Friday, April 24, 2009

Musings of a Chef : Food, Childhood and Happiness from a Rural Past

One of my top favorite blogs of all time is the page of Sidney. Mr. Snoeck is an expatriate photographing the Philippines, and as a Firipin-jin myself, I could say that he truly has captured the very 'soul' of my country, catching with his lens those that I even missed with the naked eye. Mr. Snoeck is some kind of visionary. He shows the world not the post-card perfect photos that the department of tourism offers, but the back streets, little people, and the true lives.

Mr. Snoeck gave me a permission to feature his entry “ Rural Life: A First Glimpse”. Among his photos, this one is something that holds a very poignant message to me. Before the age of laptops and condo living, yours truly has lived that very same life. Thank you Mr. Snoeck, sir. Maraming salamat po.

Growing up in the Philippines- depends on the family you had – is a colorful tapestry akin to an Isabel Allende novel. My family tree shows a lineage of farmers, artists, craftsmen, military people, academicians, and, there's only one cook there- a distant grandfather, who, when I was eleven, I started following around. My father, a Melquiades with large doses of artistic geniality for some biblical reasons settled to become a carpenter. The wood cuts from his work shops, the smell of shaved wood, are now distant reminiscence every time I shave dark chocolates or make sasagakis.

I grew up in a small compound with a lot of people- mostly grandparents who decided to live with my mother. Los abuelos y abuelas. Aside from them, also living with us were many house helps- those young people whom my parents were sending to school in exchange for working in the house or in my father's shop.

Although we were scrubbed clean, it seemed that my grandparents wanted us to live their lifestyle during the tiempo Japon- if only to teach us the many hidden blessings of human survival in adversity. I saw them and yayas (nannies)- chop wood for fuel; and us young children were tasked to gather food from vines crawling on the roof; and when typhoons ravaged our province, we made use of the fruits from fallen trees. We went to the swamp to gather water spinach. In the backyard, we were taught to raise chickens, and I think we raised too many that sometimes neighbors were just taking chance to steal one or two from us. That was when I learned to dress live chicken, a big advantage on my part when I observe how culinary schools limit such experience to students.

As the norm in the province, fisher folks peddled their wares by walking from one town to another. Sometimes fish were all wiggly in the net; way too fresh and alive. Indeed, fresh fish from the sea has a somewhat sweet after taste, you could imagine it breathing. Now it makes me realize why Filipinos are very down to the basic of cooking: in one way or another, we prefer our fish to be as close to its original form; a little salt, a little fire- and solved. That simple.
Even at such excruciating situations of sleeping under a mosquito net (sometimes when it rained, we got drenched as well because of some holes in the grass roof) with geckos burping at some distant trees, no ice cream, no TV, no computer games, a few clothes- I was too young to think of poverty. Such term didn't have a place in my psyche. When there was no electricity, we'd play games in the moonlight; the elders made me recite “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, or we simply watched fireflies.

Getting what I wanted was easy. When I wanted something, say a hula hoop, had my 'yaya' make me one. We had a very artistic real playhouse that my father patterned after American architecture. When I wanted many clothes, my cousins and I made paper dolls from old school notebooks and, with scissors and some crayons, voila!- the wardrobe of Marie Antoinette. We also toyed around with the left over fabric that my grandmother discarded from her sewing machine.
It also seemed that we had traded toys for books, for while I haven't held a Barbie doll until I was eleven years old, I was glad enough have a glimpse of the lives of Madame de Pompadour, Elizabeth Seton, the Andalusian flamenco dancers with voluminous skirts... - all of them leaped to life while we leafed through the world encyclopedias and The Books for Asia - in search for gowns to make my dolls. Such also was my first discovery of the Charlotte russe. And that because I could only look at the photos of food but never really ate them, I became better at illustrating food – which got me my first ever award: poster making contest during the nutrition month in grade one.

Because of that grandfather who taught me to cook, I made my first crème caramel at eleven, only later as a teenager, got laughed at for making pearl shakes, kebabs and bruschetta (since it was very rural, the only orientation of young people to food are the usual fares,i.e. Barbecue is the same ol' pork; sandwich is same ol' chicken sandwich). If you're an aspiring cook, you'd risk a few dosage of embarrassment by being explorative of what you see in cook books. People are skeptical of the new, the strange, and the foreign.
After many years however, despite the more refined nature of buttered fish, braised meats and flaky butter pastries, I haven't outgrown the taste of the humble vegetables in coconut milk, the fish paksiw, the hot steaming rice. Each mouthful of such dishes are highly reminiscent of those smoky kitchens, making you remember how the smoke stung your eyes as you tried to fan it away.

Quite unthinkable to imagine sometimes, culinary arts is one of the most expensive elitist disciplines in the modern education, and truly it takes some luck- coupled with a fierce imagination and daydreaming- to rise from the fish- grilling, swamp- wading, environment to the highly demanding kitchens. But if we are to look at it closely, everything from the smallest moments to the grandest victories, everything works to our favor.
Times spent in my grandparents' farms helped me now as a cook determine the seasonality of the produce, tell what a good corn from a bad one, when passion fruits are at the peak of their fruiting....And except that I no longer knew how to climb coconut (I swear, I used to climb coconuts up to ten feet high) I could make a great coco milk – a skill learned from the many summers cooking guinataan and pinangat. I had my first bulgur cereal from the rations of Americans; and later as a student of cookery in college, all my other classmates who grew up in the cities didn't know what it was.

Growing up in a third world country amidst all these media exposures from the first worlds presents a lot of longings for people my age to 'get there'. To get where? Sometimes it pays that you don't watch too much TV and absorb too many information about recession; that you are a little blind and a little deaf – the voice inside your head speaks louder when other's opinions don't bother you. Your imagination runs wilder- overcoming limits and borders; there's just so much freedom. You get everything you want- even more than you want. Life is easy. There is no place for envy. The path to happiness isn't all that hard nor moments of bliss that limited. Good is rewarded, bad is punished to teach a lesson or two. Unfortunately some young people of our times may be a little too ashamed to reveal what their past was (true to me when I was a little younger) but as Steve Jobs had put it, “Don't waste your time living someone else's life.”

There's also so much that the little details of our lives could teach us about food and cooking, and specially about human satisfaction. Sometimes in the middle of a heated meeting, my chefs would whine about how competitors had more than we, i.e., better benefits, equipment, etc., but while all of that are opinions I respect- and had to act on -, having had a rural childhood taught me a lot about satisfaction of the here and now. Keep your eyes off your neighbor's pan and focus on your own- you'll make better sauce.

When you become better the following day than you were yesterday, poverty and wanting for more dissolves like sugar in hot water- until you could no longer see it. From the rural past, you embark on new journeys. You change. You take risks. These musings are necessary, I tell my men, for most of all, being a chef is not just all about cooking. It is also about leadership: being the first- that if we want our customers become satisfied with what we create, we must first become satisfied- and make the most- of what we have.

My grandparents taught me well.

Circa 2009: That big house over there fronting my mother's lawn is a residence of US retirees – before the rice field became a subdivision, that used to be my grandfather's corn farm; and that lawn used to be all swampy with lots of water cabbage and escargots. I took this photo from the veranda of our attic's library – where world encyclopedias of childhood are still housed to this day.

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