Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ti Kosinero Within

Thanksgiving Day just passed and the Christmas and New Year holidays are fast approaching, which means more food in the oncoming weeks.  It is one thing to enjoy eating food, but it is definitely something else to enjoy cooking it. More than often for me; I enjoy cooking it more than I do eating it. 
Since I was about ten years old, I have always enjoyed cooking.  As early as the age of ten, I woke up before any of my five sisters and parents.  I didn’t need an alarm clock because I must have had it in my mind to wake up early just so I could cook breakfast for everyone. 
Immediately after waking up at around five thirty or six o’clock, I wasted no time brushing my teeth or changing the clothes I slept in.  Instead, I quickly wiped the dry crusty mukot from the corner of my eyes and silently swept through the hallway, down the stairs and to the kitchen.  Once in the kitchen, I placed the round stainless steel bowl on the table and gathered flour, eggs, milk, salt, baking powder, butter and the desired fruit of the day, which usually turned out to be bananas.
After mixing the ingredients together and achieving the desired smoothness and thickness of the batter, I dipped the ladle into the bowl making sure there was an even proportion of fruit and carefully poured it into the center of a hot frying pan.  Once the right number of bubbles appeared, I quickly flipped the pancake over with a goal of not splattering any of the batter beyond the perimeter of the pancake.  The smell usually woke everyone up by the time I got to my final few pancakes to cook.  When they came downstairs and gathered around the table, it always made me happy to see them enjoying my cooking.    
Back then, I used to dream about having my own restaurant some day.  My mother would often say, “You should start your own restaurant when you get older.”  Then my sisters would reply, “Yeah.”  I would agree and say, “Yeah, and when I do, it’s gonna be on a boat so I could catch my own fish and cook it for people.”  Well, I never did go into the restaurant business for myself, but if anyone were to ask any of my five sisters today who the cook in our family is, they would always mention me.  In fact, I still do most of the cooking in my house now.
I always thought it to be normal for a guy to cook until sometime in high school when a group of guys made fun of an underclassman for always cooking.  They made it seem like men who liked cooking were sissies or feminine.  Needless to say, when around my peers, I kept my desire to cook to myself for most of my high school years.
After graduating from high school, I became re-acquainted with an old family friend whom I call “Uncle Sam.”  Uncle Sam Molitas is an Igorot who isn’t really my uncle, but since he was very close to my parents and called my dad “Manong,” I prefer to look at him like an uncle.  At the time, he was still enlisted in the Naval Reserve as a cook.
I noticed how he too did a lot, if not most, of the cooking in his family.  Every time I ate his food, I enjoyed it so much that I wondered what his recipe was.  One day, I was fortunate to have him teach me how to make a fish dish with patis, onions, tomatoes and lemon.   Knowing he was in the military and loved to cook shattered any reservation I developed about expressing my love for cooking. 
Since then, I continued cooking and experimenting with all sorts of recipes.  Rarely did I refer to a cook book.  Most of what I cooked started with a desired taste in my head.  Sometimes it wasn’t about taste.  Sometimes it was about a special occasion, such as when my son was born.  He was such a sweet baby that I concocted a chicken recipe using mangoes & mandarin organges and named it after him by calling it “Chicken Joshua.”

Ide-san Sensei (far left)
Later in my thirties, an opportunity came my way to work part-time in a Japanese restaurant as an assistant chef.  I became an apprentice of a Japanese sushi chef whom I call “Ide-san.”  This guy is the real deal; not like what so many so-called Japanese restaurants have today.  Ide-san learned his skills the old fashion way in Japan where he spent the first five years just cleaning fish.  Most sushi chefs I encounter these days don't come close to his knowledge, skill and passion for sushi.  Fortunately for me, even though I was his student or “deshe,” he taught me a lot from the very beginning.   

Making Sushi for Friends

I have always wondered where I got my knack for cooking.  I used to think it was from my mother, who constantly cooked for us and kept me away from the restaurant dining experience for most of our lives.  Now I wonder if there is a little bit of that “Igorot within” that is responsible for many happy tastes buds as well as hand burns.  I don’t consider myself a believer of one’s actions being the result of one’s “nature,” because I believe that we are nurtured or taught to become who we are and that “who” we are is a matter of choice.  However, I can’t help but play with the thought that I am picking up from generations and generations of Igorot men before me.
For an unknown number of years or centuries, the Igorot man was never a stranger to the task of cooking.  In fact, Albert Ernest Jenks once mentioned the role of the Bontoc Igorot man in preparing meals in his letter of transmittal to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1904 by saying,

“The man of the family arises about 3.30 or 4 o'clock in the morning. He builds the fires and prepares to cook the family breakfast and the food for the pigs. A labor generally performed each morning is the paring of camotes. In about half an hour after the man arises the camotes and rice are put over to cook. The daughters come home from the olag, and the boys from their sleeping quarters shortly before breakfast. Breakfast, called “mang-an,” meaning simply “to eat,” is taken by all members of the family together, usually between 5 and 6 o'clock. For this meal all the family, sitting on their haunches, gather around three or four wooden dishes filled with steaming hot food setting on the earth.”

I am sure not all Igorot men like or know how to cook, but I myself have not met an Igorot man who couldn’t cook a tasty meal.  I was reminded of this last Christmas when visiting my aunt in Atlanta.  Her son, who is of a younger generation, surprised me by cooking a wonderful Igorot dinner for our family and his one night.  I also suspect he is the kosinero in his family as well.  Maybe there is some truth in having some of that “Igorot within” us after all.  Hmmm.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Thoughts

Every fourth Thursday of November, we Americans celebrate a holiday called Thanksgiving Day.  Since as far back as I could remember, the Thanksgiving Day story was about how the American Indians and Pilgrims once celebrated the bounty of their harvest together.  My memories of all the Thanksgiving day school plays, television shows and movies drove home the meaning for this day – a day to celebrate and give thanks.  However, like Christmas, its original religious meaning has been under attack and more and more people are calling it “Turkey Day.”  What a shame. 
I have experienced forty Thanksgiving Days while living in America, and I don’t recall the details of most of them, but I do know they all involved food and family.  Though most are fuzzy or forgotten, there are three particular Thanksgiving Day occasions that still remains clear as day to me.
The first took place when I was about six or seven years old.  It must have been the first time my mother cooked turkey for us because I remember how big of a deal it was to eat a whole turkey for the first time.  After morning Mass, she spent many hours cooking while we kids cleaned the house for what I thought was a celebration with family friends at our house.
When it came time to eat dinner, it was just our immediate family.  We all sat down at the table with eyes wide open.  It was our first time to see such a large cooked bird on our table.  The drumsticks alone was the equivalent of one whole chicken.  Eventually, my mother had us bow our heads in prayer.  Less than a second after our prayer, our little eyes shot back up at the huge turkey.

My mother's eyes opened wide as she looked at my dad with bewilderment before looking at my sisters and I.  It was clear that she didn’t know how to cut it or serve it.  The anticipation and hunger in our eyes were too much for her to keep us waiting longer, so after taking a deep breath she loudly said, “Attaaaack!” 
Armed with only our little bare hands (our normal way of eating then) we kids attacked the huge soy and garlic basted bird.  Chicken drumsticks have always been my favorite so I grabbed a drum stick and yanked it from the big ball of flesh.  The skin tasted so good, but the meat was not what I expected.  It was tougher than chicken and had several thin tendons that got in the way.  I was curious how the rest tasted so I impaled two of my fingers into the turkey’s side and ripped out a chunk of breast meat.  This too was disappointing because of its dryness, but fortunately a bowl of siwsiwan was right in front of me.  I drowned the dry meat in it and the rest was history.  Needless to say, turkeys have rarely found their way back on our kitchen table.  Dinardaran, pinikpikan, rotisserie chicken, steak, kambing, pancit, kilawen, pasta, and mostly anything else were and still are preferred over turkey.
Another Thanksgiving occasion that comes to the top of my head was when I spent it with my Filipino high school friend and his family while living with them for a year when my parents were in Illinois on business.  We drove to his cousin’s house for the day where I encountered my second Thanksgiving turkey.  This time it was placed in the center of the food table surrounded by an assortment of Filipino food for people to serve themselves and eat buffet style.
I was amazed when many people gathered around the table to watch his uncle carve the turkey.  He brought out an electric knife and proceeded to display his turkey carving technique to everyone watching.  As I watched, I thought about how silly it seemed to get all caught up on the technique when people could just grab a knife and cut off whatever piece they wanted. 

Thoughts of that day my sisters and I “attacked” the turkey brought a big smile within me.  I quickly realized how much I took our family celebrations for granted when I noticed the lack of "thanksgiving" and close family interaction.  It was a fun party, but it just didn't have that meaningfulness that I was accustomed with. 
The last Thanksgiving I shared with my family before my parents and sister died was in 1990.  With my sisters living out of state, Thanksgiving Days have almost always been spent with friends and my wife’s family, and almost always eating the meal in a buffet-like manner. 
This brings me to the third Thanksgiving that I’ll always remember.  This took place in 2003 just after I was laid off from my job in Florida and moved back to Illinois.  My wife’s parents were so gracious to have us live with them until we found our own place.  When Thanksgiving came around that year, I was so happy to hear that all my sisters and their families were coming to spend Thanksgiving dinner together with me. 
It was the first time we all got together since my parents and sister’s funeral.  At first, we weren’t sure where we would have dinner that night since I was technically homeless.  Fortunately, my in-laws were so kind to allow us to use their house that evening.
It turned out to be an unforgettable reunion.  Even though we barely managed to cram around the table, we were able to share an evening of thanks, love and laughter.  That feeling of sitting around a table together as a family again along with my own family was so surreal that I had to stop and appreciate the moment on several occasions that night.

More Thanksgiving Days have passed since then, but they all seem to become more diluted in meaning as more people gravitate toward the festive side of the day.  I was lucky several years back to sit around the dining room table of my friend, James,  to share their Thanksgiving dinner with his family and other mutual friends.  Nothing beats a Thanksgiving around the dining room table, except for two dining room tables connected to each other, as was the case at James' house.
As we continue to progress in this ever progressing world of technology and social networking, I hope some of us can find a way to “regress” and experience what it’s like when “family” and “thanksgiving” meet around the dining room table.  HAPPY THANKSGIVING EVERYONE!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Pause for Veterans

Today I was greeted by a fellow co-worker in a way that triggered my writing juices again.  In passing, he smiled and said, “Thank you for your service to our country.”  I was caught off guard and quickly realized today is Veterans Day.
My immediate thoughts were of the thousands of modern day Veterans still living today and how we as a country are so indebted to them for making it possible to live in this wonderful country I call home.  As the day unfolded, I started thinking of all the Filipinos who militarily served this country.  The idea of Filipino-American Veterans rang a bell of irony that continues to resonate on this important American holiday.

The Battle of Manila 1899
 After the Philippines went to war against America at the turn of the century, who would have thought that the Filipinos would be fighting alongside their former enemy only thirty seven years after surrendering to them in 1902.  Certainly, Filipino historian E. San Juan Jr.,who alleged that the death of 1.4 million Filipinos during that war constituted an act of genocide on the part of the United States; wouldn’t have believed it himself.  Our alliance with America during World War II is proof that the hatred toward the Japanese at the time was undoubtedly greater than the hatred that Filipinos once had for Americans. 
Image if a similar scenario happened here in America.  What if, in 1973, a foreign nation invaded America and killed 1.4 million Americans in a span of 3 years.  Would we be so willing to fight alongside them today if war broke out?  Better yet, imagine enlisting in that country’s military to fight the war.
Nevertheless, many Filipinos did just that, and today we still have many who are still living to tell their stories.  Out of all the living Filipino Veterans who fought as an American soldier in WWII, I wonder how many of them are Igorot.  If any of you reading this know of any, I would love to write them and express my appreciation.
In many cases, the involvement by small minorities during large scale war are often overlooked and/or forgotten.  This is not the case for my Igorot predecessors of WWII.  Even though they made up the smallest percentage Filipinos who served in the American military, their bravery and courage was so great that it caught the attention of American General MacArthur at the time. 
Igorot Scouts wearing their wanes (g-string) with their American uniform
An article in the Time Magazine edition of March 2, 1942 captured the General’s appreciation for Igorots when it wrote:
"This War Department communique last week, like so many of its predecessors, was 100% terse pessimism. Douglas Mac-Arthur and his battle-weary, outnumbered troops were still holding Bataan Peninsula and Manila Bay's five defensive forts. But their collapse under ever-increasing enemy weight and ferocity seemed imminent as never before. . . .  There were bright spots in the picture, however. In his weekend communique Douglas MacArthur included the dramatic story of non-Christian Igorot native tribesmen who, in an offensive over rough, matted terrain, mounted U.S. tanks like so many half-nude jockeys to direct American drivers inside. "When the attack was over," said the General, "the remnants of the tanks and of the Igorots were still there, but the 20th Japanese Infantry Regiment was completely annihilated. . . . When you tell that story, stand in tribute to those gallant Igorots."
While I wish to express my thanks and appreciation to ALL veterans today; I really want to give a “shout out” to my fellow Igorots who are American veterans and those who continue to serve this wonderful country.  By the way, I wonder how many Igorots were or are Marines.  I haven’t met any Igorot Marines to this day so if anyone knows one, please let me know.  Happy Veterans Day everyone!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

An Ethnic Migration of Purpose

Staying on the subject of purpose; I think back again at my family’s immigration to America.  I don’t recall my father’s reasoning for becoming a civil engineer nor my mother’s reason for becoming a nurse, but I would suspect it had something to do with their social and economic climate when they were young adults.  Both were probably intertwined, but the latter was probably the bigger of the two motivating factors.
After graduating from nursing school and starting our family in the Philippines, my mother joined the many other nurses who at the time were the only professions America was accepting at the time.  On her own, she came to Chicago and began laying the ground work for our family to follow.  For this reason, she was extremely glad to have chosen the nursing profession as hers.
Nearly forty years after she left the Cordillera Mountains to plant new roots here in America, the same two factors behind Igorots’ choices of “careers” are probably still the same.  The American dream still spans the oceans with its burning allure to many Igorots.  Nursing, for example, is still the most popular of choices today.
In one of the worst economic times of America, nursing is one of the few professions that are still in demand throughout the country.  Yes, there are many nurses who have lost their jobs due to the economy, but compared to all the other professions; they are still in need.  Another thing I have noticed is the number of male nurses there are today.  Twenty years ago, I never heard of a male nurse; but times have certainly changed.
As long as the American dream continues to burn in the hearts of Igorots back home and professions such as nursing continue to provide the means to pursue greener pastures in other countries; Igorots will continue choosing careers like my parents did.  Also like my parents, they will quickly come to the stark realization that the greener pastures aren’t necessarily as simple to maintain as once thought.  Thus, many like my parents find themselves in a “rut” of working to keep up with maintaining the green pasture.
Every now and then, some question their life, what they are doing with it, what they want out of it and so on.  As I said earlier, I don’t know exactly what led to my parent’s initial choices of professional careers, but I am certain of their reasons for leaving them to pursue other avenues of work that I identify as their purpose in life.
My mother used to tell me stories of how happy she was that my dad left the Philippines because in his line of work were constant influences to overly indulge in alcohol and palutan.  I found it funny that my dad had to lay next to the fire on many occasions while she rubbed coconut oil on his belly because of how drunk he was after a night out with fellow co-workers.  That must have been the “Vicks” cure for drunkenness then. 
My father was happy to have left his engineering profession in America because he always felt limited in what he could achieve and provide for the family.  He used to tell me how he looked at fellow engineers who have been in his company for twenty or more years, and didn’t like what he saw.  Five hungry mouths to feed, a Catholic education and maintaining a roof over our heads were his biggest of concerns.  I sometimes think the real “ancestral” Igorot in him kept him from being pinned down by corporate America.  After all, America has a way of “colonizing” our inner Igorot. 
My mother liked her job as a nurse, but loved spending more time with the family and helping my dad with his endeavors more than her nursing profession.  The one thing about nursing that stayed with her, which molded her purpose in life, was her desire to help people in any way she could.  Physically, she steepened herself in alternative & preventive medicine and constantly shared what she could to help better the health of others.  Spiritually, she was a constant advocate of many religious organizations.  In addition, she made several missionary trips to Puerto Rico and other places to volunteer her time in various missions that helped the poor.
For both my parents, it was all about their purpose as parents and how they could use their God given strengths to help others.  They were simple Igorots to the core.  When my father started making a noticeable amount more of money in financial services, material things and status quo were the furthest from his mind.  Unlike many who would buy fancy cars and get themselves in a heap of debt for appearance purposes; they sacrificed those things for us kids.  I still remember how my dad drove an old silver Ford LTD that was so outdated and embarrassing (for me) when he could have driven something else.  I even recall when my father received an award in front of thousands packed in the New Orleans Superdome and telling me how happier he was to have my sister, her husband, my fiance (now my wife) and I with him there than receiving any award. 
A handful of adults have helped me realize the importance of having a purpose-filled life, but none were more influential than my parents.  Their purpose of family and helping others are even clearer to me now that I am faced with my own discernment in life.  They are the reason why I admire people who use their God given talents and gifts for the betterment of others, and why high achievers in education, business and sports no longer impress me unless they are applying their gifts in a purpose-filled way that focuses more on others than themselves.
In September, I introduced you to Tim Tebow and wrote about how he personifies a purpose-filled person – a Warrior amidst our self centered society.   Last month, I had the privilege of meeting a wonderful person through this new world called Facebook.  She was introduced to me through Charity Bagatsing when I was writing Charity’s “Igorot of Character” blog.
Her name is Perla Paredes Daly.  She is a Filipina who is fed up with the poor sexist image Filipina women have around the world.  Charity told me of how Filipina women still have the terrible connotation of being mail brides and sex objects.  When I heard how Pearl’s friend bought out the website domain, Pinay.com, to “save it from the wolves of the internet” who would use it to sell their womanizing and degrading ideas or much worse – pornography; I immediately became impressed with this person.   She currently uses Pinay.com and other websites on the internet to battle the tainted image of Filipina women around the world. 
When I asked Perla’s permission to feature her as an “honorary Igorot of Character” (knowing she isn’t Igorot), she humbly replied, “I don't want to take the place of a well-deserving Igorot waiting for you to find them . . .  for me, it is the work and its effects that are most important to be highlighted... not for me being named for it. Lifting up my fellow pinays/pinoys is a calling I live for and can do from the sidelines very happily.”  Her reply reminded me of my parents and spoke volumes to me.
I hope that as more and more Igorots migrate across the oceans to plant their new roots; more will live purpose-filled lives, whether it be through their profession that enabled them to immigrate to their new homeland or a newly discovered one.
Perla Daly's websites: