WHEN I want to find out how the better-off half lives, I go to a grocery and visit the produce.
My theory is that people are happiest around food. Not necessarily eating, but just paying it attention.
In chance meetings with former students, the first thing I notice is their sleekness. While they tell me how their careers have taken off, I also listen to something inside push happily against those fleshy cheeks. I hear once somber collarbones warble before submerging again in a sea of glossy, dimpled flesh.
When people have staged successful escapes, they celebrate by rediscovering their appetite.
Not so long ago, I complimented a former student about his cheeks. His face was enclosed by twin parabolas, drum-tight and reddening like tomatoes just right to be munched sour.
Those cheeks, he morosely said, were due to his allergy to something he sneaked to eat.
But as I listened to him talk about his son, and how he had passed on to the baby a sensitivity to seafood, I heard how food tattooed a link between them.
On grocery trips, I feel drawn to the produce, upright citizens of well-being. You would not think it from the looks of sikwa that this species is a lot more intelligent about time than the bright minds inventing time-motion studies and multi-tasking.
Sikwa knows time is its friend when it’s ripening on the vine. Left out too long, the gourd turns into useful loofah. Wait, counsels this paragon of patience. Flow.
When the sikwa is no longer what it used to be, the vine turns barren and shrivels. A new vine springs from the seeds of the old one. Reinvent, coaxes this colossus measuring barely four inches. And surprise even yourself.
Despite the invasion of Styrofoam and Cling Wrap, vegetables are souls of individuality. You know what wiser women say about buying veggies: it’s best to select from the pile, not buy the ones in packs.
For all their easy-going, roll-whichever-way natures, onions in a bag don’t show where the rot has started to eat its way out from the inside. When you’re all in the same bag, you can’t blow the whistle on your friends. As an extension of them, you can’t be sure where their hide ends and yours begin.
But it’s equally wrong to think buying the perfect lookers is bringing home the best specimens for your table. Skin on a potato is just as misleading as the skin on you and I.
A worm or two guarantees that a head of cabbage is safe to eat. The flawless-looking ones are preserved by the poison sprayed on them.
A farmer from Mantalongon gave me this piece of advice. That was not why I paid him careful attention then. This unschooled fellow impressed me because he was a millionaire just by toiling at the soil.
But the farmer corrected me. The real winners are the worms, which always get all of us in the end, said this man dying from the barrels of poison he sprayed on his crops.
Torn pieces of cabbage floating in beef lard still turn my stomach.
Fortunately, appetites overpower memory. It must be impossible to think of food and wallow in misery. Food just makes people happy.
My theory is that you can fall dead while eating but you cannot think of dying when you have on your tongue a succulent bit from the tail of a fish, its thinnest, leanest part and therefore, the one most saturated in black beans, garlic, and, if you prefer, peppery previews of the forbidden.
Whether hot or sweet, food is the last Piper, able to summon the living from the merely existing.
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