Coming Home.

This is what I remember.

My mother making paella — from where I stand on a stool at the sink I can see the wooden spoon she’s using is stained yellow from the saffron. I’m tearing the legs and shells off of the frozen shrimp she will cook and stir into the pot. My hands burn from their cold flesh but it is oddly pleasing work, and their multiple slender legs make a strange and faint zipping noise as I separate them from their frosty, firm abdomens. I reward myself for each tail I coerce intact from its flimsy gray armor, and don’t realize I’ve been given this task to keep me busy, and quiet.

Tomatoes from the garden gathered in a wooden basket and placed before me. I grasp at them clumsily before they are washed, diced and tossed with feta cheese, herbs and olive oil, and then scooped up with pita bread.

Pan de sal, palm-sized rounds of bread dusted with grainy cornmeal and spread with rapidly-melting butter, brought to me on a hand-painted plate by one of my grandmother’s maids, along with a cardboard box of mango juice. Fried baby cuttlefish the length of my index finger, but much thinner and consumed whole — bones, head, tail. After eating them with my cousins in Manila, I clamor for it, but my mother only cooks the little fish for me once, when my father is out of the house; he hates smell.

Leaves of lox and slabs of cream cheese bookended by bagels from H&H, so salty and thick behind the teeth that talking is impossible. Ful, chick peas and fava beans warmed on the stove and spooned into a bowl before getting mixed with mashed garlic, lemon juice, parsley and olive oil. Honey Nut Cheerios and Rice Crispies, crunched with as little milk as possible so the round O’s and puffed rice still snap with each bite. Eggs scrambled with the sujuk my father hangs inside a wooden frame lined with mesh; it looks like a rabbit hutch, but nothing has ever lived in it but sausages drying.

Dolma, stuffed with rice and ground beef, the leftover orange oily broth of which my mother ladles into a mug for me to drink after dinner. Hummos whirled in the food processor with more and more lemon, garlic and tahini added until my father is satisfied. It’s that or mutabbal, which I dislike. Boureg, sheets of phyllo layered with shredded cheese, parsley and red pepper, flaky on the first day and reinflated in the toaster oven on the next. Tray after tray of baklava and Lebanese pastries, and separating each crumbly tier with my tongue. I suck at its rose-scented sweetness with as much strength as I can before finally chewing.

Spaghetti with meat sauce, my Armenian grandmother’s recipe, full of glistening sautéed onions. I plaster it with so much Kraft Parmesan that it resembles the surface of the moon more than a plate of pasta and I don’t care that it feels grainy. More strands of spaghetti, Filipino-style, sweetened with sugar and ketchup and cooked with sliced hot dogs and Spam.

Baloney sandwiches on white bread or lunch rolls, carried to our table in the dining hall on brown plastic trays. I am scared of the meatloaf, which I have neither seen nor eaten before. Breyer’s Cookies and Cream, chunks chiseled off with spoons while sitting on commercial-grade dormitory carpet next to my roommate, who is eating maraschino cherries direct from the jar. Rum and Cokes, obscenely syrupy, sipped nervously from red Solo cups from the corners of parties.

Wilted triangles of pizza oozing neon drizzles of oil onto flimsy napkins. Pasta salad drenched in bottled Italian dressing and tossed with cubed cheese, tomatoes and olives. We pretend we made it all from scratch and finish the leftovers in front of the open fridge. Wonder Bread toast, blanketed with butter and Smucker’s while still warm, so that together they melt into the crunchy top. Corn fritters we fry on the battered stove and dip into a puddle of maple syrup, leaving sticky trails across the counter.

California rolls, the first sushi my best friend tries, and I convince her to place the entire circle in her mouth even though she’ll struggle to chew it. Char siu baau buns, startlingly tangy inside puffy dough, shared with my mother’s father in countless Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns around the world; I carry this memory with me like a creased photograph kept in my wallet, and pull it out often in the days after his death. Chicken B’stilla, simultaneously savory and sweet, drenched in a yogurt and mint sauce I greedily lap up even though mint makes me think of being a child and ill, and of the strong teas my father brewed for me from the plants he tended in old wine barrels in the backyard. Aloo mutter in a room with tangerine-colored walls on Mass Ave, and the man I will marry in six years winks at me across the table.

Rib-eye steaks cooked medium-rare and eaten off of plates balanced on our knees. We don’t have a dining room, let alone a dining room table. Onions sweated for hours until they caramelize; I stir their gilded ropes into majedera, a mixture of lentils and bulgur, or cluster them across the crust of a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza I will later adorn with an herb chiffonade. Whole split chicken breasts, garlic and lemon slices slipped beneath the fatty ivory skin that will turn crisp and blush gold within the heat of the oven. Butter cookies flavored with mahleb, powder ground from the pits of sour cherries, baked in my new kitchen following the recipe my father’s mother dictated to mine decades before she quietly dies at age eighty-eight in a Los Angeles nursing home that smells of copper and Lysol.

Sausages, sauerkraut and beer underneath the green and white striped awning of a tent on the Rhine. Lechón, the suckling pig I can’t eat without thinking about the sound the animal makes when a knife is plunged into its throat, something I heard for the first and only time when I was ten. Croque-monsieurs on the Pont Neuf, the wind threatening to loosen the scarf from my neck. Fruit-flavored margaritas on D’Aguilar Street; I’m panting in the Hong Kong heat and the tequila goes straight to my head. Cornish pasties and licking crumbs from my fingers in the shadow of Bath Abbey at Christmastime. Squat foil-capped bottles of Yakult, sweetened fermented milk purchased from a 7-Eleven in Seoul. Durian stinking up the car in a Bangkok traffic jam, though later as I eat its sweet and tender flesh, I’ll forget I breathed through my mouth for an hour and nursed a stench-induced headache.

A candied shell enclosing a dollop of sugared olive oil alongside a kumquat skin holding its flesh turned into sorbet. Breaded cubes of liquefied foie gras placed on the tongue whole, then made to explode by the pressure of my mouth closing. Wintermint and vanilla ice cream coerced by science into a pliable rope, knotted and twisted into a cool, icy coil that I cut into with a fork. A Stonehenge of roasted bones upright on a white plate, its marrow shiny and bright under overhead lights before I smooth it across craggy planes of toast, decorate it with verdant parsley leaves and dot it with coarse gray sea salt. And chocolate chip cookies, either straight from the oven or out of a bright blue package that noisily crinkles at my touch, served with a glass of milk to bring me home again.

Coming Home” by Leon Bridges.
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The Day I Read A Book.

A continuation of the books I read in 2011.  Read about April.

May

  • By the time I got around to reading it, I’d forgotten all of the reviews of Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge.  I’d forgotten that Ms. Strout’s work was more anthology of related stories than novel, that the setting was a small New England town in coastal Maine, that the titular character wasn’t in fact the main character after all.  Worth the read, but it’s up to the reader to decide if it’s worth the hype.
  • The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber is an absolutely terrible novel that everybody in the world should read.  I mean, it’s about a pack of way-more-intense-than-werewolves wolves living, hunting and killing in 1970s New York City and the two police detectives that are tracking them down.  Oh, and I should mention that parts of the story are told from the point of view of the wolves.  So awesomely bad.  One of my goals for 2012 is to get my hands on a copy of the film adaptation.
  • Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, a Collection of Essays from The New York Times edited by Amanda Hesser is pretty self-explanatory.
  • So is, in a way, Elizabeth Graver‘s The Honey Thief, as it is about a thief of honey, but imagine how boring a story it would be if that were it as far as plot were concerned.  The novel is about mothers and daughters, religion, inheritances and friendships, as well as honey.
  • I purchased a copy of Room at Fully Booked in Manila; at that point in our trip, I had read all of the books I’d packed and The Wolfen off of Keith’s iPad, and was desperate for something to read, as I had three days in Hong Kong and a twenty-something-hour flight back to the States to get through.  I hadn’t followed the previous year’s hoopla surrounding Emma Donoghue‘s novel but it just so happened that Room‘s plot fit in perfectly with my kidnapping/crime obsession.  Though told from five-year-old Jack’s point of view, the reader quickly realizes that Jack and his mother live a grim and terrible sort of life: abducted at nineteen, Jack’s mother had gotten pregnant and gave birth in captivity, and all Jack knows of the world is the 11 x 11 room he was born in.  Though I sometimes find the use of children’s first-person narration in adult novels to be gimmicky, Jack’s perspective was unique and interesting enough to keep me reading.
  • After years of trying, Keith and I secured reservations at elBulli in November of 2010, and for that reason I was particularly interested in The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli by Lisa Abend, which chronicles not a year of elBulli so much as a year in the life of a stagiaire at elBulli.  It’s fascinating to learn of all their backgrounds, interests, successes and failings, regardless of whether or not you’d eaten at the restaurant or not.
  • I should’ve kicked my kidnapping kick before reading Still Missing, as I found the abducted narrator of Chevy Stevens‘s novel to be both irritating and without redeeming factors.  Skip it.
  • Laura Lippman‘s I’d Know You Anywhere is also about kidnapping, is leagues better, and ultimately forgettable.

June

  • I hadn’t read any Nick Hornby in years; it was only Juliet, Naked‘s availability at my local library that made Mr. Hornby’s most recent novel my first of his to read since About a Boy.  Funny stuff, this, and a must-read for those who have music nerds in their lives or who are self-aware music nerds.
  • My book club needed something to read, so I recommended In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff, simple because I already had it out of the library and had just started the book the same day.  The mystery takes place in turn of the century New York — a genre, historical period and location that the ladies in book club all love, so for that reason it was it good fit.  The main character, a detective with a tragic past, transfers out of a gritty and corrupt New York City precinct to sleepy, quiet Westchester County.  Instead of finding tranquility, he’s face-to-face with the most brutal murder he’s ever seen.
  • I’m not going to lie, I read Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family and Finding the Perfect Lipstick by Molly Ringwald only because I was on a Breakfast Club kick.
  • Sue Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited is told from the perspective of four characters, a writing technique that I as a reader and a writer really enjoy.  Sometimes it can be done beautifully (In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, for example) but more often than not, this is done in a mediocre fashion.  Ms. Miller is a fine writer, and she tackles this well, but I didn’t find any of the four characters to be unforgettable.
The Day I Read A Book” by Jimmy Durante.

Sunday Sunday.

Keith and I just spent three weeks in Southeast Asia; during that time we were in Manila, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Siem Reap, Boracay and Hong Kong.  It was a lot of fun, but man — that’s a lot of stops to make when you’re something like fifteen time zones away from home, especially when you squeeze in additional Manila breaks between Siem Reap and Boracay, and then again Boracay and Hong Kong.  Even though we went to some pretty awesome places, the highlight of the trip — for me, anyway — was staying at my grandmother’s house.

The last time I was at my grandmother’s was five years ago, but before that it had been ten.  We used to visit with far more frequency, but traveling 8500+ miles gets more difficult when there are things like jobs and vacation time to consider.

My grandmother lives in the Makati portion of Manila, in a neighborhood called Bel-Air; she’s lived in the same house my whole life, on Solar Street.  I always thought that bit was particularly cool, not only as it’s alliterative but especially as other streets in the neighborhood have names like Galaxy, Jupiter, Aquarius, Asteroid, Polaris… Filipinos love a theme.

There’s something so pleasing about going back to a place from your childhood and finding it to be as you had last left it.  Of course there have been changes, the most notably the fact that my grandfather wasn’t there — he died in 2008 — but I was still so surprised and comforted that so much of it was the same.  Much of that feeling was because the entire upstairs of the house is literally as I remember it; my grandmother is quite fit, even at 83, but she has little reason to go to the second floor and lives almost exclusively on the ground level.  Still, the bedrooms I’d slept in as a child have the same décor as they did in the eighties; the same mini-fridge full of mango juice stands at the top of the stairs; the glass case on the landing still houses my grandmother’s playing card collection (from when airlines used to give out decks as part of the in-flight entertainment).

When I used to travel to the Philippines as a kid, I’d arrive during summer vacation in August or July. Those are the months of the American summer; in the Philippines, the season runs from mid-March through May, so my many cousins (there are almost thirty of us) were in school during the week.  The house in Bel-Air would be filled with family on Saturdays and Sundays.  The aunts and uncles — my titas and titos — would arrive, with my cousins and their yayas in tow.  Food would have been laid out on the long credenza in the dining room, fresh mangoes sliced onto platters, drinks lined up next to the bar sink… all waiting to be consumed.

My favorites were, and are, calamares cooked in their own ink.  And pan de sal, always pan de sal, with or without butter.

The eating takes all day, and when we show signs of slowing, the meriendas comes out.  In another word: snacks.  Snacks like peanuts boiled in their shells, sapin-sapin (sticky rice and coconut cake), ensaymadas (sweet rolls covered in grated cheese and granulated sugar), hopia (mung bean cakes) and chicharróns.

Merienda time is also mahjong time, when four of my aunts settle a card table in the air conditioning, lining up the tiles and engaging in a genteel form of trash talking over the swish and click of tiles sliding across the table and colliding into one another.  The game lasts all day, often into the night.  The aunts and grandmothers take turns at the table while the grandkids run a lopsided triangular loop from the TV to the park across the street to the meriendas and the husbands sit in the dining room with newspapers and coffee.

Not much has changed, except the kids that now watch a sleek flatscreen TV are my cousins’ children, the great-grandchildren, and the husbands now tap iPads alongside their sons instead of flapping newspaper pages alone.  The meals may vary from week to week depending on moods and trends in food, but the essence is still the same.  Sunday is still the busiest day of the seven.  I may not know what I’ll be up to in a few days, but I can definitely tell you what’s going on half a world away.  And if we were there, I know I’d be sitting on the sofa underneath the 3-D TV, iPad in hand, while Keith and my aunts swirl the mahjong tiles in the middle of the table, making the little ivory tablets swish and click, swish and click.  I can hear it in my head from here, a little whisper of what was, what is, what will be.

Sunday Sunday” by Blur.
Makati skyline image from mvdelrosario217’s flickr photostream.

A Place Called Home.

Here I am now, at home.  I love traveling, and I love going places, and even though I’ve been to Asia more times than I can count, each trip is still amazing and fun and exciting.  That said, I’m glad to be home, sitting on my pouf with my laptop while Bethenny Ever After… is on On-Demand.  (Don’t judge.)

I do admittedly feel that clichéd thing about time fly fly flying but that’s how the trip felt for me: it went by so fast and intense that it’s almost hard to imagine the details of it at all.  I mean, we were in Boracay a week ago, perspiring and getting absolutely gnawed to death by mosquitoes, and now it’s a bit chilly in my apartment and something like 57° outside and sunny, but in a way that makes you want to sit in it as opposed to hide from it, which is what it was certainly like in Asia, particularly for the easily-sunburned Keith.

Speaking of Keith… what a lovely man, what an outstanding individual.  I’ve been sick as a pike since Tuesday and he’s been handling it (read: me) incredibly well.  I arrived in Hong Kong on Monday with a tickle in my throat, and by the time Tuesday rolled around I had run out of medicine and was taking these Chinese herbal pills called Zomoxyl, which smelled like nothing else I have ever experienced.  It had ingredients in it such as herba androgrphitis (40%), herba taraxaci (20%), herba violae (20%), radix scutellarine (10%) and glycyrrhiza uralensis (10%).  The best part was the little English-and-Cantonese write-up that came inside.  I would have scanned it, but it was just too ridiculous and it’s much if I just tell you about it.  Let’s just say that there was a bald eagle, with a waving-in-the-wind American flag behind it, and a star-bedazzled olive branch framing the whole thing.  Here are some highlights of what Zomoxyl supposedly treats:

  • upper respiratory tract infections like otitis media;
  • lower respiratory tract infections like lung abscess, empyema and bronchiectasis;
  • dental infections;
  • skin and soft tissue infections like cellulites and impetigo;
  • genitourinary (?!) tract infections like pyelonephritis, cystitis, bacteriuria, acute prostatitis and gonorrhoea;
  • bone and joint infections like ostemyelitis;
  • and “severe systemic infections” like gynaecological infections, pureperal sepsis, septicaemia, peritonitis, intra-abdominal spesis, menigitis, typhoid and paratyphoid fever.

I kept all the spelling from Zomoxyl sheet as is.

I should never get sick again after fourteen of those capsules, instead of coughing my way across Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui and Victoria Harbour and spitting up funky chartreuse phlegm and trying to walk around in crazy heat and humidity with a congested heavy head that felt like it was slowly going to cave in.  And when I say crazy heat and humidity, I mean the kind where standing still outdoors makes sweat drip down your boobs and your back.  I can’t figure out which is worse, sweat dripping down the front or the back, when neither is preferable.

What I should do now is some laundry and make a grocery list for my empty home, but what I really want to do is take a nap.  More later, I suppose.

Oh, and the vomiting — I’ve been vomiting since Wednesday.  I stayed in bed until noon while Keith bought some tea and stocked up on table tennis gear, then vomited up my Michelin-starred lunch, my water the next morning at the hotel and at the airport, and then who-knows-what on the plane several times and then more at JFK…  Why couldn’t I have gotten sick in Manila, when I was almost always surrounded by a surgeon, a pediatrician and a med student, instead of by Chinese pharmacists with whom communication was a true adventure?  This eagle-loving, USA-emblazoned Zomoxyl better clear up everything that ever has or ever will be wrong with me medically ever.

And now, laundry!

A Place Called Home” by PJ Harvey.

Been So Long.

I’ve just gotten back to Manila from a trip to Hanoi and Siem Reap, and tomorrow morning I’m off yet again, this time to Boracay.  The thing about traveling, particularly in this part of the world, is that there is incredibly intermittent internet access.  I’ve got lots to share, I swear I do, and pictures to go along with my stories, but it will all have to wait.  I just wanted to write a quick note to let you know I’m still here, and I’m thinking of you.

Been So Long” by Saint Etienne.

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.