IN December, we always have First of May.
I only recently learned the name of the family making the ice cream that has been a part of the feast my mother-in-law prepares for the holiday.
J, my nephew, was born a day after the changing of the year. For the past 23 years, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and J’s birthday roll into a cornucopia of flavors. Only the homemade ice cream stands the test of time.
“Lechoneros” come and go. The holidays are tough also on them. The yearlong demand for what is arguably Cebu’s king of feasts tests the ability to not just come up with the crispiest skin and the most flavorful ribs but also best business practices like honesty, consistency and dependability.
As Cebuanos who know their pig, my mother- and sister-in-law have gone through a lot of entrepreneurs, from Talisay to Carcar, in the search for the lechon that’s fit to grace the table for the holidays.
Over the years, lechon came served with a side dish: tidbits about the shifting fortunes of those behind the turning of the spit. We intimately know who subcontracted the roasting without heeding the consequences, who ran away with a younger lover who ran away with the lechon profits.
In contrast with the lechonero discarded like last year’s calendar, the ice cream maker stays. In mango, chocolate and vanilla, the ice cream, which comes in a tall metal drum as high as a grown man’s hips, was like having perpetual summer in December: the children would play, stop, fill up with ice cream, play again.
My childhood was summoned by the melting of my nephew’s birthday ice cream on my tongue. Our elders called it by different names: “dirty ice cream” if it was sold on the streets from a cart-pushing, bell-ringing vendor, “sorbetes” if it was made painstakingly by family helpers.
In keeping with its names were the images: the sweat that poured from the men whipping up the ice cream, the salt sprinkled on the blocks of dry ice surrounding the inner vat of ice cream in the “garapiñera,” the old-fashioned ice cream-maker wrapped in jute sack, the nut-brown hands of the ice cream vendor whom we tried to catch peeing on the road to confirm if he truly deserved the “dirty” tag.
The legends persisted even when the homemade buko ice cream was replaced by other sweets at my aunt’s feasts, when our elders passed away and with them, a way of cooking, bonding, and living.
I rediscovered the sorbetes at my in-law’s feast. In its company, the husband and older son behave as only children can on an endless summer afternoon.
Even though the children are no longer children, the ice cream remains a holiday tradition.
Decades older and several health emergencies later, I watch myself around ice cream, savored best as a childhood memory rather than an indulgence requiring atonement.
But Christmas is Christmas. Last Friday, I asked for and got a bowl heaping with scoops of mellow yellow and a chocolate-flecked ivory. The latter is cookies and cream, a new flavor.
To my surprise, I learn that behind the First of May ice cream is a young couple continuing their parents’ trade. They also limit themselves to orders they can meet. During holidays, that means catering only to the regulars and turning away would-be clients.
That’s a recipe for less profits but better memories. Some traditions are worth keeping.
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*First published in the December 27, 2015 issue of Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”