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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Food Comma: A writer describes how to make love out of food

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A WRITER cannot live by words alone, so I’ve heard, but cookbooks are almost as good as eating, all the more if the book has good photographs or interesting illustrations, or ties to memory and the past.

My mother has a Betty Crocker cookbook from 1958 that we still treasure. It has nearly fallen apart from my reading it as a child and fantasizing about each colorful cake and pie oozing with caramel and cooked frosting in the brightly colored pictures.

Growing up in the 1970s, most of the cookbooks my mother owned were published in the United States. She cooked some of the recipes in them—roast crown of pork, the fat dripping onto tender and juicy meat; cheese fondue, a molten blend of cheddar and Edam (queso de bola) left over from the holidays, into which we’d dip cubes of toasted Tasty bread; and beef stew with carrots and potatoes that she flavored with Wyler’s beef bouillon cubes wrapped in blue foil.

But the recipes she came back to time and again were the recipes passed among the women of the family, each home cook adding her own special fillip to the dish. There was some cousin’s roast chicken, stuffed with whole onions and baked in the oven, its drippings hissing as it dropped sizzling into the pan beneath, being saved to make gravy with.

There was Tita Nana’s apple pie, made with green Chinese apples bought in Divisoria during the holiday season, liberally flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg, dotted with Golden Crown butter, and topped with grated cheddar cheese for a salty offset to the sweetness.

Tita Mori had a good leche flan that my mom upgraded with 12 egg yolks from eight and a longer baking time for a deep golden brown skin that was almost a crust and so delicious we would scrape its last bits from the llanera.

During my childhood I remember few Filipino cookbooks of note but I do know that our kitchen bible was a Nora Daza cookbook that contained a great many basic and useful recipes. When I married, I took with my mother’s copy (and her Betty Crocker cookbook) with her annotations and notes in blue ink, her handwriting sprawled colegiala-style across the newsprint.

Daza’s book had everything—from rellenong bangus to Brazo de Mercedes, it was all there. I believe it’s never gone out of print. Such tomes, with their wisdom on the fundamentals of cooking, should be given to all new brides and folks setting up house. No more punch bowls, please—I received three at my wedding and never used them. Better to have a book that teaches one how to make an omelette properly, how to gut and clean fresh fish, and how to cook rice so the grains are fluffy and separated and not a homogenous mush.

I love to cook when I can, when circumstances permit. For the last 10 years I was engaged in a struggle to support my two younger daughters on my own, and I didn’t have time to cook the way I did as a newly-wed—the pink angel cake with cooked cherry frosting from scratch, the lasagna with three cheeses (cottage, cheddar, and parmesan make the sauce creamy and packed with flavor, a secret shared by my stepfather).

Now I am starting over in another land, and I am cooking again. While it takes time away from writing, cooking is another form of creating, an art that delivers immediate results that can be touched, tasted, and savored.

Preparing my mise-en-place, getting the skillet heat just so, pouring olive oil in a joyous swirl—the simple steps of cooking can put me in a trance, from which I emerge triumphant with a panful of spicy chicken curry golden with turmeric and ginger, or creamy honey ham and pea pasta, or yes, the legendary lasagna that I had not made for 15 years, once again made tangible just a few days ago, and that my youngest daughter, who had never tasted it, declared the best she’s ever had.

The internet now puts within our reach countless recipes from around the world. I read those, and cookbooks still. Although that 1958 Betty Crocker was left behind in Manila, I just ordered the latest edition released last October.

And so it goes. A recipe is a story of a dish. The words you read guide your hands as they move in the dance of chop-stir-shake to create food that is bubbling and fragrant and delicious and all that you need right this moment.

What have you done? You have created a tasty new story for your family and beloveds, which will become a shared memory repeated over dinner tables into the future, with laughter and fondness.

This is what love tastes like.

Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember

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