Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pork and the Bisdak

A CEBUANO knows his pork.

I first uttered this to the uncle last year. For lunch, we were having pork chops and pork barrel. The former was courtesy of a Parañaque butcher, whom the uncle vilified for mistaking tender for tough.

The latter, of course, was giving the whole country indigestion. I’ve been told that it’s a mistake to watch television news during meals. Yet hearing plunderers sidestep the issue of their accountability makes it easier to gnaw, tear and gnash a rubbery piece of meat.

It may be too vexatious, though, for the nation’s mental health to rely on a steady diet of plunder and frustration to exorcise its demons, er, pork.

The Cebuano way with pork is tastier. Here in the capital, the phrase, “lechon de Cebu,” carries a lot of weight unless one drops it carelessly in the presence of a Cebuano (i.e., someone who grew up dunking “puso tapul” in “inagos”—no need to translate if you are Cebu-born).

Pasty cubes of meat topped by scorched tiles of rubbery skin are the typical mall version of “lechon de Cebu”. The fat tube of liver sauce that’s nestled with the impostor in its shrink-wrapped Styrofoam tray is a giveaway. Did it oink in its past life? It may be a pig. Does this “lechon de Cebu” need saucy embellishments? Wrong provenance.

Coco vinegar, “siling kolikot” and crushed “ahos”. That’s all you need to face lechon de Cebu. (Clean hands and the cardiologist’s clearance help, too, for the bruising hand-to-hand combat.)

Given the number of Cebuanos who have served, willingly or unwittingly, as lechon-couriers for family and officemates, I wonder why no one outside Cebu simply repeats the recipe: stuff a pig with herbs, coat its insides with a pail full of salt, and flip it for hours over a slow fire.

Two of my college chums supplied Manila clients with lechon from Cebu, emphasis on the preposition. They gave up, overwhelmed by the demand. Why not recruit from the thousands of Cebuanos moving to Manila to make lechon locally? Aside from the awkwardness of marketing “lechon de Bicutan” or “lechon de QC,” the Bisdak lechon doesn’t translate well in the capital.

It must be something pigs eat in Cebu. Or the serious rounds of “tagay,” laced with sly Bisdak humor, which accompany the turning of the lechon on the spit.

Or the secret may be in the skewer, not the skewed. For an upland school affair, a pole of metal, not the usual bamboo “tirong,” roasted a pig that was as long and as broad as a dining table sitting 12. The following day, a Friday, we were again gathered around the same pole for a solemn flag retreat.

Nearly perfect as food or poison, the lechon de Cebu does have a limitation. During Christmas, New Year and the Sinulog, it is a challenge to find the perfect, lemongrass-scented, crackling lechon, given the way the holidays resurrect the carnivores from diet or denial.

If your family does not have a history of clogged arteries and swollen joints for at least a century, you are unlikely to have a lechon “suki” who will not charge you a sinful price for a dish that will precipitately reunite you with your ancestors.

Alternative “pasalubong” are chicharon and chorizo. When Cebu runs out of pigs to roast, these delicacies, requiring less meat, remain in stock. Yet, last week, my “suki” for native chorizo opened with a bare counter for two days after Sinulog, which, ironically, recorded fewer visitors than previous fiestas.

Thus, I left Cebu with only a pasalubong of special Chinese chorizo, whose missile-like silhouettes on the airport scanner alerted the guards into inspecting my bag. Initially mystified by my well-wrapped bag of Kwongbees (special but without liver, better than the best of Binondo and Ongpin), the guard cleared me after I said that these were best eaten, not fried, but popped into a pot of cooking rice (the heat expands but keeps the sausage tender and flavors the rice).

Like I said, Cebuanos know their pork.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 26, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Downtown vibe

SNOWFLAKES drifted down on Colon St.

Last Friday, I was having a burger and sundae, watched solemnly by a little girl in metallic pink Hello Kitty boots. Her mother was trying to pacify her baby brother, who was trying to arrange on his bald head his meat-speckled spaghetti lunch.

The smell of chicken grease was all around us. The little girl gripped a piece of chicken as if it were the Most Famous Cat Without a Mouth, trying to escape from her and the place of eternal frying.

I sympathized. I, too, wanted to go back out to the street I left moments ago. Colon: swarming, noisy, smelly and snowing. A building on the corner of Junquera and Colon Sts. was bristling with workers. Its façade, molting and white, was raining fine flakes on pedestrians.

Fiesta forecast: expect gustiness and a light rain of lead.

The days approaching the feast for the Sto. Niño find Colon St. and its environs at its best and worst. I like walking around downtown then because these times remind me of Cebu half a century ago. In the traffic rerouting for the Sinulog fiesta, the hundreds spilling out from the novena masses at the Basilica take over the streets closed to vehicles.

When I was a child, tagging along after my elders on errands, it was always a rule to leave behind the car because Colon was notorious for being a place where you had to invoke a miracle to find space to park your car. And if you did, you had to pray you’d still find your car intact or whole at the completion of your errand.

Yet, for all Cebuanos and visitors from nearby islands then, downtown Cebu was the center of all things, from the religious to the commercial. I think it unthinkable for a Cebuano of my generation not to have a picture snapped by a “maniniyot” who instructs one how to place one foot slightly in front while holding a balloon or an oily bag of nuclear-yellow popcorn in front of the façade of: a) the Basilica, b) Magellan’s Cross, or c) Fort San Pedro.

Children are not only easy to bribe but also light to drag around as their elders hop from store to store in search of downtown’s most coveted: a good buy. Colon, Manalili, Magallanes, Leon Kilat, Borromeo: these were the classrooms where every Cebuano learned the art of bargaining.

Whether one’s preferred gambit was friendly or aggressive, the rule was never to buy at the price first mentioned by the seller. One who did was a fool and the seller was excused from getting all his money.

On the other hand, some places suspended the Cebuano’s thrift. My aunts, ferocious in driving down the price of cloth or a pair of step-in, were docile as cows whenever we walked in a shop, bare except for a Sto. Niño and vigil lamp guarding an empty counter. Someone would appear, followed by bowed heads and a whispered conversation that always ended with, “Naay atay or wa (with or without liver)”? And then a bag of Chinese chorizos would exchange hands and we would leave, as quietly as we entered.

I always wondered why other sellers did not just follow the chorizo seller’s style: hide all their goods in a backroom to avoid the haggling. On the other hand, I think haggling is the continuum of a ritual with its roots in prehispanic barter.

Trading in downtown follows the “suki” tradition. No matter how hard the bargaining got to be, an amiable chat preceded and followed every bout between my elders and the store owner or clerk. Inquiries about health or children were usual. While having my watch battery replaced recently by my Colon “suki,” the sales clerk, guard and I discussed if going organic is the best way to handle stomach troubles. To repeat this in a mall is unthinkable.

Changes, including the efforts of the government and civil society, to remake Colon and the rest of downtown have met spotty success. Then and now, you need your wits and a good pair of legs to find the bargains, survive the streets, and appreciate the gritty downtown vibe.

I recently stopped for a young sidewalk vendor whose sign, “Rushed ID,” was the only ungrammatical one in about two blocks of these hawkers. I joked if his service was really the best since for P100, I could get my photos done yesterday.

The fellow scanned my face and said, “P90, ato lang i-Photoshop ang imong uban (for P90, we can digitally darken your gray hair).”

Facial reconstruction with discount!!! Nothing is quite like Colon and downtown Cebu.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 19, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The infant’s new clothes

SOME images are best captured by sight, not description.

On a busy Friday morning, at Legazpi corner P. Burgos Street, the traffic enforcer held up a hand to stop traffic for a couple pushing a cart.

While propelling with one hand, the man clutched to his waist two small figurines. These Sto. Niño images were unclothed.

Based on the red-and-gold images tottering with every jolt of their cart, I presumed the couple would later “dress up” the naked images for customers.

In the past two years that I’ve been unable to join the Sinulog, one of the sights I missed most were the busy stalls of vendors outside the Basilica.

In these stalls, as well as in nearby street corners and carts, perhaps the most lucrative enterprise next to the selling of Sto. Niño images during the January fiesta of the Holy Infant is the commerce involving miniature capes, crowns, scepters, orbs and even tiny pantaloons.

The dressing and accessorizing are part of many devotees’ preparations for the fiesta. In the same way that homeowners will order new curtains and bring out the best plates and silver for guests, the “bida (protagonist)” of the feast should also have new clothes.

My former teacher is a devotee who owns a towering Sto. Niño. She and her daughter carry this heavy and cumbersome image when they join the foot processions that open and close the novena leading to the fiesta. She has a “suki custorera (regular dressmaker)” to sew and fit the image’s garments, which are not renewed yearly but only when they show signs of wear. Moths are an irreligious lot and tinsel crowns quickly dent.

The refurbishment requires considerable expenses, specially as some images are bigger than dolls or real infants. As with any enterprise whose popularity and commerce intensifies with time, the Sto. Niño line, whether ready-to-wear or made-to- order, has diversified and specialized.

For instance, instead of a red-and-gold cape made of felt paper, gold rickrack and sequins, a customer can have a made-to-order fully lined cape in plush and thick velvet, embroidered by hand with gold and crystals. Genuine Sharobski, the vendor will tell one in all sincerity (she means these crystals were bought from Moro traders, not handmade in Austria).

The wealthy buy gold jewelry for their icon every fiesta. I have not seen any image dangle precious metal during processions, a sign that prevention of human avarice perhaps works better than petitions.

The practice of grooming one’s Sto. Niño turns off other devotees. Vainglory, they say. As with the emperor’s new clothes, the preoccupation with the corporeal reveals the frailties of faith, its susceptibility to spectacle and blindness to spirit.

Yet, strange is faith. Even in the tawdriest stall, a knock-kneed, pitted figurine is transformed from being a comical eunuch into the imperial and imposing “Patron”. Some of the vendors show skills beyond the artisanal, making what looks like stiff, bristling nylon flow and hang like real human hair, brushed a hundred times and one.

Watching vendor and customer attend to each image, I don’t think of children playing make-believe with dolls but of doting family members looking down on a favored child.

The impression is unshakable, glimpsed in a sea of hands waving at the replica of the Sto. Niño during the singing of the “gozos;” or in jeepneys, where the images are cradled by churchgoers or resting on laps; or in a driver who touches a dashboard image, its colors and features rubbed beyond recognition, for protection or luck on the road.

The red-and-gold image draws its power from crisscrossing narratives. Is it because an infant awakes protectiveness in the human? Or does the pull of the story stem from the hope stirred by God coming down to live with people? Faith is seeing, touching and believing, the myths aided by the Infant’s new clothes.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 12, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Niños

RECENTLY, I’ve had to rearrange the lights surrounding the image of the Holy Infant in our living room. After the 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Cebu and Bohol last year, the family replaced the candle lit at Angelus with a battery-powered series of blue and white lights.

When the lights blinked for the last time, we replaced the batteries. I noticed a veil of dust coating the pillow. I dusted the pillow and then, the shell-like ear and cheek of the image reclined on it.

This image of the Child Jesus came to our home three Christmases ago. The husband bought it from an antique seller in Vigan, whose selling spiel stressed the “ivory dusting.”

I don’t know what the term means. The image’s chief claim to art is its resemblance to a real infant. Almost a foot in length, the image reminds me of a baby raising his arms to be carried. Its slightly drooping eyes are soft and guileless; from the left eye, either paint or varnish trickled, making me think of an infant who, woken from a nap, cries to be held.

For the husband, it was the small penis of the image that pushed him to wrap it in “hablon,” the plain cotton woven by women in Ilocos Sur. After a little finger snapped off during handling, he decided to carry the swaddled figure in his arms from Manila to Dumaguete to Cebu. In the airport, passengers cooed over the “baby”. A male colleague was spooked by it.

When the husband finally pushed open our gate, our companion thought he was bringing home someone’s baby. I scoured the stalls of Carbon to find a basket, made of rattan, that would hold it. Only after we placed it under the Christmas tree were we struck for the first time that we now have two images of the Holy Infant.

When our first son was born 20 years ago, I thought the retelling of the story of Nativity centered on the man-God born in a manger was not complete without “props”. I found a small figurine of about six inches in a store in Cebu City that also sold a small crib made of “salago” twigs.

The “props” eventually took over the story as the son arranged his toys around the crib and its reclining image every December. When the second son was born, the plastic farmland toys were replaced by racing cars, robots and construction figures. The small figurine suffered a broken neck and finger, but after gluing, the Nativity story went unaltered.

When the boys became older and rechanneled their energies to the digital world, we kept the image of the Holy Infant on the table near the main door the whole year round. Sometimes I touch it before leaving or upon returning. More often, it is forgotten until December draws near.

Last Oct. 15, 2013, when the temblor hit Cebu and Bohol with the strength of “32 Hiroshima bombs,” as described by Inquirer Visayas, some wooden Japanese dolls, books and bric-a-brac fell from our shelves. I was in Manila then and only heard the account of how our home escaped unscathed, including the dozen or so images of the Sto. Niño.

For the arrival of the Vigan image made me do a headcount. How many images of the Infant Jesus is in your home? In ours, there’s a gold-leaf painting on an old block of wood, made and given by the late artist Tito Cuevas, who also painted the image on river stones. There are metal, plaster and flourescent copies of the Holy Infant garbed in imperial gear, with its familiar crown, globe and scepter. There’s a wooden carving of a sleeping child, resting on the globe, its scepter forgotten against its leg, a Cebuano artist’s rendition of the Child taking a respite from eternal vigilance.

My late father cut and pasted on the inside of a clam we had in our meal an image of the Child that he dusted with gold and watercolor. I later stuck the clam on a cardboard covered in red for my sons’ school’s celebration of Sinulog.

I’m not a collector of icons. Our house is too tiny to hold anything but books and other essentials.

But as we learned last October, there’s always room for the Child in every home. Man-made images may suffer a broken neck or finger. But not even the energy released by 32 Hiroshima bombs can stir what lies at the heart of the Sto. Niño.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 5, 2014 issue of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column