Today I will write about five favorite childhood food memories. I close my eyes and I remember them so clearly — I can still taste the food, I remember the people, some of the conversation, too. I’m sitting on a wooden bench right now as I look out to the garden, lush with bamboo trees and plants with names like Dona Carmen, Fookien Tea, Dwarf Pandakake, Dwarf Kamuning, Cylum. The wooden dining table that has been the center of many, many gatherings with family and friends through the years is my desk at the moment, the lunch scene has already been cleared out, and what remains aside from my computer is just a very pretty cup of coffee beside me, and some milk in a small pretty jug that matches my pretty cup. It was a gift from Candy last Christmas and I use it every day. It’s early September, and I’m reminiscing. I am hard pressed to choose just five, there being so many, so for now I will just share the top of the heap. It’s turning out to be a quite a happy day.
My sweet sixteen
My 16th birthday cake was ugly. Okay, that sounds a bit harsh and when I really hard think about it, I can say it wasn’t really that bad as cakes go. But see, this was my 16th birthday, and I do not know why, back then, 16 seemed so special, even more than 18. My mother, being her consistent sige-nalang-intawn-kay-maluoy-ta self (translated, that means: “Never mind, let’s do this because I really pity him/her”) ordered from the first person she felt could use some help. I wanted a different cakemaker but she insisted on that person’s cake. And so there I was on that day, with my high school classmates as guests, eating from a spread that was, except for the lechon, 100-percent cooked in our kitchen. I don’t remember what the menu was but I am guessing the usual suspects were there — noodles, fried chicken, pork barbecue, etc. — no-fail good stuff. And then my birthday cake took center stage on the buffet table.
The doll smiling at us from where she was perched on top of the cake looked bewildered and the cake — oh, my cake — the same one that was supposed to be the shining shimmering symbol of all that was special about that day, was decorated and frosted so badly I wanted to cry (really, it was so bad to this day my mind shuts off and has no memory of it). My heart sank. And I really wanted to cry. But then the cake knife saved the day. I’m glad it came out when it did, chopping the cake in a clean line and in that state of imperfection, somehow things started to look up. The white frosting revealed moist dark joy that the universe knows as chocolate cake. That being the case, it was welcomed with generally no prejudice, and because it tasted so good I half-forgot it looked so bad. I hope whoever else noticed it felt the same way. In hindsight, really, I do not think the guests cared too much how the cake looked, right? Maybe I am the only one that remembers that part of the night. To my credit, even my mom admitted the cake looked ugly but, and to this day she heralds it, it tasted very good!
All summed up that was a very nice don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover moment for me, a nugget of learning I have treasured through the years. That incident reminds me to shrug off so many things I have no control over. Really, why sweat the small stuff? So to that person that made my 16th birthday cake, thank you!
An englishman in Ormoc
Jack Goodwin, bless his soul, was the husband of our beautiful tutor Betty, who was the daughter of our funny and pilyo driver Manoy Tebong. Jack and Betty were pen pals, back when letters were sent by snail mail still, and soon enough they met, fell in love, got married, had two beautiful children (John and Lisa), and lived happily ever after in London.
When he stayed in Ormoc for an extended visit as he built Betty’s family a beautiful house, Jack lived with us in our home in Carlota Hills. I was fascinated by how he enjoyed his food — all table manners in perfect synchrony, perfect pace, food combinations I never thought of enjoying that particular way. Take for example the orange marmalade we always had in the refrigerator but that I never quite minded ever. For breakfast each day he would eat the same thing — bacon and toast. The latter though he would slather very carefully with orange marmalade mixed with butter, and eat ceremoniously, pensively, seemingly very mindful of every bite. I’m sure he would take coffee but I have no clear memory of that. What I do remember is his cups of tea, teabags another one of those things I took for granted and had no interest in, until I saw Jack prepare his cup every day. Always he would pour milk into it, making it seem so special and foreign, like some faraway ritual I was special enough to witness and be part of. Since I was never allowed to drink coffee until I was maybe 18 or 19, taking tea the Jack Goodwin way made me feel so grown-up. I still take my tea this way, and I remember and thank him in my mind each time.
Saturdays and Sundays
Lolo Tingting, ever the perfect gentleman, was never without olives, Tonkari chips (which back then we called Chibi), nuts (the white ones without skin that almost look like white beans, glistening with grease), and a glass of Chivas Regal whisky — all these in a spread as a prelude to a meal. Saturdays and Sundays, in the evening, the family would gather in his home, oftentimes with a few friends. For as long as I can remember the adults and the children always sat at separate tables. The meals were always good, always ending with dessert, and the helpers were all the old ones we grew up with that have been in the family forever.
Sunday morning we would hear Mass, and we had to be properly dressed. My mom always said we would dress up for parties all the more for God. Unlike now when jeans are allowed, growing up my sister and I had to always be in dresses made by Nang Pedam of Dressmaking Etc. We hardly had RTW dresses (there were no malls in Ormoc back then). Most everything was custom-made — linens, dresses, curtains. We were very Sound of Music that way. After Mass, Dad would allow us to get comics and movie magazines from the newsstand (this is where I first met Richard, through a photo on the cover of a movie magazine) and we would also get loaves of butter cake. Our next stop would be to buy chicharon bulaklak and Shanghai lumpia. Those were very happy times. Somewhere along the way, we shifted our Sunday morning Mass schedule to Saturday evening for anticipated Mass after which we would eat in Chito’s Chow, everybody’s favorite restaurant by the bay, that served delicious comfort food.
Barbecues in Lola Carmen’s house on the hill in Martinez Compound
One of my earliest memories of Lola Carmen was of her meeting us in the front door in a colorful muumuu, with her trademark red lipstick and a bloom tucked behind one ear. We had just arrived from Ormoc via big boat, and lunch that day was barbecue and lechon and a whole slew of other dishes prepared by ManongPael, Lola’s male cook, which we ate from individual hapags (woven baskets shaped like huge plates with a shallow rim) covered with banana leaves. There was also homemade puso (hanging rice) and lots and lots of people gathered around the many tables in Lola Carmen’s house. People ate and lounged around the whole day, conversation was abundant, jokes and laughter even more so, the children could stay with the adults and vice versa. Lola was very fluid that way. This particular memory pretty much captures the spirit of Martinez Compound and of Lola Carmen, the lady of the house — a happy mix of people and food and stories, all that in a continuous flow that made for very happy memories.
Lily’s pork chop
Lily was this wisp of an old woman, always sickly with a pain forever here and there, the type who would be knocked out after one dose of children’s paracetamol. But no one else could fry pork chop the way she could. The running joke was we had to time when to ask her to cook because she might have to crawl to bed with her usual pains. She was actually Lola Carmen’s cook in Manila and we were always happy to have her in Cebu whenever she was there (I don’t know why, either she would be asked to take the place of another help who went on a vacation or she was there for a vacation herself and was just visiting the Cebu home on her way back to Manila). Whatever the case, I am thankful for those times, greasy and glorious as the pork chops were. I do not know what was so special about the way she prepared them, and if I really think about it there seemed to be no single ingredient that is secret or special. It was just salted pork fried unapologetically in oil and maybe the magic was in her knowing exactly when to take the chops out. It was always a perfect golden color, the meat tender and juicy and perfectly opaque, and was wonderful dipped in native vinegar and eaten with heaps of rice. Because of Lily’s perfect fried pork chop, I know that pork fat is a beautiful thing to eat. Now I don’t know where Lily is, or if she made other stellar dishes. The family thinks she is the cook version of a one-hit-wonder singer. God bless her always for that hit.
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