Saturday, October 18, 2008

No comfort food

WHEN I recently caught my mother in the act of breaking a house rule, I had no choice. I helped her finish a suspicious-looking can of peach preserves.

After several health scares involving lead, melamine and even monosodium glutamate, my fifteen-year-old son now bans all foods that are made in China from the small kitchen cabinet where we store our snacks.

But he cannot ban his grandmother.

Ever since my sister and I were no larger than a plump wrinkled heavenly salty “dikiam,” my mother always kept jars full of these preserved fruits on a recess above her clothes.

When she was trying to work up an appetite (she chain-smoked then), she sucked a seed. When she ate too much, she had another to calm down the threatened revolt.

Whenever she heard my grandmother about to enter her room, in went another black (“dikiam”) or red (“kiamoy”) ball to disguise the smell of nicotine on her breath (by jumping up and down the bed, my sister and I took care of the telltale smoke wreathing my mother).

As I remember of those days, things were simple: it was good to eat and bad not to.

Now, I have to remember with an effort that the act of eating is no longer pure or simple or good.

In 2007, China-manufactured toys were recalled in the United States. Overnight, these pricey imports were the least cool things to be found inside your kid’s mouth.

It wasn’t just because of the choking hazard. US authorities discovered that many of the toys contained a toxic amount of lead.

Ingesting lead can damage brain cells, I reported my Internet browsing to my boys. Though my sons are no longer at an age that can be bribed with a fast food meal that comes with a free toy, I still spent hours trying to recall if they ever, just once in the past, popped inside their mouth the made-in-China fireball-blasting ray gun that came free with their burger and fries.

When the recent mass poisoning cases in China were traced to melamine-positive milk, I reconfigured parenting’s minimum requirements: some chemistry background, journalistic sixth sense and baking know how to detect traces of melamine in the most angelic-seeming “polvoron,” √©clair and other milk-based products.

Will this melamine episode rewrite the unwritten rules of amatory food-giving? I have other worries. Our family strolls around the Danao plaza are often punctuated with a P10-plastic cup of streetside mango shake.

When all that mellow golden silk slides down my throat, I don’t have to imagine real mango slices because I watch our “suki” scoop these into his blender. But will I be able to live with, let alone swallow and keep down, niggling questions about his milk?

With my family in mind, buying grocery has become a domestic rigor, a discipline in ferreting. Before putting an item inside my cart, I read and reread its list of contents as if reviewing a resumé. Every bag of noodles is a job applicant that must be interviewed and background-checked in case it harbors some life-altering chemical.

Occasionally, though, my inner rebel throws a fit. Then I remember the bags of candied plum, “haw-haw” flakes, dried black and white melon seeds and White Rabbit candies with wrappers that melted in my mouth. Then, there was no aftertaste: of shoddy consumer product safety, of world trade conspiracies.

While I grant that the past always catches up with us, I didn’t have in mind the long shadow of tainted food imports. Numbered are the days when comfort food meant the bite of sugar and salt, plain water and tart secrets. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 12, 2008 issue

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