When I think of my Lola Paz, I envision 3:00pm.It’s vivid: the drive home, up the winding Silver Creek hills in San Jose. It’s time for an afternoon snack, or in Filipino culture what we call merienda. When my Lola was over this was reconciled by a kitchen lottery-thrill as we all rushed to discover what dish had commanded her powers for that day.
Of all the afternoons, I remember one in particular. A garlicky smell swelled in the kitchen as my grandmother lifted the glass lid of a bone white bowl. Water drops had formed on the lid to show that the heat was slowly starting to leave. Inside, individual Dungeness crab omelets sat in pancake-like unison. Each heavy, round fritter was collapsing on top of the other from the weight of the meat.
She pierced one with a fork and plated it for me. Steam-evoking rice was spooned next to it with a bamboo spoon.
I was so happy I danced around the kitchen. It was a bounce of pure elation, for I knew the next 20 minutes would consist of relishing bites of cracked crab meat simmered in garlic.
She showed me how to make them once. She explained, weaving her hands through the air musically:
“It’s so easy.”
She squinted her eyes.
“Just a little oil. Then you add the garlic,” she added it to the air like a magician would, “And then you add the onion and the tomato. Then you sauté it with the crab meat…”
I listened with a Martha Stewart veneration: curious as to how it was made, but all-knowing that no one could make it the same as she did. Even with the right ingredients.
Sometimes her dishes were more traditional. Another family favorite was her Bistek, a tender soy-vinegar steak with caramelized onions strewn over like necklaces. I’d eat the leftovers. Day-old leftovers. Three-days-old or however long it remained in the fridge. I rationed off her meals for the chance to reach gustatory poignancy. The memories of meals were kept afloat this way; the tastes of her meals never faltered. Warming the leftovers was an act of rekindling.
My Lola Paz passed two years ago and besides the grief that comes from losing that spritz of energy from this world, there is a selfish side of me that hurts for her cooking. That’s how I think of Filipino food: it is the food of grandmothers.
There is no better way I can think of to honor her spirit than to carry on her emotional charge; which animated knives and chopping blocks, pans and burners…all for the sake of filling our stomachs and hearts with the flavors of family.