Shared Stories: Food for thought

Maria L. Garcia grew up in Manila, and moving to California as a young wife made her aware of the cultural impact of different foods.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Maria L. Garcia

Last week I was surprised by an email sent by a best friend from the Philippines greeting me Happy Birthday and wishing me to continue being a gourmet cook. First of all, it wasn't my birthday.  Secondly, by today's standards I don't consider myself a gourmet cook! My cooking pales in comparison with the outside-the-box food creations by today’s chefs.

Ever hear of mashed up, unripe plantains, or of sliced up jicama, or fried, melted Jack cheese shaped as taco shells?  And what about Taco Bell's new "naked, crispy chicken taco shells."?  Obviously the scale of gourmet cooking bas been toppled over by an innovative combination of ingredients never before done during my time.  

I've become a virtual foodie watching the Food Network, and whetting my appetite as I view snapshots of foods posted daily on social media by friends and family.

Food is an important component for socialization in many cultures, perhaps much more in some cultures than others.  In my country of origin, for example, traditional food is so much a part of celebrations and fiestas in the provinces that people will often go into debt to cover the cost of a saint’s feast.  Invited relatives and friends and tag-alongs are expected to house-hop and sample the array of food.

Since I grew up in the city I did not experience the uproarious food preparation for fiestas.   I had learned through quiet observation.  At an early age, my mother would drive and take me every Saturday morning with her to the wet market, and I would watch her fill her basket with some fish, poultry, and vegetables. 

Beef was supplied by her sister, my aunt Clotilda from the province, who would ice-pack and ship the meat and other innards once a month by freight train.  Sometimes there were dried tree mushrooms or some fruits and nuts, that grew only in the region, in the packages.  

Food was a-plenty at our house and the kitchen was the hub for my mom and myself, as she always insisted that 1 should watch her because someday she would graduate from cooking. I never really understood that until later. 

My dad on the other hand, even if he was •not into hands-on cooking, loved to eat. He showed me photos of dishes with accompanying recipes on the pages of magazines.  On one occasion he even took me on a food trip to a wet market some distance from home, just to observe how a certain noodle dish, pancit palabok, native to the town, was cooked.  I also loved to hang out with the maids who cooked everything with coconut milk – be it vegetable, meat, or dessert. 

It was only when I came to the United States that out of necessity I had to recall all those indigenous dishes with no written recipes. In fact, a new-found friend in San Francisco, who happened to belong to a family-owned restaurant, asked me to demonstrate a recipe at the Philippine consulate general's home, that same palabok noodle dish, this time using an added packet of mix that her family was promoting.  I later learned the clip was aired in KTSF, an Asian Channel serving the San Francisco Bay Area Asian community since 1976.

I was now in America and I knew I had to expand my repertoire of food preparation.  In my first teaching job at a parochial school in Paramount, I was introduced to Mexican food by the nuns.  Since I am not the adventurous sort, I was most reluctant to eat the enchiladas, the burritos, and the quesadillas.

Frequent exposure finally gave way to not only sampling  the food but also learning to prepare it for our children, who took a the fancy to Mexican  food, which was basically quicker to prepare except for the tamales. While teaching Living Skills through an older adult education program in Los Angeles, I also learned from a Thai student, how to make a Pad Thai noodle dish. 

Through the years I've done some sort of fusion cuisine. But I have a waning penchant for cooking, now that my husband and I are empty nesters.  I think I know now what Mom meant by “graduating from cooking.”  

Our grown children periodically call to ask me to email recipes of dishes they remember and love.  I am compelled to put those recipes in writing like thinking in reverse, meaning, I cook first, then write the recipe.  But after I press the button to send the recipe, my husband and I go out and celebrate my "graduation" in one of our favorite restaurants.