Cooking up a Marriage

Siling labuyo is customary in Bicol dishes.

“To bed or to table, you must come when you are bid” so says an epigraph in a Laura Esquivel novel that mixes passionate cooking and red hot passion. And so it is with our individual lives: sex and food sustain humans, and the merry coupling of both (pun liberally intended) should make for a good marriage. Or so I had hoped.

Early in my marriage, flush with the idea of keeping house and intent on performing wifely duties foremost of which is cooking, I enthusiastically set about learning to cook. A baby on the way and a full-time teaching career notwithstanding, I took on the daunting challenge of cooking everyday for a husband whose mother had been a full-time housewife, which meant she did absolutely everything around the house, and churned out meals for seven people on a daily basis, on the side. Her devotion to family sustenance was nothing short of heroic, and, to my selfish and career-driven self, was bordering on the compulsive. But I needed to measure up!

The first thing I did was pick up a cookbook or two—Margo Oliver did not seem particularly forbidding to feisty me—and diligently pored over meals with foreign-sounding names that I thought were more challenging than the Filipino dishes, say tinola or sinigang, that are constant fares on people’s tables. I picked out meals with foreign-sounding titles: filet de boeuf en croute and pork schnitzel (nothing more than beef and pork chop to mortal you and me) and tried to eschew the more “Filipino” dishes because I wanted my husband to see me both as exotic and exciting, a real jackpot! But when my Dutch salad languished two weeks in the fridge, I had to rethink the strategy of impressing the husband.

I settled with the more known and “easily digestible” cuisine that my husband, who hailed from one of the southern provinces of the Philippines famous for its red-hot chili peppers enjoyed, conceding for the nonce that there was no way I could duplicate the sweat- and snot-inducing laing that the province boasts of, and not without reason: this viand consisted of finely-chopped gabi leaves swimming in coconut milk and red and green chili peppers! But rather than give up, I fell back on my personal favorites and which I thought earned me crucial ganda points. My kare-kare was “spectacular” for its nutty taste! (It was watery.) My pochero was very “healthy” because I did not skimp on vegetables. (It was coming dangerously close to being chop suey.) My pinakbet, a vegetable stew in shrimp paste with pieces of pork rind thrown in, was the closest thing to “heaven”. (You mean you liberally sprinkled it with SALT too ???)

Cut to 15 years later. I hardly, if at all, cook now. The cookbooks have long been packed in a box and stashed in a dark and grimy nook away from me. Seeing them again will be painful reminders of a time in the distant past when I imagined myself as some barefoot contessa who nearly got charged with reckless impudence in the kitchen resulting in homeyside. Thank God for helpers with magical cooking skills!


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