Friday, December 24, 2010


It's because of her I cook, and possibly cook well.

It's her voice I hear when I shop for ingredients, reminding me that I need more of this, less of that. That I don't need to spend so much for this and instead--why don't I try what I've got in the house?

My Ilocano mother was a brilliant cook. That she could make something out of nothing was endemic to her day and time, when resources were scarce and surviving during wartime occupation -- good times hard to find. But when family got together, and guests came over, you put out your best. And mama ALWAYS put out her best, especially here in America, where she built a comfortable life for us. This was a woman who learned to cook on a stove made from firewood and stones, cooking rice in a clay pot, and preparing fish freshly caught from the sea nearby and vegetables grown in the family garden.

Those practices stayed with her in America, and mama's garden was full of hot purple garlic from the Philippines, sweet potatoes, whose greens we'd eat, and calabasa - or what we now refer to as kombucha squash. She kept the ocean perch she caught in the Monterey Bay in her freezer in the garage, and was always, as they say these days -- food secure. Its a value that I take with me. Unconsciously, I still feel the anxiety she felt working hard to make sure there was rice, salt and sugar in the house by New Year's or else, as cultural superstition dictated, you'd go hungry that year.

From my dad, I learned all about volume. He cooked three meals a day for 200 men--mostly migrant laborers "imported" from Mexico to harvest lettuce, apples and strawberries. I was a kid, not old enough to go to school but observant enough to be fascinated by the stores of beans and rice my father kept in the dry goods room of his kitchen, and a walk-in refrigerator where freshly slaughtered pig was quartered for family meals for an entire season. My fondest memory of the summer was taking naps on sacks of pinto beans and breathing in the rice flour talc covering the Calrose rice my dad used to make arroz con tomates. Mexican rice.

All the rest came from instinct--from learning away from home how to make a roast chicken - a basic food lesson that everyone who wants to take care of themselves should learn. How to make a pilaf, which is the basis for most cooking throughout the world. When I was grown I watched mama cook with interest: how and why she'd smash garlic into a paste in hot oil before putting in the meat and vegetables - it softened the garlic sharpness. I watched when she browned the meat before pouring in the braising liquids for a long-slow roasting in the oven. When I was much older and she could no longer recall the difference between salt and sugar, it became my turn to take over in the kitchen, and I was cooking for her.

2010. Christmas Eve morning, my nephew Nikko called from North Carolina to retrieve my recipe for chicken adobo--he was cooking Christmas Eve dinner for his girlfriend's family tonight.  Tonight, my sister Rain, her husband Rick and my niece Felicia came over to my house for Christmas Eve dinner. A first. We had a meal I remembered from Cafe Angeline's in Paris: salmon and haricot verts. Poached salmon with creamy tarragon sauce and green beans, accompanied by champagne and zabayon for dessert. We paused and prepared a meal for the ancestors -- for Mama, whose picture faces my kitchen-dining room in my cozy little cottage in Berkeley. Felicia, my blog co-creator and Number 1 in the kitchen was helping.

Per our tradition, particularly now that Mama has passed, we lit candles in memory and in prayer, and I could only say that this was a dream. My family, here, with me. And like Mama, I put out my best. It was my duty.

Mama, this is for you. You taught me well, and we learn and remember: you are what you eat, and you are what you cook. So glad you were there to teach me and continue to be here, right in the heart. That's where I cook from.