Friday, October 12, 2007

Mom

During my sophomore year in college, I ate almost nothing but ramen noodles. By then, I’d heard a lot about MSG poisoning, so I was afraid of the ramen spice packet. I had so little money, but we had the student union. Back then, it was called the memorial union. Instead of the M.U., all the students called it "the moo." It housed the cafeteria and a handful of little fast-food joints. The condiments at the moo were free. Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salt ... but never sugar--I didn't think ramen would make a very nice dessert. From Taco Bell, I’d get the hot sauces, and from chik-fil-a, the dipping sauces. I don't know about now, but back then, chick fil a had a Polynesian dipping sauce. Don't put that on ramen. It makes the noodles slimy.

Obviously, I wasn't a very good cook. The previous year, as a freshman, I’d eaten most of my meals out, or just had bowl after bowl of life cereal. I’d eat with my roommate, and I must've been the only freshman to lose weight her first year--my roommate was vegetarian. Later, I found out she had an eating disorder. I was always afraid of that. But those were the dorms. There was an after, and more importantly, for our purposes, there was a before.

There was Mom's food, and on weekend mornings, Dad's food. Every meal came from their hands. It took actual decades to realize, but I was lucky; Mom worked from home. McDonalds and KFC were very rare. At the time, we might have called them treats, but I never missed them when we didn't have them, and I never craved them when they were gone awhile. Mom's food filled that emptiness on so many levels. It wasn't just vitamins and minerals, proteins and carbs. It was memory, culture, and tradition. Most of my friends would sometimes look at my school lunches funny, but how could they understand, we were born with the taste for the sea and the earth.

I never realized it at the time, but I remember now, Mom never bought produce. My parents and my four brothers and I lived in a track house in the suburbs, but it was an agricultural town, even under the hopscotch sidewalks and cookie cutter houses. Dad plowed the lawns under in the front and back yards, built terraces with drainage, brought in fertilizer and seed. Years later, I see that our fraction of an acre was a farm. Every fruit I could name, every vegetable I’d ever seen, they all seemed to have a place, in the suburbs, in the middle of all the culture class, the weird looks of my schoolmates, the curious looks of neighbors with their hedges and lawns, these fruits and vegetables, growing as if it were the most natural thing to do. They knew. Sustenance and nourishment never lie.

Mom had always wanted me to learn her dishes, but I wasn't interested. I had always wanted to be outside playing, inside reading, somewhere else helping my dad, especially helping Dad. We’d work in the garden. He’d grown up on a farm by the sea, walking the water buffalo to plow the rice paddies, swimming and spearing fish for the night’s dinner. His house, so near the water, was up on stilts, and many of the farm’s animals, like the pigs and the dogs, lived under the house. While we’d work the garden, he would tell stories. I was always fascinated by them. That's why I clung to his side while we worked in the garden. The stories. My mom never told stories. She never talked about her family. There had been some sort of falling out, and none of us kids could ever get her to tell us what happened. It’s as if she’d never had a childhood, as if her life began with her new family. Mostly, mom just cooked. Her cooking was the only story she brought over. I was too stubborn to listen. Getting me into the kitchen wasn’t any easier as I grew older. We actually fought a lot, about trivial things, but when you’re intent, the trivial becomes so big. The whole time I was in high school, our battles made us forget we were family. By the time I left for college, I was glad.

We'd taken so many things for granted in each other. Broken hearts seem to perpetuate their own pollution, their own cloudy background noise. All we could hear were words heard and said that we couldn't take back.

The year following my ramen year, I moved into my first apartment. Here I was, in my first place, the first space I could call mine after leaving the dorms. Here was the first sense of home I’d had since leaving the house I grew up in. I gave it the look of home with all my posters and photos, and the sound of home with all my music. I wanted that taste of home. No more free condiments, but I had a job and some money saved, so that meant groceries, and groceries meant cooking. Except I couldn't cook.

I called my mom and asked her about chicken adobo. Chicken adobo is considered a national dish of the Philippines, combining Spanish and Asian flavors. It’s also a dish of the family—-with many seeing it prepared as often as weekly. It’s simple, easy, filling, and delicious. I had no inkling as to how to cook it, though.

Mom told me the basic ingredients I would need, and I went out and got them, then came back and called her back. She walked me through making the dish. It was frustrating at first—she wouldn’t say the right things, or I wouldn’t hear the right things, and vice versa. But between the two of us, we made the decision to work through it, building the dish carefully. I’d ask for measurements, but she didn’t know them, having always cooked by sight, sound, and taste, strangely following the instincts I’d followed when making putting my little apartment together. She walked me through memories. I knew these things-—they were familiar, just like this dish, making its appearance throughout my life. I remembered how it looked, how it smelled, and then, how it tasted. She gave me her story with every bay leaf and peppercorn. I was addicted and hungry for more. I clung to every drop and every word.

I would call Mom every few days, asking her for guidance through dishes. We'd talk about everything in and around cooking, and just started talking in general. We'd remember our history together, remember when she taught me how to cook a basic pot of rice or get the garbanzo beans ready for stew. We stirred memories as we talked. Every dish was like a page in a family scrapbook, only more powerful and substantial. It was like coming home. Coming home never tasted so sweet.

4 comments:

Dolores said...

What a beautiful tribute... thanks for sharing a piece of yourself and your mom with us.

And I had a Ramen sophomore year too. :)

Julie said...

Dolores, thank you! My blog (in this form) is new, but I'm sure I'll write about my mom a lot. It's wonderful to have gone from dreading spending a single moment to her, to smiling fondly at just the thought of her. She's more than earned a place here.

I'll confess, I sometimes crave that salty, starchy noodle soup. My mom would turn Ramen into egg-drop soup, so I'd say the taste is ingrained. =)

Manang said...

I spent the last 30 mins (or so) reading your posts...I was especially touched with this one.

It was for this very reason (that kids usually are not interested to learn how to cook until they have to do it themselves) that I started blogging, with sometimes the smallest detail, keeping in mind that I am "teaching" my kids how to cook, picturing them reading through my posts when they are at that age of cooking, and I hope I have done a good job so far...
That, and some comments from readers who have gained from my teachings as well, are what motivate me mainly to continue blogging despite the lack of time...
of course finding new friends are a plus!

Julie said...

Manang, thank you! I was emotional while writing it, and feel it again whenever I revisit it or think about the memories it contains. Good for you for blogging! Food really is an important part of a family's and culture's heritage! Your kids may not know it for awhile, but they'll be grateful someday for your efforts to record this history! Thank you for visiting--you're always welcome here, of course!