Saturday morning. I used to wake up to watch cartoons. Now I watch cooking shows. Before there were cooking shows, I used to enjoy watching my mother cook. Looking back, I suppose she was my first Food Network star, although in the 1960s celebrity cooks were a select group, were crowned by Michelin, and lived in France.
Mom didn’t know how to cook when she met my father. She lived a pampered, sheltered life in Manila with a surrogate mother who refused to allow her into the kitchen because her slippers could get wet.
After she married Dad after WWII and settled into a life devoid of luxury, she discovered that he knew his way around the kitchen and she set out to learn – quite successfully – how to cook for him and their sons.
Mom eventually outdid my father in the kitchen and fed us quite well – on a tight budget, no less. By the time I was aware of her expertise in the kitchen I rarely saw a cookbook. She cooked from memory and by taste and touch.
We ate an array of cuisines: Traditional Filipino dishes like kare-kare (oxtail peanut stew) and sinigang (beef, pork or shrimp in sour broth). Chinese staples like chop suey and egg drop soup. Spanish callos (similar to Mexican menudo), American fried pork chops with mashed potatoes and corn, and French coq au vin. Desserts and treats like sans rival (meringue butter layer cake), coconut cream pie and fruit cake.
In the early 1980s we moved to California. After she was widowed and had breast cancer surgery in the late 1980s, I asked her to put on paper all the recipes she carried around in her head. The result was a spiral-bound notebook with a compilation of savory and sweet recipes, old and contemporary, all written in her florid hand. It’s one of my treasures, one I’ve shared with my brother and his daughter, both of whom are really good cooks.
I’ve been tempted to cook my way through the notebook, ala Julie and Julia. I’m unsure if my family and I can endure that process. After overcoming my intimidation I’ve tried a few recipes, like the Shanghai-style lumpia and, much more recently, the chiffon cake. I’m encouraged to try more. Mom would be happy if I did…I would be happy to relive the food of my family.