Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Manna in the city

THE PLATE of bananas broke the pall of pork.

In their speckled olive coats, the boiled plantains appeared one breakfast. Their presence was a drab contrast to the glazed meats and holiday sweets, some of which were still festooned with red and green ribbons.

Slight and curved, the bananas' silhouettes resembled boats rocking in the swells of an immense sea. The shape reminded me of the distance traveled by the bananas to reach our table.

When I bit into one, steaming and plump, I imagined how relatives of friends who wanted to savor Christmas in the city must have picked them, green and still dripping sap, before boarding their bus.

In the countryside, bananas are so common and cheap, they get none of the respectful handling bus conductors reserve for, say, a pig.

To be a banana means to be always tossed on board. A few "sipi" of "saging" (a crownlike cluster) will get squashed in a box that's squashed again into the running board, a furnace-like compartment located near the bus engine.

Even when it's a "bulig" (a stalk containing several "sipi") placed inside a nylon sack, the bananas still get unceremoniously tossed to the bus "top load," where passengers caging a free ride sometimes perch.

If during the journey, a "dawin" or a finger of banana detaches from a "sipi" and ends up splattered on the road, no one will pause to reflect: what a waste!

Bananas are common and cheap, unlike a pig.

A pig transported to the city gets consideration from the surliest conductor. That's because, though noisy and noisome, a pig is a commodity. Lechon (roast pig) on its way to a party in the city will deserve three paid seats on a bus or, at least, a commissioned motorbike delivery, including the cushioned seat of its messenger's lap.

Yet, these stellar attractions of Cebuano feasts sometimes leave an unfortunate aftertaste. Aside from raising cholesterol and uric acid levels, the lechon of Cebu requires aficionados to run the gauntlet, specially during Christmas, when consumption is at a high.

Horror stories abound. Of underweight lechon. Or the grossly overweight, the bamboo spit breaks and the carcass falls on the coals.

Of lechons that collapse right after a knife is stuck between the ribs because the "mangangasal" (lechon maker) has slyly carved away the "lomo" (prime cuts) lining the insides. Of stale pig's blood that bubbles and stinks, turning "dinuguan" (pork blood stew) into an inedible mess.

Or the lechon that is delivered without its traditional package of pig's blood and "ginhawaan" (internal organs). Of roasting so uneven, the carcass oozes red when the guests cut into it. Or roasting so perfect but the delivery is three hours late so guests have either expired or begun to gnaw each other.

Hearing this yearly whining, I wonder why Cebuanos do not make the sane decision to let pigs root in the mud in peace and turn to bananas instead.

The plantains I had that breakfast were just right, combining a still green firmness with the foreshadowed sweetness of maturity.

In Barili, I've heard it told that when there is nothing to eat, uplanders grate unripe plantains. Boiled and salted, the banana soup keeps hunger at bay.

Some bananas are sold to raise fare for a trip to the city. Others, to pay for school projects.

After bananas wind their way from some mountain remoteness to grace tables in the city, what can be tastier? 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu
's Dec. 28, 2008 issue

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