There we were: in the auto supply enclave of Blumentritt, behind on rent with the landlord wolfing outside the door (his eyebrows menacing like little hounds of furry), no car, no TV, the transistor radio’s lungs were being powered by leaky Eveready C batteries, electric stove on the blink, bills and promissory notes and more bills stuck to the ref; enough to keep the Gutenberg printing press humming… but, looking back, those years in good old Bloom — and then subsequently in Sampaloc — turned out to be the good old days, the best of times.
That’s because my mother, Elena (who passed away in December last year), was at the peak of her powers, turning the night’s leftovers into the breakfast of runners-up, all the while singing like Sylvia La Torre traipsing in a meadow. She was there; she was all.
I sat by the table and watched Nanay fill my plate with something magical. Her adobo, to begin with, was primus inter pares: the pork cutlets were softened to perfection (maybe she bashed them against our landlord’s facial caterpillars) and the sparseness of the sauce made it tastier with its garlic- and black pepper-concentrated madness. But when she sautéed leftover adobo — adding more garlic and laurel leaves — it was the crowning achievement. She would fry rice afterwards, with the sheen of adobo juice clinging to the Milagrosa. It was like Christmas; the dead plant by the window posing as our yuletide tree. How all those bills and tuition demand letters dissipated with each spoonful. My sister Pura, who passed away in 2019, and I ate while we listened to all those songs on Sunday AM radio: nasal crooners who my Nanay called “boses ilong.” Good morning, yesterday…
Outside, the boys in the vulcanizing shop were hollering with each celebrity sighting. (Actors and basketball stars needed to get their car fixed, after all). For them, servicing Rey Valera was like Valentine’s.
Nanay loved cooking (although she was mandated in taking on that role whether she really wanted it or not). She made a mean picadillo, turning that South American dish into something that I loved eating every day, without fail. There was a stretch in the early ’80s where I ate nothing but picadillo for two entire weeks. My mother was the G.O.A.T. of reheating. Other dishes in her repertoire were almondigas and lumpiang Shanghai. She would get extremely annoyed while she fried those little bad boys since they would disappear like Batman once they were set on a plate. We couldn’t help it. They were crispy as hell.
During swimming excursions (which were epic since even not-so-close relatives and their stranger-neighbors joined), Nanay was the designated cook. I don’t even think she even hit the pool or got a tan. She lamented, “Ayun, ahon sila nang ahon para kumain.” But she did not let bad days get in the way of her cooking. She once told my brother Boy, “Ang sikreto ng pagluluto ng masarap na pagkain ay dapat masaya ka.”
Oh, you sweet summer child (as scam-baiter Kitboga would say). Nanay’s statement sounds simplistic, even naïve. But come to think of it, shouldn’t that philosophy of hers apply to everything that we do? I write grumpily because of deadlines. I do art grudgingly because of the need to pay rent and buy stereo gear. We do our jobs perfunctorily because of the sovereignty of bills, shopping and cutthroat taxes (so that government officials can buy their Ferraris). But, wait a second, think of what we could accomplish if we did something out of pure joy.
My Nanay’s passing was not heralded by TV networks and newspapers or blasted all over social media. After battling through many illnesses (including getting a positive result on her antigen test), she quietly, albeit painfully and laboriously, drew her last breath on a Sunday while the rest of the family watched over her via Viber. That is our misfortune these days: our loved ones meeting the Creator while surrounded by family — but only virtually. (My mother died in agony while dirty trapos and predatory pastors are luxuriating in their empire of sex and money.) She did not run a company or create anything. But what she built was my life, as well as the lives of all her children, biological and otherwise.
She also left us with memories of meals marinated with joy and wonder.
It made me think: could food induce remembrances, just like old songs or visits to places from one’s childhood?
My girlfriend Avee and I order home-cooked food from an online merchant, Gram’s Kitchen, which was introduced to us by our good friend Joanna Preysler-Francisco, who described it as “home cooking at its best — definitely made with love.” Gram’s (an acronym of the names of the owner and her kids — Grace, Raj, Alixis and Monching) offers double-cheese chili con carne, baked macaroni, chicken cordon bleu, and Japanese wagyu cubes, among other swanky restaurant-level food items at affordable prices. Could Gram’s duplicate Nanay’s repertoire, I asked myself. What if I tell the Gram’s how Nanay cooked them and what specific ingredients she used, could I recapture my youth and those long-gone Blumentritt days — just like food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille?
Gram’s said yes to the challenge. Firstly, I wanted her to cook for us Sisig Kapampangan and morcon — the way Aling Lucing and Everybody’s Café (famous for its adobong kamaru) in Pampanga serves them. Why those two? I was the designated sisig procurer when I was in my teens whenever my older brothers Dennis, Pity and Boy had their inuman sessions with their friends Sese and the Sazon brothers. I would sit by the railroad tracks near the stall of the Sisig Queen in Crossing, Angeles City, and wonder where the next few decades would take me. Brighter days, greener pastures? (Hardly anywhere, it turned out.) And morcon, along with asado and pancit luglog, was a staple during graduation celebrations. No family lauds graduating from anything like the D’Bayans: the house in Kolbe is mystifyingly festooned with diplomas of all kinds (nursery, kindergarten, elementary, etc.) and the morose mugs of everyone displayed for all posterity, evoking the Buendias in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The ghosts of graduations past. Old English font galore.
After two tries, Gram’s has almost nailed the taste of morcon Everybody’s Café-style: a saucier, oilier, more flamboyant embotido. As for the sisig, when the Gram’s version was first delivered, it lacked something that I could not quite figure out. You see, Sisig Kapampangan is different from the burnt-out platters we paired with SMB in bars (before the plague put a damper on everything) while we watched the late Noli Aurillo or Wally Gonzalez. Aling Lucing’s creation is tastier, has more texture, and is not dry at all. While other variants are crunchier, more browned, sometimes charred and infused with alien ingredients (mayonnaise, seriously?), Gram’s is more faithful to the original. When I put a couple of drops of kalamansi… boom! I was back on the tracks and Video was killing the Radio Star on the jukebox, oh-a oh.
When it came time for Nanay’s greatest hits, I dithered. After all, my mother was a wizard in the kitchen. Even on a beggarly budget, she could turn all those disparate pieces into platefuls of gustatory joy. Those are mad skills. Could Gram’s approximate a son’s austere yet memorable meals? Avee and I commissioned Gram’s to cook for us almondigas, tortang talong, chop suey, and picadillo. The dishes were promptly delivered.
Grace of Gram’s told us that she’s a single mom with roots in Iligan who put up a food delivery service to support her kids — the first is a freelance stylist, the second is an individual with special needs, and the third is still in college. Same with Nanay, Grace’s passion is in cooking for her loved ones. This woman is quietly soldiering on in year three of a pandemic.
I put some picadillo on top of white rice, put some almondigas in a bowl, and started digging in. Although I was not transported to Mr. Eyebrows’ apartment in Tomas Mapua (Nanay is gone and so is Pura, the apartment complex has been turned into a car-wheel emporium), Gram’s dishes exceeded expectations. What Nanay created shall remain on our taste buds. Her legacy lives rent-free in our blackened hearts. But maybe meals are meant not to relive old memories but to make new ones. We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.
Here we are: the table is set, the dishes are served, our Doberman lovingly puts her head on my lap, Roger Waters’ horses are amusingly trudging from left to right JBL speaker. This is heaven. Outside, a plague may linger on and on; inside, we eat for energy and renewal, for simple joys, a dash of optimism, and a taste of tomorrow.
Food has the consistency of magic.
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