Gimme a Pigfoot + a Bottle of Beer.

Keith and I spent Easter Sunday with my family at my uncle’s weekend house in Tagaytay, which is about thirty miles or so south of Manila. Everyone calls my uncle’s place “The Farm,” since he and my aunt grow quite a bit of vegetables, herbs, citrus and flowers, but it’s unlike any farm I think anyone would ever encounter.

For one thing, the only thing the house has in common with a typical (American) farmhouse is the wraparound porch, and most of the grounds are manicured and sprawling with a basketball court, two decorative ponds that my younger cousins and my cousins’ children fish from, an outdoor kitchen, and multiple patio areas shaded by flowering vines.

Oh, and there’s also a lechón hut.

I don’t know if it’s actually called a lechón hut per se, but as it’s a hut in which you can roast lechón on a spit… I’m going with it, especially because lechón was the main course of the day. Also on the “menu” were also barbecued chickens, pancit (rice noodles pan-fried with vegetables), banana heart salad (banana heart slivers, julienned green mango and other fruits and vegetables, all tossed with a coconut cream dressing), tilapia grilled in banana leaves (the Asian version of cooking en papillote), giant prawns with garlic and, of course, rice.

I stupidly filled up on too many freshly boiled peanuts to have much of anything, though Keith tried pretty much everything as well as the multiple desserts: fresh lychee sherbet (which Filipinos and I pronounce lye-chee, as opposed to the Western pronunciation of lee-chee), fresh buko (young green coconut) sherbet, mango float (frozen layers of mango, what I think was carabao cream, and cookie crumbs), chocolate cake, and buko pandan (more green cocoonut, pandan leaves, condensed milk, gelatin, sugar and other ingredients I can’t quite recall).  Keith also had his own buko, which had been shaved and sliced open with a machete so he could drink its water.

My favorite part of the meal was the lechón, which is more surprising than it sounds.  When I was younger, maybe ten or twelve, my mother and I came to the Philippines; part of our visit was a trip to Camiguin, which is now quite built up apparently but was actually rather rustic back then. Our family rented a cottage on an isolated beach — I won’t even say it was a private beach, because I don’t think anyone actually owned it.  The cottage was really a large open space underneath a corrugated steel roof which was divided into a “living room” area and a “dining room” area; towards the back of the room were the bedrooms and bathrooms, and none of the walls went all the way up to the ceiling for better air circulation (and no privacy). The large living space itself had no walls except for what separated it from the bath- and bedrooms — it was entirely open to the sea.

There were a few kids my age there, but I often went out on my own to climb trees and lure hermit crabs out of their little sandy holes (getting terribly pinched in the process by a very determined-never-to-let-go crab with disproportionately-ginormous claws).  If I did hang out with someone, it was a black-and-white spotted piglet, whose slaughter I accidentally walked in on a few days later.  As a direct result of that vacation, I didn’t eat lechón or any other kind of suckling pig for years.

Sunday’s lechón was all right in the sense that the pig was long dead by the time we arrived; it had been roasting in the hut since seven AM. I did feel a bit unsettled by the sight of it turning on the spit and couldn’t help thinking about the piglet of some twenty-or-so years ago, but I was determined to get over it.  After all, I like bacon as much as the next sane girl, and it seemed more than a little hypocritical to relish in that but not lechón, particularly when I learned that its cavity had been stuffed with a delicious combination of lemongrass and ginger.  I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the meal — the caretaker’s mongrel dogs had more than their share.

Click on the lechón for a slideshow of images from the farm, including the edible lettuce-and-flower centerpieces and the fresh-from-the-greenhouse tarragon-mint tea my aunt brewed.

Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer” by Bessie Smith.

This Time Tomorrow.

There really does seem to be a song for almost every post, doesn’t there?

This time tomorrow I’ll be somewhere over the Pacific.  Maybe.  Crossing the International Date Line always messes me up, not to mention seventeen hour flights.  For all I know, in a day I’ll be already at my grandmother’s in Manila, or waiting at HKG for our connecting flight to NAIA.  Anyway, my point is I’ll be somewhere other than here, and I’ll be filling you in as much as I can while I’m gone.  In the meantime, enjoy.

“This Time Tomorrow” by The Kinks.

Holiday in Cambodia.

 I think I’m going to see how many song titles or lyrics I can match up the subjects of my posts.

Last month, I mentioned I had a few exciting things coming up.  One of those exciting things involved renewing my passport and applying for visas, because that’s what an American like me has to do in order to enter Vietnam.  Americans like me need visas to enter Cambodia too, but we can do that at the border, apparently.  We don’t need them for either Hong Kong or the Philippines though.

Basically, this is my roundabout way of saying I’m going to Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and the Philippines — though not in that order.  First we’ll go to my grandmother’s in Manila, and maybe to my uncle’s weekend house in Tagaytay for an Easter lechón.  A few days later, we’ll fly to Hanoi before heading to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.  When we return to the Philippines, Keith and I will spend a couple nights in Boracay, return once more to Manila for a big family party, and then we’ll fly to Hong Kong for a quick visit before heading home.

If that paragraph reads as being a little too whirlwindy, that’s because it is.  Whirlwindy.  I plan on taking a decent amount of pictures, spraying myself with an almost-toxic amount of DEET and eating as much street food as possible.  But not balut.  I draw the line at hard-boiled partially-developed bird embryos.  There are just some things a girl simply can’t do.

 “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys.

On Knife Skills.

Last night Melissa and I took a knife skills class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts; Keith had given me a gift certificate for a class years ago, along with an eight-inch Global chef’s knife, and it took me this long to sign up.  Neither Melissa nor I had taken a class like this before — I can’t speak for Melissa, but I didn’t know what to expect, aside from a bit of chopping.

The class started out with an anatomy lesson — the anatomy of a chef’s knife, I should specify — which I thought was really interesting.  Some of it is pretty obvious (i.e. the cutting edge, the handle, etc.) but I didn’t know about things like tangs and bolsters; while I knew that forged blades are far more superior (and far more expensive) than stamped, I didn’t know why; and I didn’t know the difference in the degrees of sharpness between European- and Japanese-made knives.

(For the record, the tang is the extension of the blade that goes into the handle.  The tang of a full-tang blade runs from knife tip to the end of the handle; some knives have hidden tangs while others are visibly sandwiched between the two halves of the handle.  The tang of a half-tang blade runs only through a portion of the handle.  A full-tang is the better of the two for two reasons: balance, and strength.

The bolster is where the of the blade and the handle of a knife meet, and are found on forged knives.  Bolsters, like tangs, help with balance; unlike tangs, they prevent fingers from slipping.

Forged blades are made out of a single piece of metal that has been heated to something like 1400° and then has been hammered into shape. Stamped blades are made cookie-cutter style, and are literally stamped out of a piece of metal.  The spine of a forged knife gradually tapers into its sharp cutting edge, while the cutting edge of a stamped knife is pretty much just cut into the blade.  Because of this, the cutting edge of a stamped knife isn’t capable of maintaining its sharpness as much as a forged knife.

Lastly, a European-made knife usually has a twenty-two degree angle of sharpness while a Japanese-made knife usually has something more like an eleven degree angle of sharpness.  An angle of sharpness is exactly what it sounds like: the angle at which the blade narrows into its cutting edge.)

Then we discussed the exact specifics of precision cuts, the measurements of which I’ve never been able to keep straight in my head because I’m simply dreadful when numbers show up in my life.  Afterwards we headed into the kitchen section of the classroom and spent a good amount of time cutting up a bunch of different vegetables and making garlic paste.  I’m pleased to say that I was already quite competent with the basics, though I was terrible at the cheating version of the tourné.  (In my defense, there are numbers involved.)  We also learned a fancy-but-useless way to cut mushrooms so that they look vaguely artichoke-esque — I wish I had a photo, but the next time I cook a mushroom dish I will document it so that you all can be super-impressed with my mad skills skillz.  The same for the incredibly easy and awesomely efficient way I learned how to cut peppers.  Seriously.

Regardless of your cooking abilities, I think checking out a knife skills class is a good idea.  I thought it was really fascinating, and fun, and you might even learn something, novel as that sounds.

These photos were taken with Melissa’s and my cell phones, hence the fuzziness.


Thank You.

A moment: thanks to everyone for their sympathy.  Part of me feels silly for feeling as I do about Winston’s death, particularly when I have to explain to people why I’m so unusually and sometimes publicly emotional.  At the same time, I’ve really enjoyed all the stories and memories people have shared, both about Winston and about their own beloved pets.  Winston was a huge part of my life, and he was so special to me, and your condolences and general warmheartedness are so greatly appreciated.

May All Your Days Be Gold, My Child.

Yesterday I came home from my parents’ house in New York; I went to take the dog to the vet to be put to sleep.  It would be an understatement to say that I am a wreck, my mother is a wreck, my father is a wreck.  We are the Wreckorians.

Winston was an English setter, and fifteen, barely two months away from sixteen.  He was in bad shape.  He could neither see nor hear nor walk properly, let alone consistently make it outside to pee.  He had testicular cancer and probably prostate cancer, his body was covered with little growths, his hair was falling out, and his eyelids were droopy and rimmed in red and overflowing with something that looked like snot, or slugs.  He hadn’t eaten in days.  He couldn’t poop.  He lost a pound in less than a week, which is a dream for people and dangerous for dogs.

Logically, I know that putting him to sleep was the right thing to do, but my God, was it indescribably awful.  It’s impossible to prepare for.  Lately I seem to be encountering a slew of dead pet stories, most notably “My Dog Days Are Over” by Doree Shafrir and “We Were Kittens Once, and Young” by Anna Holmes, both from The New York Times.  Both are well-written, but neither braced me for what was coming.

No one tells you how quickly a body can go cold, for example, or that a euthanized dog both looks and doesn’t look alive, and that your brain will have a hard time coping with that.  No one tells you that when it is over you will stare at your dog’s abdomen like you have so many times for the past few years, waiting for the drop-and-fall of his breathing, because even though you know it won’t happen part of you is convinced that it will.  No one tells you that you won’t listen for his nails against the hardwood floor when you go back to the house.  No one tells you how quickly you will fall asleep that night, or how hungry you will be that day, or how guilty you will feel for both.  No one tells you your father won’t stop talking about it with you, or that the two of you will often start crying for no reason even though you’re both supposed to be tough, or that neither of you will be capable of driving.  No one tells you that a sunny day is best for something like this because that way you will feel justified for wearing your oversized sunglasses and using them to hide your face while your tiny mother directs an embarrassingly-large SUV towards the vet’s.

This is what Winston used to look like.  I took this picture when I was sixteen or seventeen, and Winston was either one or two.  He was almost exactly half my age.

Winston was a great dog, but at the same time, he was a terrible dog.  He couldn’t walk on a leash, he jumped all over anyone who walked in the house, he begged at mealtimes as though he had never been fed before.  He rested his head on your thigh while you ate, leaving a damp horseshoe of drool behind when he moved on to the next thigh under the table.  He nudged your arm with his nose during dinner if he wanted your food, he nudged your arm with his nose while you read a book if he wanted to be petted, he nudged your arm with his nose while you did your algebra homework if he wanted to play.  He darted out the front door if you didn’t close it fast enough, then ran ran ran down the street and into strangers’ gardens.

He knew exactly when I would come home from high school, and waited behind the fence for me.  Once the bus got me home early and so I spied on him while he sat with perfect posture on the other side of the yard, facing the driveway intently.  Not even a squirrel could distract him.  Only when I whistled did Winston bound across the lawn towards me, barking.

He loved salami, and eating honeybees, and the spongy insides of bell peppers.  He was particularly fond of vanilla ice cream, so much so that he would huff at my father and sit next to the freezer when he wanted some.  The only way anyone could eat dried mangoes in the house was by sharing half the bag.  Cucumber peels were another favorite, and Honey Nut Cheerios.

Winston’s first winter was a doozy — foot after foot of snow hidden under inches of ice.  We spent hours digging tunnels in the backyard for him to run through; the sides were so tall we couldn’t even see his feathery tail over the tops, in spite of how high he happily held it.  He barreled through the walls sometimes, lunging through the snow like a swimmer doing the butterfly.  At one point he slipped on the ice and slid full force into the house.  He yelped, and did it again.  Then he ran on top of the frozen swimming pool, eating snow.

I don’t know what he liked more, plowing through the snow or swimming.  We taught him to climb up the ladder out of the water on his own; even though my parents had a separate fence put in around the pool, Winston figured out how to open the gate.  Sometimes we came home to a wet dog, his white hair bleached brighter than bright by the chlorine. As soon as we removed his collar he raced around the pool, deciding from which side to jump in.  If we were swimming, he swam alongside us, using his tail as a rudder.

I can’t believe I’m doing this, my father said to me.  He held Winston’s head in his hands.  I don’t know if this is the right thing.

I thought I’d be able to stay in the room while the vet gave Winston a series of injections — This one will make him woozy — but as the vet inserted the first needle, Winston yelped just as he had as a puppy when he couldn’t get any traction on the hardwood floor and skidded into a mirror.  Then, as the needle slid out of his skin, a drop of blood swelled at the injection site into a globule that the vet tech accidentally smeared across the length of Winston’s back amidst the few bald patches he had there.  That’s when I realized I wouldn’t be able stay, so I rubbed his ears and kissed the pointed top of his head and sat in the waiting room next to my mom, as an African Grey Parrot looked at us with a yellow eye.

Keith didn’t understand why I had to go home for this, and the best I explanation I could give was this: I held Winston in my hands when we first brought him home as a puppy, and I slept next to him in a sleeping bag on the floor his first few nights in our house, and until I went away to college it was me he ran to.  I had been there in the beginning, and even though I had missed so very much of the middle, I had to be there in the end.

Ask me why I want Winston back so badly and why I miss him so much and I’ll say, Why do peaches make me happy? Why do I like the feeling of grass beneath my bare feet? Why do I enjoy lying in bed with Keith, looking at the ceiling on a sunny weekend morning?

These things are lovely and simple and they’re what makes living so special sometimes. We don’t need fancy cuisine or extravagant trips to feel alive. We need comfort, and love, and the feeling of warmth on our skin. And I got all that from a dog.

The title is from “Gold Day” by Sparklehorse; it came up on my iPod on the way home from New York.