Life / Cooking

Not many people can maintain a neutral, non-hyperbolic position while describing their mother’s cooking. Their mother’s cooking is either oh my god the best ever, or their mother’s cooking is so incredibly awful. Canned-asparagus-awful. Potted-meat-in-aspic-awful.

My own mother can no longer physically cook, but when she did she fell squarely into the best-ever camp. She never thought of herself in this way, otherwise she would have made a point of passing her knowledge down the family tree. Instead, we kids were relegated to prep chef roles—coaxing lumpia wrappers apart, grating coconut, peeling potatoes, folding wonton into the shape of little nuns habits. I was always so delighted to be finished with whatever tedious chore I’d been given that I’d escape the kitchen before learning how all the various ingredients came together.

Which is how I found myself, in my mid-twenties, frequently on the phone with my mother. “Don’t forget to put patis,” she’d say. Patis being a fermented shrimp sauce that improves the taste of an unlikely number of soups. You’re welcome.

“Okay, how much?”

“A spoonful. Maybe two. It depends.”

“What size spoon?”

“You know, a cooking spoon.”

All of her directions were like this: vague and maddening. The directive was always just to put.

“Put water to cover.”

“Put peppercorns.”

“Put Maggi.”

“Put bay leaf.”

Eventually, once I moved past beginner’s terror, I understood what she was trying to teach me. There’s no one way, no exact method. You learn to cook the way you learn how to be in relationships: by feeling your way, by getting it all wrong and then suddenly all right, by not giving up.

This is, in fact, how I am learning to care for my mother now. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis fifteen years ago, and it has progressed in such a way that she is wheelchair-bound with very limited mobility. When I visualize multiple sclerosis, it’s…a zombie. It just keeps coming for my mom: clawing, ruthless, and focused.

(Kindly indulge me while I take advantage of the fact that it’s all the rage to sprinkle our essays with the word “fuck.” Fuck you, multiple sclerosis. Seriously. Fuck you.)

The disease manifests in different ways for different people, so doctors and occupational therapists have little advice, really, when it comes to day-to-day living. In fact, I stopped asking a long time ago. Mom has been with us for almost 3 years now, and I’m still tweaking the techniques I use to get her out of bed and into her chair, to help with all the private stuff, to get her dressed, to make sure she exercises, and of course to help her back into bed for the night. I’m sure very little of what I have concocted for my mom would be useful to anyone else. Our level of success on any given day is all about verbal cues and, strangely, physics. For someone else, who knows?

Since Mom is now chilling on the premises, I get my cooking tips in regularly delivered puts.

“Put fried garlic.”

“Put green onion.”

“Put just garlic salt and pepper.”

“Put more ginger.”

If I need specifics when attempting Filipino food, I can always pull out her disintegrating copy of Recipes of the Philippines, which was published in 1970 (the 16th printing). It resides in my kitchen now, but I can picture it on every shelf it ever sat on in my childhood home in Daly City, and as it moved with my parents to Oahu, then Maui and, finally, back home to San Francisco.

For aesthetic reasons alone, I should relegate it to the recycling bin. The ham and its various wedges of pineapple, after all, have been been impaled by toothpicked, pimento-stuffed olives. And yet there are many jewels hidden within — little charcoal drawings of people in traditional dress; photographs with a weird, saturated quality; and quirky lines of text. The truth of this little bit always makes me smile: “A Filipino thinks nothing of starving himself or getting into debt to be a perfect host.”

It’s also stuffed with yellowed recipes clipped from newspapers and, most important of all, my mom’s handwritten notes inside the covers and along the margins. She always took inordinate pride in her penmanship and still—4 or 5 years past the point when she could last hold a pen and sign her name—bemoans its considerable loss.

So who am I kidding? I would never throw this book away. I’m not a religious person, but I’ve come to think of it as a bible of sorts. Not filled with the sacred or the spiritual, but with memories of an easier, kinder time in my mom’s life. Its author, Enriqueta David-Perez, says it like this: “…in many a heart lingers the nostalgia for something at one with the long ago.”


Veronica Montes is a writer with a soft spot for writing about the
Filipino-American experience + productive rants about…many things.
So many things. You should follow her.

If you enjoyed this, you might like “Life / Story,” too. Thanks.