I want to take a trip down memory lane because I’ve been thinking a lot about how I came up with mountain girl eats and how this is just the apex of my lifelong food journey. Let’s go back, back to my birthplace in the southern islands of the Philippines, an archipelago in southeast Asia comprising more than 7,000 islands, a true melting pot of history, ethnicities, and cultures. A hidden corner of the world where I was born, almost 28 years ago, a trueborn Filipino, but not a true blood one.
It all started in my Lola’s bakery in Cebu.
Sally’s was named after my Lola, Salustiana Veloso Lardizabal, my paternal grandmother of Portuguese and Chinese descent. She was previously an English teacher but began the business to support my dad’s family of nine. When my Lolo Joe built the family home, he also built a massive kitchen filled with industrial-sized mixers attached to the property. And that is where my first memory of food began.
Manang Remy, I ask, fingers barely clutching the counter. I’m close to the doors where I can feel the breeze outside because little me can’t handle the heat of the ovens and the subtropical sun just yet. I hear clanking and shutting, mixing and whirring. At this point, the desire is second instinct. The rise of the confection, the melting of chocolate has wafted through the house and pulled me in like a tide.
And she knows just what I want. From above the table comes a spoon (from God, maybe) dripping in brownie batter. And with my greedy little fingers, I take it, lick it clean, and get out of there before my mother catches me.
That, my friends, is how a sweet tooth is born.
All Saint’s Day
I’m four years old, clutching the fabric of my Tita’s dress for dear life. In Cansaga, the neighborhood where my mother’s whole family lives, a pig has gone loose and a crowd has formed as my uncles try to catch it.
Its screams are gut-wrenching. I hide as I can’t bear to watch. After one shocking squeal, the swine is finally put to rest and dragged away. It’s over. I look at the aftermath. The blood pooled in the dirt makes me nauseous.
Later that evening, after strolling through a cemetery adorned in flowers and candles, there is a feast. A roasted pig is the centerpiece. My uncle tears off a piece of its skin and hands it to me. The lechon is crispy and chewy as fat drips down my fingers. Baboy, he says.
When my dad comes to visit Cebu, he takes me to get halo-halo at Ice Castle.
Cold air blasts inside the dessert shop. I’m so excited, I try not to fall off my seat.
And then, here it comes. Served in true sundae fashion, a tall glass filled with a rainbow of ingredients. Purple ube ice cream. Red beans. White coconut slivers. Green pandan jelly. Corn flakes sprinkled on top.
True happiness, I think to myself.
My Mama Carmen, my mom’s mom, is at my Lolo’s house. I’m not sure why.
From her bag, she pulls out my favorite dessert. A jelly roll covered in sugar.
It’s not from our bakery, I can already tell that much.
Your mommy says you like these. And yes, I sure do.
My mom takes it away. She doesn’t want it to ruin my dinner.
Later, I find out the big news — my family is moving to America.
I’ve been on the plane for hours. There’s no telling when the flight will end. Our plane from Cebu took us to Tokyo. And from Tokyo, to San Francisco, wherever that is. Below, all I can see is an endless ocean.
I like this flight though. I’ve never had food from a plane before. I open it up. Raw fish, wrapped in seaweed paper, covered in rice.
My first sushi.
After a brief stay in San Francisco with my aunts, my dad, mom, brother, sister, and I finally reached our destination in Cleveland, Ohio. I didn’t know anything about America or its people or its culture for that matter as the Philippines had been all I had known. But my parents had left everything behind to chase the American dream – opportunity in a new land not just for themselves but for us, too.
If only we had known how hard it would be to assimilate.