Opening an Old Can of Worms

Living in Cubao usually brings on a degree (or two) of  stress for me.

Now, as memories washed over me day in and out, there are so much that I remember, and I wish I was old enough then to have the power to undo some of those “atrocities.”

I remember that, when I was a kid, the house in Cubao always had food on the round dining table, ready for anybody who cared enough to sample the dishes, from 5 AM to 10 PM. ‘Tis no joke; one of my aunt-grandmothers took it upon herself to do the cooking and the bi-weekly marketing at the nearby Nepa Q Mart.

The dishes on the table, as I recall, were replaced according to the time of the day, more frequent than what happens at Aslan’s Table at the beginning of the end of the world (read the Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to have an idea of what I’m talking about).

The whole thing ran like clockwork, and one had the feeling of being feted in a hotel’s restaurant.

The spread during pre-breakfast (5 to 7:55 AM)  consists of hot pan de sal the size of boulders (this was before the econo-size and the global financial crisis), muffins, and saltine crackers. A brick-sized slab of yellow butter ruled the center of the lazy susan, and jars of fruit jams and marmalades were the colorful members of the butter court. Beverages to ward off the early morning chill  were available from the kitchen, and the choices included hot chocolate (the pure tableya form or powdered cocoa), coffee, milk or tea.

Around 8 in the morning, the pan de sal tray, the butter and jam jars disappear; these are replaced by boxes of cornflakes (usually for the kids), a jug of milk,  plates of eggs (scrambled, poached and sunny side up), tocino or longganisa from Pampanga, and corned beef sauteed with onions and diced potatos. A bowl of fried rice usurps the butter in its place of honor. From the kitchen, one could ask for orange, mango or guyabano juice, poured iced cold.

Then, by ten in the morning, the breakfast repast disappears. My aunt-grandma would be the Fuhrer of the kitchen, overseeing the preparation of lunch. From the kitchen, cooking oil would furiously hiss in the pan, and then, in a while, the smell of sauteing onions would waft toward the living room. In a few moments, or promptly at eleven thirty, the table would be laden with luncheon dishes, such as fried porkchop/chicken/tilapia, adobo, or fish and hipon sinigang. A huge bowl of boiled rice would sit at the place of honor.

By two o’clock, everything disappears again to be replaced, at 3 PM, by merienda, such as turon, maruya, bicho-bicho, or bibingka (which were always cooked in the backyard of our house). Ice-cold cantaloupe juice (the one with the grated flesh of cantaloupe, sugar, and milk) could be had from the kitchen.

Suppertime was at 6 sharp. For the aunt-grandmothers, it was a sin to be late for this meal if you had no excuse of not coming to the table (and you could only be excused if you are not inside the house by 6 PM because you are still in the office or you have announced beforehand that you would not be eating in). For the guardians, suppertime was family time.

And supper usually consisted of soup dishes. Deep tureens of sotanghon with meatballs, beef pochero with the works (beef chunks, corn on cob, plantains, and cabbages in a rich broth), or pancit molo like how the guardians used to make in their hometown of Guimaras. The food, if there is any left in the bowls, would sit on the table until 9:55 PM, just in case somebody gets hungry in a little while.

Then, by 10:05 PM, everything will be cleared from the table; placemats stowed in their rightful places, plates silent in the cupboard, utensils snug in the kitchen drawers.

The cycle would begin again the next day at exactly 5 AM.

On Sundays after church, there would be a special merienda waiting for the churchgoers. This would either be dinuguan and puto; bibingka with kesong puti; arroz caldo; ginataan with malagkit balls; minatamis na saging; or palitaw.

Life was grand.

Or so I thought.

You know the part that bothered me… the sad thing about it? All that food that was uneaten and went to waste. All the money that went to waste in so much dishes for one meal. No wonder they had to go to the market twice a week!

And the saddest part? Each of my father’s siblings knew how to cook, and even with the food already set, they still did their own cooking. It must have been a bitter blow to all my aunt-grandma’s efforts. You see, it was only my father’s family (pa, ma, my then-1-year-old brother, and my then-3-year-old self) and the two guardians who sat down at the table during mealtimes in front of a feast that  could feed thirty.

I was a kid then, and I thought all other families had that much food on their tables.

So it was a reality check and a totally new experience when my father died and my widowed ma took my brother and me to the province, where she was assigned to be a parish pastor to a congregation composed mostly of farmers and fisherfolks who rarely had any money to put decent food on the table.

Life is hard. And in this homecoming, I wish I could undo some of those superfluous and absurd practices.

A thought: Maybe it had been only my impression of the “glory days” when two of my grandparents worked overseas; those who were left to hold the fort did everything in their power to keep my grandparents’ children (my father and my aunts and uncle) happy. The guardians, as I call my aunt-grandmothers, chose food as their manner of showing they cared for my aunts, uncle and father. It was the best way they knew, because for them,

good food = happy, contended children.

Nevermind that the availability of food throughout the day bordered on the absurd.]

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