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The café that children built

I haven’t reviewed books for some time, for time keeps giving me short shrift. So many things to do, always so little... of that golden stuff. Too little left to pore over books in gracious manner, enjoy the level of delectation each one may offer. To relax, smell the flowers, watch butterflies, discern, meditate. To live slowly, sip good brewed coffee, and reminisce, sometimes with friends. Ah, so little time, what’s left of it.

Meanwhile, quick weekend forays lead to tropical beaches, blue lagoons amidst limestone cliffs, surfing viewpoints — all spelling additional multi-tasking ventures. Tough job, but someone’s got to do it, right? Then there were the Olympics and PBA, and now the UAAP and NCCA basketball games winding up to Furious Four finishes. There are columns to write, coffee-table books to produce, poetry and fiction classes to handle, MTRCB previews to conduct, professional meetings and amateur socials to attend. 

There are Tiendesitas barkadahan nights with the usual Bedan suspects, Kuya Pete Lacaba’s Salin-awit sessions to savor at Skarlet’s Ten-02 bar off Timog Ave. or at Conspiracy on Visayas, “Happy Monday” poetry readings at Mag:net Katips, folk and rock and soul music live at Brother’s Mustache, single malts at Kipling’s or La Régalade (with French home cooking!), a son’s Monday-night jazz gig at Martinis, my own TV talk show on Destiny cable’s new GNN Channel 3 on Monday evenings, e-mail loops to commune with, plus a legion of conundrums to resolve while managing to start new gardens and whipping up kitchen fare for familiar constituency.

Oh, where’s the cloning machine for this cycle’s 24/7 sked, or that rubber-band stretcher for time-space supervision? Where are the idle gaps for writing for self while addressing the universe, or gorging quietly on colleagues’ literature?

The books pile up on corners of good intentions. They will have to wait till that bed-weather time, when no text message nags about yet another appointment.

But this one book that came our way last week can’t wait. For it’s all about family, yet another family lost for the nonce, owing to distance and disparate agendas.

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Time was... (“Time it was oh what a time it was, it was, a time of innocence, a time of confidences... — Simon & Garfunkel) when we sat around with kindred over coffee, gin, rum, beer, whisky or tapuy, and laughed! And loved one another with souls agape and in agape, as children. 

Twenty years ago in Baguio City, the Cafe by the Ruins was born, mid-wifed by camaraderie after spontaneous gestation among like-hearted friends, meaning they were similarly beholden to the Peter Pan principle of neoteny. “Forever young!” Dylan sang.

And sticks beat chickens until they turned on tables and cups and glasses, and the Pinkipikan Band came to be, in the mirthful wake of a café that crawled, toddled, stood up bravely in the face of tremors, fed the desperate from its soup kitchen, offered poetry on stormy nights, nurtured art and artists.

Oh, of course it turned economically viable thus democratic, and became an institution that welcomed slumming Manileños on a highland visit. But it also offered a dap-ay or sacred circle of a hearth for the continuing brethren — kids raising kids amidst all the music, creativity, craziness, irreverence, and attendant sophistication of nourishing cuisine. For a generation and then some.

 Now comes the book: Cafe by the Ruins: Memories and Recipes, co-authored by Lia Llamado, Adelaida Lim and Feliz Perez, edited and designed by Ramon C. Sunico, published by Anvil Publishing.

On and between its covers are artworks and photographs, maps, flyers, logos and lettering, by Baboo Mondoñedo, Jordan Mang-osan, Rudi Tabora, Roberto Villanueva, Leonardo Aguinaldo, Joaquim Voss, Wig Tysman, Angel Velasco Shaw, and Elizabeth Reyes.

The Café’s pioneering partners included Baboo, Roberto, Su Llamado, Louie Llamado, Boy Yuchengco, Bencab, David Baradas, Christine Arvisu, and Laida Lim (who supervised the kitchen from Day One, thereby guaranteeing a jumpstart as well as infinite consistency and evolution at the same time).

Now Lia Llamado and Feliz Perez of the next generation pay tribute with their memories of growing up with the Café as a sibling. Lia writes:

“The café was a little paradise. We had a garden behind the restaurant where we grew all kinds of fresh vegetables and fruits. It was laid out in small terraces, across approximately a 100-meter radius. Grass and flowers covered the ground of this little outdoor palace we played in....

“There were always other people who were part of the Café family, even though they were not partners. These people were friends, friends of friends and friends of family. Honorary Café kids consisted of the children of these friends of the Café.” Cited are the Bose girls, the De Guia boys, the kids of Mitos and Boy Yñiguez and Lee and Boy Garrovillo. There were also Bencab’s kids a-visiting, and Robert V.’s kids. It was, after all, a café built up by kids.  

Milestones are fondly recalled, the loss of guiding spirits gallantly remembered. Feliz or “Fifi” writes a haunting piece, “We Need Darkness to Appreciate Starlight,” on the demise of Tita Christine, which segued to a triumphant wake right in the Café.

“During the mass, the Café kids were sticking old pictures of Tita Christine to her casket. It made the journey seem a little lighter and it made us smile.”

Lia does the same for Tito Roberto with “Lessons from an Artist,” and offers a heartfelt poem titled “A Friend, A Magician”: “He amazed them with tricks,/ Stories and games./ They shall pass it on,/ Day after day.// His name was Santi Bose,/ The man who made his hat fly by,/ And made ash disappear into the sky.” 

Perhaps presciently, Ed Alegre and Doreen Fernandez wrote way back in 1990 for Lasa: A Guide to Dining in the Provinces: “This café that is more than a restaurant offers not only benison for the body, but repose for the spirit.”

It is that spirit that is celebrated by these 20-year-old girls, who were born on the same day, to mothers Laida and Su. They are best friends, they’ve been separated (when Lia had to school in the US), and recently reunited in time for their sibling Café’s 20th anniversary last March.

Thus this book. A third of it consists of memories of growing up with the Café as playground, palace of wisdom, provender of paragons for a creative life. The rest is suitably filled up with recipes that helped institutionalize the Café, from salads, soups and breads to sandwiches such as Ernie’s Kamote Bread BLT, noodles like Deborah’s Dish (green spinach noodles) and pasta dishes with Pili Nut Pesto or the Lemon-Ricotta Fettucini. Then there are the Slow Food Specialties that have become Baguio classics, and — tan-ta-ra-ran! — Laida’s Fish Roe Sarciado, complete with instructions on how to do it yourself.

I tasted this delicacy well before the Café’s birth, at Laida’s very own home kitchen. And I must say that this former UP Humanities classmate of mine cooks as excellently as she writes recipes. 

Lia sums it up with a hearty appetite for that rush of treasured friendship:

“The Café and the golden generation that started it, aka the baby boomers, was so magical that my expectations for life had become so high. I had seen the full potential of fun and friendship growing up and sometimes I found it difficult to move on with my life ...

“There are times that the emotions of wanting to be in the Café overwhelm me. When I feel stuck and lost in nostalgia, I check if Fi is online, and if she is, we talk and share memories...

“I understand how amazing it was being part of the Café experience and only wish other people could have seen what I saw and could feel the excitement I felt. Today, I return to the Café and sit at one of the tables with my eyes closed, teacup in hand, absorbing all the laughter, friendship, dancing, singing, crying, talking and eating that can still be found within these decrepit walls.

“And if I listen closely, I hear the memories rush in like waterfalls.”

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