I always knew my Filipino relatives were ashamed of what they viewed as my American ways; my inability to learn tagalog, my absence from mass on Sundays, and my aversion to pork. They frequently commented on how I looked just like my mother (she is a white, blue-eyed, red headed American) though my classmates in elementary school thought I was Chinese (I had dark hair, dark skin, and dark slanty eyes).
I didn’t think much about where I fit in, but one thing I know for sure is I have always loved food. Filipinos LOVE to eat (see post about eating with a spoon).
When I was a kid, my Filipino father sometimes threw big parties at our home on Long Island. My siblings and I would excitedly witness a cavalcade of cars rolling up our long asphalt driveway and dark-skinned men in nehru shirts parading into our yard shouldering trays of homemade vegetable limpia, mongo with dried shrimp, adobe chicken, sweet halo halo, and a whole roast lechon with an apple in its mouth.
At one of these parties in late July when the watermelon was ripe and the fireflies flashed at dusk, I recall Mom’s friend Gloria Hickey, ice clinking in her gin and tonic and a lit Pall Mall 100 in the same hand, gazing at the pig in the spit. As I stood next to her, red-lipped and sucking a cherry popsicle, she turned to me, eyes welled up and said “I would prefer to see him running around the barnyard, happily wallowing in the mud.” I froze, in shock, looking from Gloria to the pig and back. We had all kinds of pets – horses, dogs, cats, ducks, geese, goats, chickens. My mom’s best friend Mary Lou owned a pet pig. Right then and there I vowed never to eat pork again as long as I lived. On that hot summer night I made the first of many connections between the animals in the yard and the food on my plate.
Roast pork with crispy skin and dinuguan (blood stew) over rice, pickled pigs ears, salted duck eggs; these were staples at home and at relatives houses. With disapproving stares Dad and his family watched me fill my plate instead with white rice smothered in soy sauce. But my favorite things to eat were the cans of lychees in syrup and the cases of fresh mangoes Dad brought home from Chinatown. I could eat my weight in them!
Fast forward 25 years and I am sitting around my father’s kitchen table in Atlantic City, NJ with his girlfriend Bettina, my Tito Loly and Tito Puckett. In the middle of the table is a bowl of Ataulfo mangoes. Unthinking I reach across the table, grab a mango, put it on my plate and proceed to cut. And that’s when I hear it; the cooing, the grunts, and quiet nods of approval. The acceptance from my father’s people.
“You know how to cut a mango?” Bettina both questions and praises at the same time, eyebrows raised, Loly and Pucket mutely nodding in agreement. “Of course she knows how to cut a mango,” Dad exclaims proudly, pushing the bowl towards me.
“Would you like me to cut some more?” I ask as I dump the rest of the mangoes on my plate, showing off. Finally, my father is proud.
That was over ten years ago and my father is gone now, but I can not eat a mango without thinking of him and my ancestors.
When in season, my own family eats a lot of mangoes so I buy them by the case from Costco. They are my son’s favorite fruit. My husband and I love mango in our fruit salad, and my family, friends and clients are crazy for the raw mango cobbler I sometimes prepare for dessert.
In a recent Thai cooking class, I offered my expertise to my fellow students as we prepared sticky coconut rice with mango. I was surrounded by Americans who did not, in fact, know the proper way to cut a mango. So I demonstrated. My teacher Jam was impressed.
Imagine my delight when I came across this video of one of my culinary mentors, Chad Sarno, teaching the proper way to cut a mango. His inspiration? The Philippines!