Why we were there

I’ve been re-reading Ruth Reichl’s “Save Me the Plums,” a memoir on her journey to and experience as editor of the venerable magazine Gourmet. Reichl was editor from 1999 until the magazine closed in 2009. It’s a wonderful read, at least for a food enthusiast (I won’t go as far as calling myself a foodie) and journalist like me. It gives a glimpse of the world beyond the pages, behind the delicious looking photographs, the kitchen-tested recipes (sometimes revised up to five times in their fabulous in-office kitchens before getting in the magazine).

I read the chapter “Why we cook” the other day, about their experience on Sept. 11, 2001 – the day the world order changed totally. Reichl writes about coming in to an eerily empty office and finding everyone gathered in front of the TV in the conference room, as planes crashed into one and then the other tower of what was then the world’s tallest buildings, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

While she managed (after four hours on what was usually a 10-minute drive) to get to their home outside the city where her husband, a journalist, had taken their son and some of his classmates, she decided the next day to go back to the city – to cook: “We’ve got eight kitchens at Gourmet. And somebody’s got to feed the firefighters.”

So she went back to the city, husband and son as well, and joined the massive effort among restaurateurs and chefs and all sorts of volunteers to prepare meals for the firefighters and other first responders. On that first day she brought “great trays of chili, cornbread, lasagna and brownies” to Ground Zero, going through checkpoints, along streets that were dust and rubble: “It was a bombed out war zone, a zombie space that no longer resembled any New York I’d ever known.” One exhausted, dust-covered firefighter took a bowl of chili, turned to her and said, “Thank you for this taste of home.” And since then, her Thanksgiving Turkey Chili has had pride of place on her family’s Thanksgiving table.

I write about that because, as we commemorate People Power this week, I remember similar efforts in February 1986. As people trooped to EDSA starting on the evening of Feb. 22 to protect the “defectors” huddled in Camp Aguinaldo and later crossing EDSA to Camp Crame, the concern was that the people should stay on EDSA since, if they went home, it would leave the camps vulnerable to whatever attack would be launched. But to keep the people from leaving, they had to be fed, and spontaneously, food brigades were mobilized and soup kitchens were set up.

We lived not too far from our version of “Ground Zero” – EDSA from Ortigas to Boni Serrano. We set up an assembly line in a neighbor’s house to make sandwiches, which we figured would be easier to distribute and easier for the people to eat. Volunteers came in streams, parents with kids, lolos and lolas. My mother, the quintessential homemaker who never bothered with politics and from whom I had kept secret my going to rallies and marches, volunteered to come with me. She brought her kitchen skills – which were formidable – and I’m afraid she may not have approved of our hurried, mechanical style of making sandwiches. But she gamely found a place in the line and, more carefully than the rest of us, put the sandwiches together, wrapped each one in a paper napkin and put it in an individual plastic bag. 

When a full batch was done, I dropped Mom home before heading off in my neighbor’s van to EDSA. The subdivision had closed all access gates, and it was a long discussion before the guards, augmented by soldiers carrying serious firepower, allowed us to go out. Ortigas Avenue was deserted, except for uniformed personnel manning checkpoints every few meters. We shared sandwiches with them and parked along Connecticut street half a block from EDSA, unloaded our cartons and distributed the sandwiches. Admittedly, what we had was a far cry from Reichl’s turkey chili, cornbread, lasagna and brownies, but we just wanted to keep the people from hunger. 

A resident had draped a garden hose over his fence so the people could have water (no bottled water in those days). There were many other vehicles bringing food, and people coming on foot to join the crowd. Whether little or much, people shared. There’s that unforgettable story of the pandesal vendor who gave away his day’s ration of hot bread to the crowd at dawn.

There was, of course, tension, and fear; nothing like this had ever happened before so no one knew what to expect. There was the prospect of danger, of violence, especially when word spread through the crowds that tanks were rumbling towards EDSA. But I guess everybody felt the same way – that we had to be there and, since we were all already there, we might as well stay – together…forced to good, as they say, no turning back.

Reichl wrote: “We all knew why we were there, knew it was as much for ourselves as for the firefighters, knew we were attempting to snatch hope from the rubble of our broken city.”

Thirty-eight years ago, we were on EDSA to “protect” the “rebels” holed up in the two military camps straddling EDSA, but we were there as much for ourselves, to get back our freedom and our dignity, to say, in that moment of history, “para sa bayan.”

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