Remembrance of glorious food past

It has been a few weeks since I got back from Ormoc where I spent the holidays and still my body clock is on provincial and vacation mode. By that I mean I still am traipsing on what others might call an idyllic pace – languishing just a bit longer under the sheets when it is obviously time to get up in the morning, savoring my meals leisurely, burying my nose in the pages of a good book, staying home and doing my chores while listening to music, watching Barefoot Contessa, Sweet Dreams, and Molto Mario on the Lifestyle Channel, picking up a little crafting activity here and there, or just smelling the roses, so to speak. Of course, the pace is 10 notches below the ideal because I am back in the hustle and bustle of my life here in Manila, once again busy as a bee, but a shot of restfulness still flows through my veins.

I love the quiet charm of the rural setting. Somehow, I always feel that the pace it offers just gracefully pulls us back to where things matter the most – the present. That is where life is meant to be lived and savored.

Living life in the present moment – yes, that perhaps is the greatest bit of wisdom I have learned to appreciate from centering prayer and my Aunt Fergie last year, and I wish I could share with all of you just how that came to be. Maybe one day, in the distant future, I will tell you about it, but not just yet. I want it to be all mine for now.

Idyllic in Ormoc: that is how it was for me, I guess that is how it always will be. It will forever be my shelter, my place of healing, where I will recharge and fill my cup once more when life in the big city has already emptied out so much from it. It is my celestial territory, my heaven on earth (aside from my husband’s arms and Juliana’s smile).

There was a time when I thought I could not live in the province anymore after being in Manila and enjoying its amenities for so long. But after almost two weeks in Ormoc, I know I can. And I will be just as happy, just as content.

I really do love the simple life. I love the multiplicity of home industries that seem to be attached to every province. I love the close-knit community (it can be both a boon and a bane, although I still think the former still reigns supreme over the latter), the genuine warmth, and the lack of pretenses.

Growing up, the many sukis we had were never just nameless faces. The fruit vendor was a plump old lady with a perpetual, toothless smile and shiny, ruddy cheeks: Her name was Manang Feliza. I have not seen her in a long time, I heard she has really gotten on in years, thus her children have already taken over the business. The manicurista was Belen (my grand dream when I was all of five years old was to be a manicurista because I so envied the bag she carried with all the wonderful shiny, thin tools and bottles of colorful polish that made my mom’s nails look so pretty), and when she passed away at a relatively young age, Nita took over. We never called her just Nita. There were many other Nitas we knew, so she was always referred to as Nita Manicurista, as if that were her family name. Ironically, after Nita came another Belen, actually short for Evelyn. Beauty salons and barbershops were practically unheard of and everyone availed of sukis who earned their keep doing home service.

When we needed clothes, we went to Tita Jeanette who owned and operated Dressmaking Etc. Manang Pedam was her master cutter and she always made such darling dresses for me, my sister, my mom, and the rest of Ormoc. Tita Jeanette and her girls made the nicest embroidery, and it made every piece of clothing look extra special.

Our tailor was Manoy Nestor, a quiet man with a small frame, who spoke softly and moved gently. He sewed impeccably and made the best-fitting trousers. We never bought ready-to-wear because the fit always paled in comparison to the ones Manoy Nestor made. Sadly, he passed away a few years back, and now Manoy Billy, a robust, perennially smiling man, has taken his place. He sews just as well. Pilar is the one who makes everyone’s curtains and in true provincial fashion, she operates not from a shop but from her own home.

I remember that growing up, everyone in the family loved to eat sha-e (or chicharon bulaklak as it is more popularly known) and Tonio Bungi always delivered a freshly cooked batch at least twice a month. If you must know, he also sold odds and ends of stuff, including spare parts for motor vehicles, and my father always bought from him simply because he was entertained, plus my brother Jules was endlessly fascinated with how Tonio Bungi animatedly talked.

Freshly made bibingka was peddled by another old man, Manoy Tusong, and the kesong puti was delivered weekly by a mild-mannered man from Valencia, one of the neighboring towns. I forget his name.

The sweepstakes my mother bought weekly from a blind lady, accompanied by her young daughter Mardi. Mardi is now a masahista also, and I heard her mother now lives in Australia with one of her children.

A bunch of happy characters they all were, and they peppered my childhood with many happy memories.

Often, Daddy would come home from a tennis game, balut vendor in tow, and right by the front door we would enjoy several rounds of the savory treat. With salt, of course, and cold soda: my favorite then was Mirinda. My sister and I so loved going to the tennis court to watch Mommy and Daddy play tennis, not because we really understood the game, but because we wanted to indulge in the chips, chocolate mallows, and chicken sandwiches that were just so, so deliciously prepared at the Boy Scout Canteen, which was located adjacent to the courts. The canteen was operated by Tita Glenda Yrastorza, who was the mother of Jimmy, one of my classmates from kinder all the way to high school. From her, you could also order pot roast with mashed potatoes on the side that to this day I still remember and salivate over for its unmatched delicious taste. The canteen and the tennis courts no longer exist, but my sister and I spent many happy afternoons there.

Daisy’s was the corner convenience store where everyone went, and Tita Daisy made the most delicious chocolate fudge bars. Her daughter Tina now has a dainty pastry shop called Tina’s Sweets, and she still makes the fudge plus to-die-for ube cake and fruitcake, of course, among a wealth of other desserts, each just as delicious as the next.

From the Pongos women came the most delightful treats. Tita Fe made yummy masapodrida, empanaditas, and pili bonbons, Tita Precy had the most delicious fresh lumpia (her daughter-in-law Faith now makes really delicious carrot cake that is moist and addicting), while Tita Ining whipped up the most heavenly sans rival and food for the gods. We always bought homemade mango ice candy from Manoy Pantang’s sari-sari store down Bonifacio St. where we lived before the flood. The best bodbod was from Lola Tuwang, who was the grandmother of two other good childhood friends and classmates, Benedict Tugonon and Eunice Malazarte.

After the flood, Ormoc became even more beautiful – The city has been named the cleanest and greenest not just once – but the warmth of the people and the raw charm of the city have remained the same. There are three hotels: Ormoc Villa, where my wedding reception was held, Don Felipe (I love their pizza), and Pongos Hotel. Tita Leny (Larrazabal) has beautiful plants and flowers; she operates Ormoc Petals, and last I heard, one of her daughters is going to open a restaurant in a garden setting. I cannot wait for that to happen. It would be lovely to have a place like that in the quiet of Ormoc.

There now also is a string of franchised establishments like Jollibee and Dunkin Donuts, but Mayongs, the local fast-food joint with the yummy schublig (my favorite) and the burgers sandwiched in homemade bread, still reigns supreme. They have a cult following that is as steady and sturdy as cement. There are also new local pizza joints there such as JCS’ (really yummy pizza dough), Tatta’s, and Chez Andre’s – all are delicious in their own special way. For lechon, there is Lorenzo’s and Songahid’s.

The best cassava cakes are from Ormoc’s Best, better known there as “cassava made by Flores,” and a version made with cheese and buko from a shop called Young Attitudes. I also love the cheese cupcakes from the Ormoc Ice Cream House, which my sister often sends me in bulk all the way here in Manila. Big Roy’s has yummy homemade food (their baboy sulop is delicious, and so are their crispy noodles, apple pie, and rum cake). Chito’s Chow, Sabin’s, Sal’s, and Zenaida’s also have consistently good, yummy comfort food.

The sweetest pineapples are from Ormoc, and you will not find a more delicious variety anywhere. The best are from Sabin, Poten, and Tito Ben Pongos. Somewhere down the street is always someone with the best chorizo, the best cassava cake, the best alfajores, the best chocolate cake, the best lumpiang shanghai. It is a city of many bests, we would always say. I guess every province is, and there lies its charm. Manang Virgie, the wife of Noy Delfin, made our tablea, or native chocolate, right at our backyard. By now, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that every time I am in Ormoc, I look forward to the many gustatory treats that all have sentimental appeal to me. The first thing I usually eat is Manang Resing’s perfect leche flan.

Our native suka comes from the farm. If marketed properly, it would make a killing in Manila. It is a grand treat as far as I am concerned. My sister sends me gallons of it by trucks that travel the Ormoc-Manila route.

As a new bride, we had barbecues almost every week in our backyard. Richard would instruct the cook to go to the wet market or the meat shop and tell the butcher to cut half-inch slabs of liempo that he would season oh-so-perfectly. I’m sure our guests had great-tasting sinugbang liempo at home, but they oohed and aahed over our version. I always said that was because the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Always, I would proudly teach them to eat it please with native suka from the farm in Ormoc. They oohed and aahed even more. I was so pleased I bought dozens of pretty bottles the first chance I got and they became instant giveaways. Lined on a tray on the countertop near the kitchen door leading to the main door, the native suka was there for the grabbing by anyone who fancied it before going home. And I would be the happiest to see the tray empty at the end of the evening.

My biggest culture shock in Manila was that bananas and coconuts were actually bought. In the province, they grew in abundance and were easily plucked from trees. In our backyard was a tree that gave us sweet santol. We also had tambis and mansanitas, which we used as bullets for our tirador and luthang (handcrafted crude weapons, local versions of David’s slingshot).

There were no big shops, so there were a lot of PX goods and odds and ends from the bigger neighboring cities, like Manila and Cebu, that were tossed into huge bags and peddled from house to house. There were many good business opportunities for the enterprising ones. Mommy bought tela by the dozen from Tita Glenda and Tita Betty, and these, of course, were fashioned into pretty clothes copied from thick catalogs by talented, local seamstresses. When Dressmaking etc. closed shop, we relied on the wives of our farmhands to make our clothes.

There was nothing our panday, Manoy Dadong and Manoy Susing, could not make. From functional, real furniture to the miniature ones I needed for my dolls while at play, Noy Dadong and Noy Susing made them all with the same dedication and attention to detail. If we needed bedsheets, we did not go to a department store. We went to a fabric store (like King’s, operated by Tita Anling) and bought bedsheet tela, and Manoy Nestor would then cut and sew them to size. Because there were many choices, our sheets were never just the plain, white ones. Instead, we had sheets to match whatever color the rooms were. Custom-made sheets at bargain prices, only in the province! Tell me, where can you find a better deal?

Ormoc is a community circled by real people living simple lives, quaint places, cottage industries, like colorful beads strung into a necklace. Living in Ormoc is like being in one of those villages from our childhood storybooks, where the butcher and the baker have names, lives and families you actually know, and the fish vendor just happens to be the father, brother, or grandfather of your househelp. Everyone practically knows everyone else. Things are simple, needs are simple, life is splendid!

It is a small happy world all unto itself.

And it always makes for such a delicious thought that I will always have the restful city that it is to retreat to.

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