Saturday, October 18, 2008

Flavors and farewells

LONG after the last farewells, our refrigerator still holds out a few tendrils from what seemed like an endless clan reunion.

Poking my head in the ref one morning, I saw dried mango, mango tarts, maringo, barquillos and other delicacies that had to be farmed out among those of us staying put in the country because relatives returning to distant shores could no longer stuff it in their already excess baggage.

Food defines us; it perks up our welcoming and flavors our farewells.

When my grandmother turned 90 last month, she can still thread a needle at daytime but can no longer spend hours in a hot kitchen anymore. But since her sons, daughters, sisters, in-laws, grandchildren and other family members were coming home with their well-wishing, as well as unflagging appetites, the meals that always defined her table took on an even more prominent place.

For the tongue is an unflagging organ of memory.

When returning Pinoys want to see how the city of their birth has changed, the guided food tour is de rigueur for local relatives who want to show off either the new cosmopolitan diversity or the constancy of the city’s culinary heart.

The availability of 101 coffee variations and the most eclectic fusion of food fads still pale to the discovery that the favorite hangout from the old days of cruising the streets from dusk till dawn still serves the best sinugbang atay ug batikon (even if its former habitu├ęs are now less free to indulge, much chastened from elevated cholesterol, spiked blood sugar or disastrous HB1AC tests).

But nothing can beat a home-cooked meal for making a Pinoy realize he never left.

Home is in one’s tongue.

It’s not just that home is the only place where one is awakened by the immigrant’s luxury: the sounds and smells of breakfast being prepared at dawn. Or that Pinoy families have a gift for talking, chewing and swallowing at the same time.

Or that home is the only place where, in one of those unexplained miracles, the slow, long and mysterious ways of preparing dishes are carried out by an unbroken line of younger disciples, who, secreting kitchen wisdom from their pores, know that only native chicken can produce the broth that makes the bam-i unforgettable, or that homemade sorbetes demands that a group of sweating men should take turns at the antique ice cream-maker (although the link between male sweat and light-as-air ice cream is less a kitchen secret and more of a family joke).

Distance and time have yet to dull that leap. Among the left-behind pasalubong in the ref, I saw a strange but familiar packet.

Before leaving, my cousins and aunt shared with us some of the special baye-baye delivered by Bayawan City relatives. Smelling of toasted cacao, the candied coconut meat reminded me of an uncle who was unable to join the latest reunion.

We would have gone after the fish down south. But while my uncle searches for a worthy enough fishing rod and we convince the fishes they have to save their strength for the fight of their lives when he comes home, I hope he will look closer at the photographs his sons took during their stay.

It’s unmistakable: images of beaming faces during reunion feasts betray this telltale sheen.

For nowhere but home is the Pinoy most articulate: when his mouth is shut but his heart and guts are bursting. 01973226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 19, 2008 issue

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