The joy of cooking
HEART AND MIND - Paulynn Sicam (The Philippine Star) - June 18, 2019 - 12:00am

Baking and cooking kept me occupied and sane when real life was a tale of woe under martial law.

It is strange how memories can creep up on you while doing the most ordinary things. It has been a while since I worked in the kitchen.  Much of my life is spent in front of this laptop, editing other people’s work and churning out my weekly column, when I would rather be in the kitchen baking and cooking.

I was finally baking cookies the other day while listening to Inang Laya’s version of Andres Bonifacio’s poem, “Pagibig sa Tinubuang Lupa” on YouTube.  As I measured and mixed ingredients while humming along with Becky Abraham, I was transported to the early Seventies to my first tiny apartment where I was just learning to cook, and the days of disquiet that Pete Lacaba chronicled in his book about martial law.

I knew almost nothing about cooking before I enrolled in cooking classes with Mrs. Pat Dayrit, whose recipes were badly typed and needed editing, but they worked. She was a lovely woman and a great teacher who saved me from a lot of heartache in the first years of my marriage.

It was the early Seventies and thanks to Mrs. Dayrit, I was a happy cook whipping up sukiyaki or chicken afritada for dinner and an icebox cake for dessert. But I had a fulltime job so my time in the kitchen was limited to weekends.  But after martial law was declared in 1972, my newspaper was closed and I was jobless.  Amid the arrests of journalists, politicians and student activists, and the uncertainties of the new dispensation, I had time on my hands. I tried out recipes and experimented with ingredients. Faced with a bunch of rhubarb, I was able to replicate the rhubarb jam that Mommy Reyes made in Baguio. And there was so much rhubarb I even tried making rhubarb pie, which didn’t turn out well.

I scoured my recipe books for new dishes, but it was martial law and the administration was conserving its dollar reserves by tightly controlling unnecessary imports, and a lot of ingredients I needed were not available in the groceries. I could only dream about stuff like apples, marshmallows, and lasagna noodles. Thankfully, I had a lot of support from my sisters who lived abroad. One of them sent me dehydrated apples so I could make apple pies using not sayote but the real thing. Another sister, who had gone through similar deprivation living as an ex-pat in India, taught me how to make marshmallows using egg whites, sugar and unflavored Jello. When I told her that I wanted to try a lasagna recipe but couldn’t find the noodles, she gave me a pasta maker so I could make the noodles myself.

I served my lasagna for the first time on New Year’s Eve 1973, and our New Yorker guests were incredulous. “Where did you get the pasta?”

Fresh salads and dressings were a challenge. Anchovies were not always available for Caesar’s salad, so I looked for a substitute that had the necessary saltiness and found it in the juice of alamang. 

My friends and I, eager housewives fresh from school, exchanged survival recipes. I remember cooking sardines and corned beef using the pressure cooker. The corned beef needed lots of salitre, which was not exactly healthy, but what did we know?

I was helping put out Manila Women’s Wear, a fashion magazine published by Vera-Reyes, when I was given a column dispensing tips for young housewives who were new to the kitchen.  My bible then was Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, which came in two thick paperback volumes. Between Joy and the advice of my sisters, I had answers to common questions by initiates that made me sound authoritative. When I wrote about keeping salads crisp by patting the leaves dry before tossing them, a friend aha-ed, “So that’s why my salads have always been wilted and watery!”

I felt like an expert.

On a visit to the US, my sister introduced me to pecan pie, which I thought was the most wonderful dessert in the world. Like lasagna, pecan pies were unknown in this country in the early 1970s. When I baked it at home for family and friends, it was an instant hit. When my mom was detained in Bicutan by the martial law government, I treated the detainees with a taste of my pecan pie on special occasions.

My pies were so much in demand I decided to sell them all year round. It was good business for as long as I could find the ingredients. It was martial law with all its trade restrictions, and pecan nuts, like other imported ingredients, were a rare commodity sold only at PX shops in Cartimar and Angeles.  I bought every can of pecans I could find. I was a hoarder.

Back home in my kitchen where my cookies were baking nicely, filling the room with a familiar aroma, I relished the break in my punishing work schedule, when I could bask without guilt, even for just a couple of hours, in the joy of baking and cooking — the simple pleasures that kept me occupied and sane when real life was a tale of woe under martial law.

By the way, the cookies didn’t turn out too well. I really need to practice.

BAKING COOKING
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