceremony of it all. The oranges she sliced in fat, sparkly wedges, the juices seeping out indolently from the tiny teardrop-shaped flesh. The apples she sliced, too, in uniform wedges, the ruby-red skin a sharp contrast to its fair flesh. It was not so much how the fruits looked but how she did it. I was focused on her — fingers and knife moving almost in slow motion. Cut, arrange, cut, arrange, the blade sounding crisp against the board whenever they met. This she repeated over and over again, not in the way master chefs usually show off, but slowly, gently, the way all mothers in their kitchens probably do when they cook for their children, until she had enough wedges to alternately arrange around a big, white plate that was then passed around the big, round table for all of us to enjoy. The way she labored over something so simple was beautiful in my eyes, and for some reason those apples and oranges took on an entirely new appeal. All of a sudden they were desirable in my eyes and, as if I have never tasted them before, they felt so good in my mouth! And in their purest form, no less! The apples tasted better than apples, the oranges tasted better than oranges, if that is at all possible.

In hindsight, I think that was what opened my eyes to the fact that presentation does not only spell the difference, it is everything. And I was really not conscious of how much that seemingly random ceremony of carefully cutting fruits influenced me (the most noteworthy probably being that I now really love almost all kinds of fruits except avocados and durian) but last Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and abstinence, I decided to replace one meal with just a banana and a glass of soymilk. From out of nowhere, Manteeh came to mind.

I really love bananas; it was maybe the first fruit I ever had because that was Daddy’s favorite snack, especially the latundan variety, and he would always drizzle golden honey over its pale, dense flesh. I decided to do the same that day and enjoy my simple meal as grandly as I could. What could be more majestic than honey on a day when we are asked to observe some form of deprivation? I peeled a banana and placed it on a plate, drizzling it with the sweetest gold nature can give, the way I had seen Daddy do countless times in the past: just one sinuous, continuous zigzag down its length. I then sliced it into fat discs. I wanted to put some peanut butter on them but the thought felt too much like a treat already so I passed on that. I dunked fat ice cubes in my big glass of soymilk. Carefully, slowly I enjoyed the taste and flavor of my simple meal. It was grand. I loved that I was able to sit through it, not thoughtlessly, and was able to chew on my food so carefully it lasted almost as long as its full-course counterpart would. In between, I read the papers languidly, taking my time. It is a luxury now, not rushing through things, when the norm is limited to gulping down fast food and literally just grabbing a bite.

I realize now that I really enjoy making things look special. I like pretty things; I like even more making things look pretty. The ceremony with which things are prepared appeals to me. It doesn’t have to cost much but the joy it brings is nice, if fleeting, although some food rituals last beyond memories. When Juliana started going to big school she asked that I pick her up at the end of every school day until she was fully settled. I did, as much as my schedule allowed, and on days I couldn’t and Richard could, he gladly stepped up. Always, the highlight would be her baon. I would make her sandwiches — the good ones we all grew up with like tuna, ham and cheese, egg salad — but I went the extra mile. From the bread squares I used big cookie cutters to cut out shapes like hearts, stars, teddy bears. The ones that fell off at the sides I would save for the helpers to make into croutons or for Richard to make into bread pudding. I arranged them in her little pink Tupperware and the look on her face, the way her eyes lit up at the sight of her pretty sandwiches, was priceless.

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Richard has his own rituals. He and Juliana stop at the nearest deli and they eat bread with cottage cheese which she really loves, or enjoy cups of yoghurt in the car on the way home.

A few weeks back the loaf of bread we bought came with some instructions on how to make egg toast. You cut out a heart in the middle of a slice of bread, place it on a pan wiped with butter, and plop a full egg in the heart-shaped void. It is so pretty and tastes even more delicious than it already is. Juliana loved it; I think I loved it even more.

When Richard cooks at home, even if it is just for the two of us in one of our midnight kitchen dates when we are in our sleepwear, he still makes it a point to garnish our omelet with parsley; he will not think twice about arranging pancakes neatly in thick golden stacks, butter and whipped cream at the ready. He is big on presentation.

On the set during tapings where everything is hectic, I make the most of breaks between episodes, to enjoy my food decently. I hate having to rush through meals; I’d rather not take any at all than have someone breathing down my neck, constantly updating us on how many minutes we have left to chew and swallow. I take my tea with milk in a real cup or mug that I always bring with me. It may not alter the taste but it heightens the pleasure, such that even sipping plain hot water can be an event in itself.

In short, I know how to amuse myself, something I lightly take pride in because we cannot always control situations we find ourselves in. Things can get tough at work, we sometimes go through rough days, and little pockets of pleasure like these are a breath of fresh air, working like sugar on our systems — giving an extra push, a second wind, just when we need it most. I constantly also learn from others around me — my friends and their own ways, the books I read, from the Lifestyle Channel, the guests we feature on The Sweet Life on QTV, from Martha Stewart and Rachel Ashwell — little things about how to enjoy and make the most of whatever is already there, and trying still to extend and make it as beautiful as I possibly can. Going the extra mile, all the little things that we all too often brush off as kaartehan lang and unnecessary — these are endangered pleasures, and like handwritten notes, they’re a lost luxury just waiting quietly to be recovered. The best news is this is not just for a select few; it is for everyone to delight in.

At any given time, all our days can be touched by magic. It is like the decadent lining under a nice but otherwise boring basic jacket, wearing fine underwear, using the prettiest teacups, or transferring takeout food onto nice serving plates, using nice linen for everyday meals, putting good hand soap on the kitchen sink. No one else has to know. You do not seek to impress. Like Manteeh’s beautiful apples and oranges, you can just keep it like a delicious little secret, all the while being simply thankful for how it makes you feel.

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For the Lenten season especially, you might want to consider this. An Introductory Centering Prayer Retreat will be held from March 6 to 8 at Karis Retreat House, Tagaytay. For more information, call Anna Marie at 842-4030 or 842-0201; e-mail cop.secretariat@gmail.com; or visit the COP Secretariat, Rm 211, St. John Bosco Parish, Makati.  

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