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Thursday, June 24, 2010


I spent close to a year in an island in Northern Palawan in 1992 to 1993. I was burned out from TV and Film work so I dived at the opportunity to work in a small resort in Malapacao Island. It wasn't really a resort but a Marina for yachts. The island had only four cottages, all made from materials sourced around the province. One of the Filipino partners in the Filipino-French Company was an architect who was then pursuing her Masters on Vernacular Architecture. The terrestrial development must have been her thesis put to practice.

At the Marina, we boasted of having the best restaurant in the area. Guests from the neighboring resorts would sail our way to partake of specials-of-the-day and the impressive french wines the restaurant carried. Louie, our chef who was based in Manila, would fly to Palawan whenever we had guests. He prepared dishes from what the local fishermen would bring to the resort. Of course, he would fly in fresh croissants from a 5-star hotel in Manila for the guests' breakfast. He also had a pasta maker for homemade noodles and an ice cream maker for fresh calamansi sorbets. 

One of Louie's most remembered dishes (at least for me) was the Lobster Sashimi. The Architect called it pitik-pitik sashimi. Louie would shell the live lobster by severing its head first. Then he would take out the entire body and slice it to pieces much as how tuna sashimi looks. He would reassemble these slices onto a plate to form the original body and for flourish would 'attach' the lobster's head. The body now trembling, no, seizuring if there is such a word, because although severed from its head, the nerves I'd presume were still 'alive' -- hence the pitik-pitk moniker. It looked like how you would imagine your eye lids twitching when you had one of those tics as a kid before. But when you'd ask friends if your eye was moving, they'd say 'no'. Anyway...

The architect asked me, "Are you scared, Martin?! Try it! It's masarap!" I thought, Moi? Scared? Moi who had tried bat, snake, monitor lizard, frogs before? I get my bamboo chopsticks (handcrafted and woven with rattan at the top ends by the villagers living in the island) and bring a piece to my mouth. I chew quickly and swallow promptly, not even savoring the taste at first. The second piece was better. Also I was calmer now. It didn't taste nor smell of the sea. It was sweet. Not like candy-bar-sweet. Or sweet like a banana or other fruit. But believe me when I say, it was sweet.

That afternoon while snorkeling, I was humming in my head B-52's "We were at a party / My earlobe fell in the deep / Someone reached in and grabbed it / It was a rock / No, it was a rock lobster / nananananananaa.........."

Monday, June 14, 2010


(Felicidad Reyes 1912 - 1998; shown in center cutting cake)

Legend has it in the maternal side of my family that the first effort to commercially produce and retail the now famous Baguio strawberry jam was originated by my mother's mother, Lola Felicing. I cannot confirm this with her now for obvious reasons; my Uncle Joe, however, swears by the story's veracity.  

Felicidad O. Reyes was born in Domalandan, Pangasinan in 1912. Her mother Bai Insiang was a woman of questionable repute. Bai had borne 4 children from two different men, a grave scandal in those early American colonial days. Stories abound amongst relatives of how Bai Insiang would go from one town fiesta to another, expectedly getting drunk or gambling for days on end. She came to live in Baguio during her last years as Lola Felicing deemed it her duty to take care of her mother, she being the eldest child.  

Like most rural lasses of her time Lola Felicing went on to study a vocational course after graduating from high school. She had already met my grandfather then but she was determined to further her education before getting engaged. Attending town fiestas did not appeal to her. Nor did gambling.

Lola Felicing was taught by the wives of American missionaries. In vocational school she learned to sew, do needle craft, keep house, do laundry the proper way, administer first-aid with home remedies and, alas, to cook, her specialty being food preservation. Upon graduation she married my grandfather who had just come home to Pangasinan after having finished his law studies in Manila. Thus they moved shortly to the promising upland that was then the young Baguio City. The Americans built Baguio as their resort city, a respite from the tropical summers of Manila. Here they ventured into farming, mining and evangelism that they carried further up north. Aside from the American names of our streets and parks, the strawberry is one legacy of that occupation. 

While Lolo Ikong was reviewing for the bar exams, he was employed in the Balatoc Mining Company's Lime mixer section. Lola Felicing on the other hand was a vegetable vendor in the old city market. Bai's last advice to her young daughter before embarking towards the city up north was "to always have something to sell, to be able to provide food on the table." Sound advice indeed, but how a hedonistic woman like Bai could come up with it is beyond explanation. 

Lola's entrepreneurial efforts eventually led her to owning a vegetable and fruit stall in Baguio's City Market. Like most lowlanders who migrated to the city, she took advantage of the burgeoning economic climate. Baguio was then still a favorite R&R destination catering to rich families from Manila and expatriates alike. The educational center that it is today was just starting. 

Through the years experience, had turned her into a true vegetable/fruit expert.  With one look she could tell if a bunch of bananas were sweet. With another whiff she would know exactly when the same bananas would be overripe and thus not suitable to sell to her discriminating clientele. With one caress she could predict when a banana would be ready to eat or yet be stored for a few more days before set out on display. And so it went with avocados, pears, cherimoyas, chicos, papayas, strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, peas, cauliflower, carrots, etc. or whatever was in season. So precise was Lola's expertise that she had become quite known for having the freshest, sweetest produce. This fame carried on to the exclusive villages of Makati and select restaurants in Manila all the way down to the Visayas and Mindanao where Lola would send her produce to clients on a twice-weekly basis. 

Strawberries are available in Baguio starting November. But as always they are most expensive during this time. Come January all the way to the summer months when strawberries are aplenty, the production of strawberry jam would commence. I don't know if it was by sheer chance that Lola decided to cook overripe strawberries into jam for home consumption so as not to let these waste or if it was a conscious effort on her part (at the start) to market strawberry jam. And while Lola made rhubarb jam, blueberry jam, marmalades, achara and other preserves, her strawberry jam was the most successful. 

My grandfather built the strawberry house for Lola Felicing at the back of the main house. It was a single detached unit at the end of a flight of steps next to his poultry. It was made of cement. The hearth was one long rectangular stone and cement piece with a stainless steel chimney attached at the end. The wood-fueled stove had an iron 'gate' which we cousins liked to play with. There too was an adjoining storage room where boxes upon boxes of bottled strawberry jam would be kept to last the whole year. That's how much jam Lola Felicing made yearly. (I remember the old, blue D&S Grocery Van coming over to the house, not to deliver groceries, but to buy strawberry jam from Lola which they would sell on their shelves. Proudly I would tell classmates that Lola made those jams, but they wouldn't believe me because D&S would have their business tag on the bottles. So okay, Lola wasn't a franchise.) 

Only the overripe strawberries or those with pockmarks or mush would be used in production. The fresher ones remained in the store to be sold. At the height of strawberry season, jam-making would be a 24-hour endeavour. The second generation of uncles and aunties and extended relatives would horror us with stories of how they would labor way into the wee hours just making strawberry jam, even during their finals week. Lola would admonish them to finish their task even before they could get their hands on their notebooks to review. We members of the third generation did not go through that. 

Like the cashew, the strawberry is a strange fruit. Its seeds are outside. In Botany I later learned that the seeds of the strawberry 'are the real fruit' and the flesh the receptacle to which these hang on. Ditto the cashew. Weird! Anyway, the process of making jam is tedious. As children we were given the more menial tasks of production during summers. Strawberries brought home from Lola's store were first brought down to the strawberry house and sorted out in big steel basins, later to be replaced by plastic colored ones. These strawberries were then, one by one, de-leafed. With a short but sharp knife in one hand we would pick a strawberry with the other hand, cut the green leaf on top, then check the body for any imperfections. We would take special care to slice off any 'rubbery' portion,  tossing it into another basin with the other de-leafed strawberries. The discarded portions would be mixed with other food scraps for Lolo's pig.  

If one happened to choose a large strawberry this would be cut into two, lengthwise. If it were even larger, this would be cut into four, lengthwise and crosswise. The tiny ones, like children, were spared that hacking. They only got bald like the rest of the strawberries. I used to imagine the strawberries were people. Man or woman, their leaves as hair. The large round ones were mothers, the large pointed ones were fathers, the small round ones little girls and the small pointed ones were little boys. The really large pointed ones I imagined were grandfathers, imposing and strict like Lolo Ikong. Sometimes we would chance upon 'freak' strawberries, really deformed fruits that took on the shape of a pig or an elephant. Sometimes there would be siamese-twin strawberries. These I would spare from hacking into two and secretly tuck under the other strawberries to try to look for  later when they were in the vat cooking over the fire being furiously stirred. (When I watched 'Schindler's List' I was reminded of Lola's strawberry house with that one scene where bodies were piled up ready to be incinerated.)  

When the last strawberry was done and tossed along with the others all these would be carefully washed in cold water, carefully, so as not to mash them up, then strained in steel colanders. This is where the kids' job ended. My Auntie Celia who oversaw production would now carefully measure the strawberries into a cup before placing them into the big steel vats prior to cooking. We all had to keep quiet lest she lost count on how many cups of strawberries had already gone into one vat. Then in proportion to the number of cups of strawberries she would then proceed to measure the white sugar from the sack into a separate clean cup and start counting again. The sugar now looked like snow capping the strawberry mountain.  

All these while Uncle Rudy or the next adult male around was already building the fire. Firewood stacked at the left side of the entrance to the strawberry house would be brought into the furnace. Like all kids fascinated by fire, we would huddle by the hearth and watch and listen to the crackling of the wood. We would also await that crucial moment when the center of the strawberry-sugar mixture would start to erupt. We would scream with fervid delight "Krakatoa! Krakatoa!" as jets of red liquid streamed down the top like lava and an occasional strawberry tumbled down with it, driven by molten sugar. Our screams would serve too as an alarm for the oldies for the next stage to begin.  

Once it boils, a special technique in mixing the jam is used so the mixture does not overflow and burn into the stove. The adults were the only ones assigned to cook strawberry jam.  more important reason I now suppose is that getting splattered by cooking jam can leave a really ugly pockmark not to mention the stinging pain one has to endure. For this, the adults always wore long sleeves or sometimes even gloves or a clean pair of tube socks over their arms.  

Cooking the jam seemed to me an eternity. Only Auntie Celia was sure if the jam was ready to be taken out of the fire. Throughout cooking and stirring, a steel ladle was used to skim off any bubbles forming at the surface. These were flicked off into a separate small steel basin were we could dip our fingers (if bread wasn't available) and savour the sweetness and warmth of strawberry essence. Once cooking was finished a big steel pot, quarter- filled with water, would be set to boil. 

The vat of jam now on the table would be scooped into individual bottles. Like production quality control supervisors, the adults would stir the scooped jam with steel knives, looking for imperfections, dark objects that came with the not-so-refined sugar or any insect that may have found a hole in the screened windows and jumped into the jam. This also ensured that the strawberry chunks would be equally dispersed throughout the bottle. Once the water boiled, bottled jam would be placed in the pot for sterilization. The end result, chunks of strawberries adrift in a rich, dark red syrup. No crystallized sugar and spreadable on bread or ready to top on fresh fruit or pastry. Loyal customers have sworn to Lola Felicing's jam, still by far the best. Once sterilized the bottles were taken out to cool and sealed, counted and inventoried.  Vats and pans and ladles and scoops were washed in the sink. The fire put out. The floor scrubbed. Packed in boxes the bottles were then kept in the bodega.  

The actual cooking of jam is the best part in the process. At this point we all got to relax a bit since only one or two persons would be stirring the vat/s. Unless of course a second or third, even fourth, batch of raw strawberries had to be prepared again. It was during these times when stories of the past were relayed to us by the oldies for entertainment, stories of their youth, of the war. 

Wartime stories told to us of the third generation were almost always comical in nature, at times exaggerated too, always to make the storyteller the 'hero' in his tale. When war struck Baguio, the Japanese presence had been around for quite sometime. Lola told us of times when 'mickey mouse' money had to be carried in bayongs. The tension, the uncertainty could still be traced in her tone. When Baguio was bombed, my grandparents and their children and a host of other relatives and friends had to flee back to Pangasinan by hiking. It was in this bleakest time that Lola told us of the worst meal she ever prepared for the family.  

Along with their most important belongings, Lola had brought with her the hide of a cow. I forget now what initial purpose it had for her, but when their food supplies ran out, Lola  devised a plan to feed the group. She set out to boil the hide for a whole day to soften it up. She then cut the hide into pieces, returned these to the broth and only with salt, served the soup into bowls, equally dividing the 'meat' and distributing it to their contingent. 

Of course, Lola told us this story the way adults tell stories to children with the intention to entertain them, with much fanfare and gusto and relish. But somehow I sensed Lola's pain at that moment when she actually had to serve the broth. I imagined her putting a brave and stern front the way she used to discipline us. But I also can't help picture her at that moment, her eyes welling in tears, betraying the strength she had so tried to keep up. Did she engage words with Lolo? What did they say to each other? Or did they just give each other that 'knowing glance' husbands and wives give each other during times of crisis? Or did they avoid looking into each other's eyes completely? I cannot ask Mama, she was too young to remember. Or she perhaps has chosen to forget. 

My cousins and I have fond memories of the place. We used to play a lot in there. Beside the kitchen, Lola had planted an assortment of fruit trees, vegetables, vines, etc. Not so conscious of landscaping, I figured she threw dried seeds on the ground and waited till they sprouted.  We had passion fruit, lime, coffee, mulberries, squash, figs, Spanish tomatoes (tamarillos) and the Baguio household staple: sayote. The passion fruits were fiercely guarded by all. We would engrave our initials on the still unripe fruits to reserve them for claiming when ready to pick. 

The coffee beans, when ripe, would be picked, peeled, sun-dried, peeled again then roasted before grinding. Sometimes we couldn't resist sucking on the ripe coffee beans, they had a sweet flavour to them. The mulberries were plucked from the bush and washed and eaten with salt. The lime we squeezed for cold juice or its rind grated for leche flan. 

The Spanish tomatoes were sour but looked good as decor on the table or props during bahay-bahayan. My brother used to eat Spanish tomatoes with condensed milk, while the rest had pan de sal with whirls and doodles of the sweet milk. The figs for some reason never ripened so they were used as props as well. Often I would play tinda-tindahan with my younger cousins. The sayote we would slice lengthwise and sell, pretending they were pork chops. Figs were miniature papayas. There was also an assortment of flowers. Hydrangeas, gumamelas, dama de noche, azaleas, gardenias, nasturtiums, geraniums, wild roses, poinsettias and the lowly lantana whose seeds were wonderful as armory for sumpit. 

Outside our fence was a steep incline leading to Laubach Road, really steep. Roads in Baguio then were gravel and tar. During weekends and summer, we would get any available piece of plywood or old ironing boards and slide down that road. It was like the biggest race of all time. Down and up. Down and up, laughter filling the warm afternoons. We never got tired of playing. Inventing games, even during typhoon season. 

Lolo and Lola went on a worldwide tour from May 6 to August 19, 1959. The peso to a dollar then was almost equal. Lola brought back a huge map of the world that we hung in the boys' room when we were in elementary. We had this game wherein one would look for a place in the map, call out the name and the rest had to find it. Whoever found the place first would in turn pick the new place. We cousins, in our minds, traveled to Rangoon, the Seychelles, Faeroe Islands, Kota Kinabalu and more. 

Once, Lola traced with her finger on the map where she and Lolo had gone. From Manila's then Balagbag Airport their first stop was Japan. They then went on to key cities in the U.S., Europe, the Meditteranean, the Middle East, Asia, and back to the Philippines. She fascinated us with stories of snow in Alaska, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Lolo reprimanding a waiter in straight, harsh Spanish in a cafe in Toledo, biblical places they visited, strange food. Lola made lots of friends, and during the 70's to the 80's we would have occasional guests aside from relatives whom Lolo & Lola met abroad. 

During Lola Felicing's twilight years, I had the great opportunity to spend time with her. Although she had grown feeble after her bout with cancer, Lola never lost her memory. I saw glimpses of her naughty character. She told me that once when she was in her teens, she took a trip to Manila and rode the tranvia. She would evade the conductor making sure to get off just before he would come and charge her her fare. Then off she would go waiting for the next tranvia. I laughed in amazement at that little tale, for Lola had always been an honest and hardworking woman. 

Lola was also a simple and austere woman. During those days when she would accompany Lolo to out-of-town conventions she would travel lightly, never ashamed to be seen repeating an outfit. For the worldwide Rotary Club convention in Lake Placid, New York in 1959, Lola was the darling. Wearing a nice embroidered terno she gushed as other wives gathered around her, exclaiming: "Mrs. Reyes, you look like a doll", because Lola never did grow beyond 5 feet. But Lola never liked being the center of attention. On one foray to the Visayas for yet another convention, Lola was once asked by a rather snooty lady why she wore no jewelry. Lola's reply; "It's against my religion" she deadpanned. Lola can be hysterical, I thought. 

Oh and how Lola loved to cook. She liked simple food. She was no meat eater, preferring fish and vegetables instead. Lola made the best paksiw na bangus. She used to cook it over the gas stove in an old, soot- stained banga. She cut up the bangus fresh from her fishponds in Pangasinan, and only with salt, ground pepper and a few onions and the best nipa vinegar, she would boil the fish. 

I liked the way she cooked paksiw because lola would let the fish boil till about half the liquid had evaporated. Sometimes a fish or two would be toasted on its side where it touched the earthenware. That was the best part next to the bangus belly. Lola also loved sweets. Till her old age, we would make sure she enjoyed her scoops of ice cream. Lola also made the best mango-ice-box cakes. With broas from Cebu she would mix the overripe mangoes from the store and make the best refrigerated cakes our cousins have ever tasted.  

Lola and I knitted sweaters, she being the faster knitter and with uniform stitches to boot. Her hands never got arthritic, so on to the wee hours of the morning Lola and I would labor over our half-finished sweaters, telling each other stories. She had this perfect formula for making sleeves. The formula remains a secret in the family. Just like the recipe for strawberry jam. Today Mama makes strawberry jam but only for home consumption. Auntie Celia has rented out Lola's old stall in the market and gone back to her first love, teaching piano lessons. 

Whenever we cousins reminisce about the past, Lola's strawberry house is remembered. We also talk about Lola's store where we would spend the afternoons after school. And who can forget all the fruits and vegetables in season that Lola would bring home for us to partake of. Today I miss rhubarb, goose-necked squash, large green tomatoes, artichokes, brussels sprouts, persimmons, red bananas, sugar beets and other hard-to-find fruits and vegetables. 

On the day that Lola Felicing would pass away, Mama had given her her customary late morning bath. After which Lola had asked to be dressed in her yellow gown that she used during Lolo and Lola's golden wedding anniversary, the very same gown she told all of us she preferred to be dressed in when she finally goes. Mama had teased her that morning; "Ay Mama! Don't be silly, you're still strong!", she said in Pangasinense. 

That afternoon Lola Felicing didn't wake up from her nap. She put on a tranquil expression on her face, a smile capping a happy life. A life well lived. It was a Sunday. She had made peace with her God. It was said that a fragrant aroma swept through her room as she lay there. The sweet smell was so pronounced yet no one was familiar with it or knew where it came from. It just lingered in her room all day.  

Lola was special because she gave so much of herself. Not only to the family but to acquaintances as well. If man were truly what he eats then Lola would be, I must say, not a strawberry. But a truffle. Mysterious, elusive, hard to find, but special, precious, hard to forget.


It's been a year since I first put out this blog. With encouragement from friends and family, I blogged enthusiastically the first few months. The title of this blog, as I had said in my first entry, comes from the yet unpublished essay I wrote a few years back dealing on my family's brief, albeit enriching, stay in the province of Kalinga during the onset of Martial Law. I submitted said essay to an anthology called 'Marcos Babies' due to be launched this September. The essay was actually part of a collection of essays I wrote during the period 2000 to 2002 which I had hoped to collate in one book I had then called "This Is Not A Cookbook" -- creative non-fiction that had food as the springboard for memories of my childhood.

I think it was prescient that I named this blog after that post, because part of that collection was a piece I wrote -- "Lola Felicing's Strawberry House" -- a tribute to my maternal grandmother, Felicidad Reyes. It was also a reminiscing of my childhood in Yangco Road, Baguio City. I submitted the essay for the anthology "The Baguio We Know" (Anvil Publishing) which saw print and was launched in September 2009. I am going to post  the essay above for those who have not read the book although copies are still available at most National Bookstore outlets. (Yes, I know... shameless plug)

It's been a great year!  :-)

Friday, June 11, 2010


Last night was supposed to be a light, relaxing evening with friends in the bar we frequent in Malate. I had walked from my apartment in Makati all the way to Orosa St. corner Nakpil St. via Vito Cruz and Leon Guinto which takes me an hour of brisk walking. I enjoy the long walk not only for its cardio benefits but more importantly, it allows me time to be one with my thoughts. Walking for me is no longer just exercise, it also presents the opportunity to connect with my inner feelings and of course, walking is a means to get from one point to another.

I like my Makati to Malate route because it is free from jeepneys. The streets are clean (well cleaner compared to other Metro Manila streets) after a downpour, there are no clogged drains leading to pools of water by the sidewalk. So far it has been a safe walk to date. The breeze is invigorating.

And so it was of this clear mindset that I arrive in Malate. I was the first to reach the bar at 10:15 pm as most habitues in the area prefer to arrive past midnight and party till dawn. In two minutes time, my two friends arrive in tow. We order our preferred drinks (San Mig Strong Ice for me, Vodka for the other two),  exchange pleasantries, do the perfunctory air kisses, and play and sing along to our favorite CDs.

Enter Monsieur R, a recent addition to the pack of gays in their midlife that frequent the bar. The younger generation of gays in the district have given the bar the moniker "Home For The Aged" due to the demographics of the majority of customers that frequent it. I met Monsieur R  only a few months back through common friends. He is an Ilonggo and frequents Manila occasionally. At the onset Mr. R had shown little reverence for other people's personal space. At first I had attributed this fact to him being from the South where people are more demonstrative and malambing. I had however, from the start shown my preference for observance of my space by crossing my arms over my chest and shrugging off his touchy-feely actions.

Last night, Mr. R arrived and was obviously inebriated and/or under the influence of a mood-altering substance. (My guess is valium as he was irritatingly slow and kept uttering the same statements over and over and over and over again... ad infinitum. He was also dancing out of beat. A much slower beat than the music that was being played.) After a few tiring minutes of trying to 'dig' his trip, we all settle by the bar. While enjoying my third bottle of beer, Mr R then playfully pinches me on the side of my waist and I automatically recoil from it. It is the spot where I am very ticklish. I tell him straight that I don't like being touched there, more so being pinched there and told him not to do it again. At this point I had gotten tired and irritable from his pesky manners and empty utterances. Some ten minutes pass and Mr. R pinches me there again. In one deft motion, I raise my right hand, swing it with full force, and slap him on his arm. I then said: "YOU DON'T DO THAT TO ME! EVER! Let that be a fair warning. It's the second warning actually." And then I turn to face the bartender.

There is silence. My two other friends must've been shocked at what transpired. It was after all the first time I had shown anger. The bartender was equally surprised. Most times I prefer to keep to myself and with close friends. I was never the type to go and mingle around the bar. I usually pick a stool by the same place in the bar and stick there all night until I go home. I was seething with anger, partly also because I do not like flaring up to begin with. It upsets me to be upset.

Mr. R apologizes and I said: "It's okay, pasensya, just don't do it again". It took quite some time for the black cloud to lift from the bar. I felt bad that I had ruined the evening for my two friends as well. However, I felt I had the right to hit Mr. R because I had told him earlier about my dislike for such behavior. He apologizes repeatedly then retreats to a far corner away from me. Other friends arrive and naturally go towards where we were at the bar. The night goes on. Drinks are ordered. I try to forget what just happened. We all try to forget what just happened. Mr. R exchanges banter with the newcomers, but he had definitely calmed down. It took him all of an hour to realize, I think, that he had crossed the line with me.

Now I don't care if someone drinks a whole truck of beer or whatever alcohol he prefers. It's his liver not mine. I don't particularly care either if someone takes drugs. It's his body and brain he's frying not mine. But what gets me is when that someone starts making a total ass of himself and just gets too pesky! Your happy trip should never be at the expense of the bad trip of others.

Now Dear Mr. R -- I don't care if you are a scion of some sugar baron down south, you don't know how to party. You are a burden with your endless nonsense utterances. Your encroaching into other people's personal spaces is rude. And please do some effort to change your clothes when you party on two consecutive nights. We, your friends in Malate prefer good music, light but engaging banter, and fun repartee. If you take drugs to fit in, please hang out in Embassy at the Fort or those Makati bars notorious for drug users. That is precisely why we prefer to hang out in Malate instead. Good, clean fun that is laced with alcohol.