My husband has invited three Filipino coworkers and their wives to dinner. That means we will be eight people total. I have been prepping and cooking for two days.
Butternut squash bisque. Grilled salmon. Baby bok choy. Sesame honey chicken wings. Roasted eggplant and tomatoes. Steamed rice. Chocolate cake. Mango bars. Tea and coffee.
The guests will be here any minute now.
Husband. Are you sure you made enough?
Wife. Are you kidding? There’s more than enough!
Husband. But you’re sure?
Wife. Yes. I’m sure.
Husband. Well as long as you’re sure.
Wife. Look … why don’t you go get some ice or something?
Last minute touches to the table. Last minute touches to the guest bathroom. Last minute touches to my face. Return to kitchen where husband is returned and there are two foil bags on the counter. My last minute busyness immediately screeches to a halt.
Wife. What is that?
Husband. Two roasted chickens.
Wife. What? Why?
Husband. You know … just in case….
Glaring at him, I move towards the bags, fully intending to slam both to the floor and smash them to flatness … but the doorbell rings.
Okay. I accept that it’s my fault. When we were newly married, well over two decades ago, my husband asked if he could bring his teammates home after a big game. Even though I’d never entertained a pro-basketball team, and Manang Loisa (family cook and fall back person for all things culinary) was on vacation, I have always been a woman of enormous confidence. Confidence, that is sometimes ill-placed.
The night of the event, our dining room, populated by a forest of hungry, sweaty, seven foot giants, looked as though Birnam Wood had come to Dunsinane. With the same devastating effect. We were ransacked.
A miscalculation/misunderstanding/miswhatever, had prompted me to produce fruit kabobs, quiche, lemon merengue pie, iced tea and lemonade. Tiny bouquets of ribbon-tied flowers lay next to tiny bowls of pastel mints. Each place setting was complimented by a floral place card and a matching napkin.
The trees stood around looking confused, their enormous roots shifting uncertainly, until as one, arms like great branches swept out and swallowed the entire table in one gulp. It was an awkward evening.
I can’t say why I didn’t know better. Like most Filipinos I grew up around noisy, laughing people who ate piles of pretty much everything, pretty much around the clock. It’s a part of the culture I adore, and growing up I laughed and made noise along with everyone else. As I look back, I see that my problem stemmed from a possible genetic defect:
I had no plans to cook my own food one day.
My understanding of food was limited to chocolate.
I know! I know! What’s wrong with me? I’m an Island Girl for heaven’s sake! Born and bred into a nation of food worshippers. Where is my God Given Strand of Filipino DNA, that vital chromosome that links heart, mind and soul, to the joys of proper and substantial nourishment?
It’s not as though no attention was given to my education. I could bake. Somewhat. At school I took home economics. It included cooking. And when Lola was angry, she sent me to the kitchen to absorb from Manang Loisa, who never allowed me to talk when her soap operas were on. I’d absorb silently, while she chopped and diced, her radio characters arguing and crying up a storm in the background. When she started talking back to them, I knew I wouldn’t be missed if I slipped out. So I did.
In my defense, I had frequent invitations to dine at the most expensive restaurants in Manila. I rather prided myself on being an amazingly popular girl. That is, until a rival told me that I was a favorite date for expensive places, because I didn’t drink, and even better, never ordered anything but dessert. Still, since it obviously worked out for everyone, why mess with it?
In the same way the ignorant don’t worry about ignorance, I saw “happily ever after” written in my stars, my refrigerator continuing to be, throughout most of my young life, a treasure chest stuffed with imported chocolates and perfumes. What? Warning signs flashing and blinking? Marriage!!! Moving!!! Maid-less-ness!!! Assuming they weren’t for me, I ignored them.
Little children, it is best in life to listen to your Lola. God hears her prayers and those who have offended receive their due reward.
Of course, I married a Filipino. That’s a man who thinks there should be at least five options on the table. At every meal.
Of course, we moved to the U.S. Midwest. That’s a place where if you’re a “real good” woman, you cook “real good” (hot / hearty / humungous).
The maid? Oh yeah. She looked back at me from the mirror, shaking a stern finger and saying, “Honey, get up and rattle those pots and pans. Now!”
Prior to marriage, my future husband and I attended the preparatory counseling provided by our church. They thoroughly investigated our lifestyle choices, hobbies, views on money, child-rearing and religious affiliations. Were our educational attainments compatible? Were our financial goals realistic? If I put on fifty pounds would he still love me? If he was paralyzed in an accident, would I still love him? How did we feel about divorce? How did we get along with our in-laws?
Friends, I am sure we were more thoroughly vetted than applicants to the CIA, yet never once, did anyone ask me if I could cook, or even suggest that maybe I should learn.
Whatever. What’s done is done. Married. And he wants to eat. A lot. All the time. Wow.
Thus began my years of financing the long distance telephone company.
“Hi Mom? How are you? Can I talk to Loisa?”
“Ay … ma’m Rica. Kumusta po si ser? (How is sir?)”
“He’s fine Manang. How much water does rice need to get fluffy but not sticky?”
“Nabalitaan mo ba ma’am? Kakasal na si Carding at Luisa! Salamat sa Diyos! Nakakaiyak talaga!!” (Ma’am did you hear that Carding and Luisa are getting married? Thank God! It will make you cry!)
I am lost for a moment. Neighbors? Children? Relatives? Then … I remember. Gulong Ng Palad. Manang Loisa’s soap opera. Since the 1950’s she’d never missed an episode. In the 1970’s it moved from radio to television and she was so distraught, we had to put a set in the kitchen. Aha. I got it. Two of the characters had married.
“Oh, okay, that’s nice.”
“Alam mo na, ilang taon na, ayaw na ayaw yun mama ni Carding. Buwisit yan babaeng yan! Masyadong ambisiosa para sa sarili! Bruha! Sino naman ang magagalit sa paghahanap ng true love? SELOSA!!!” (You know how many years that terrible mother of Carding stood in their way? A bad woman! Too ambitious for herself! A witch! Who stands in the way of true love??? JEALOUS!!!)
“Loisa, how much water do I need for the rice?”
But she was on a roll, and for twenty long distance minutes, dissected the disagreeable character of this disagreeable character. When I felt she might be winding down, I tried to get my foot in the door.
“Manang … tubig … para sa bigas…?” (Manang … water … rice ….?)
But now she’d exhausted herself.
“Gamiting mo ang daliri ma’m, ang daliri.” (Ma’am just use your finger, use your finger.)
And she hung up.
It was frustrating, but I needed Manang Loisa, and if that meant I had to listen to a weekly dissertation on the tribulations of love, treachery and meddlesome neighbors, so be it. I told myself to humor her. After all, soap operas were the refuge of the masses. They were an inexpensive and vicarious thrill for lives lived on the sidelines. I, of course, was above this sob-story nonsense, but with a deep breath I summoned up all the patience I am so not known for.
Manang had been in my life for a long time, but always as part of the establishment, like a permanent fixture you stop noticing. Now, if I committed to calling her regularly to have my cooking confusions sorted out, I understood that this would require we spend time walking arm in arm through the great mysteries of life. She not only religiously followed every turn of the screw on Gulong ng Palad, she eventually added to it the misfortunes of Flor de Luna, and Annalisa. Ultimately, as well acquainted as any psychiatrist, with the angst of mankind, she began to monitor Tia Dely and Kuya Cesar, making sure the free advice they gave away on the radio, was solid.
Initially, my cooperation was both mercenary and condescending. I was desperate. Even with the purchase of a Nora Daza book, nothing I cooked came out right. The steps were well listed, but the steps between the steps … the ones Nora figured you knew because you’d paid attention to your Lola, well, naturally she’d left those out.
As weeks turned into months, the slow process of transformation took hold and birthed a miracle. My mind began to open like a flower. Chop, squeeze, braise, steep, shape into logs and roll. Phone receiver, pinched into place between ear and scrunched up shoulder, I moved to instructions sporadically inserted between Manang’s chapter by chapter recounting, of the latest developments in the world of television trauma.
Ten thousand miles away, Manang Loisa suddenly became more real to me than when we’d slept in the same house. Her observations on life, love and the whole of human experience could cut to the bone. When I’d occasionally offer my own opinion, she’d harangue me on the smallness and hardness of my soul. We’d argue over what a woman should do when her man cheats (Her vote = love him back. My vote = shoot him in the back.) We’d laugh together over idiotic plot twists. A few times she actually made me cry (someone lost their baby / dog / husband). Mostly I listened. And learned.
The characters in her soaps took her to school; took her abroad; took her into their bedrooms and confessionals. They were members of her personal entourage, living for her benefit, all the lives she was not going to have time for. They presented her with conundrums to work her brain around, and challenges to enlarge her heart. Why do women persist in believing a man who lies? Why do men break everything they touch? Is there such a thing as true love? Does the prodigal child ever really come home? Does God intervene in the affairs of men?
One day I am in my kitchen, stuffing a turkey, and chatting with a neighbor about our upcoming State Fair. In this Northern European culture, the long winters pull people deep into their caves. When the sun comes out, they emerge from hibernation with an explosion of energy. Every August, over a ten day run, two million people turn out for the State Fair. I love it and go every year. She has never been.
“I hear it’s pricey.” she says.
“Yeah. It is.”
“I hear all the food is fried.”
“Yeah. It is.”
“I hear it’s noisy, dusty and hot as hell.”
“Yeah. It is.”
She continues to press, wondering why anyone in their right mind would pay an entry fee, and then pay again and again, for unhealthy food, dangerous rides and tacky souvenirs. Finally, I’ve had enough and blurt out,
“Hey, I go for the same reason everyone else does! To people watch! Teenagers flirting. Young men fighting. Lovers breaking up / making up. Old people revving up. Young children high on candy. Immigrants and new-comers. Humanity drunk on the casual largess of an American party. Fashion, sex, money. People vibrating to the lights, the music, the food, the rides, the fireworks. People. That’s why everyone goes. To watch the people!”
A week later I am thinking on that exchange. Crushing peanuts for fresh lumpia, slicing the garlic paper thin, suddenly it comes to me. Suddenly I understand. It’s soap opera.
And if that is true, then in fact, we’re all soap opera fans. People sipping coffee at sidewalk cafés, passing drivers slowing at accidents, the crowd that gathers to watch two men argue. In airports, shopping malls, churches and dance halls, we watch each other, analyzing facial expression, body language, vocal tone. We absorb and process emotional information. To what purpose? Perhaps to the end of enriching our own personal soap opera.
I mean … maybe this is how we survive. How we figure things out. We plug into other humans and draw energy from them. We study their circumstances and problems. We consider their responses and reactions. We imagine walking in their shoes, so we can compare their walk to ours. Why do they do this, and not that? What should I do? Why do they want this, and not that? What should I want? What is right? What is wrong?
This consuming desire, this need for entanglement, a feasting together even momentarily, with other souls, other heartbeats, other stumblers and seekers, is a glorious thing. It’s a hunger that feeds on our mutual humanity, satisfying and fattening our hearts, with the deep, rich taste of love.
Manang Loisa, thank you. These thanks I also extend, to all the others out there who have, knowingly and unknowingly, let me watch you, absorb you, gain insight and direction. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your story, and in the resulting synergy ---- write my own.