“Right out of college I worked as a copywriter for an ad agency. For many years, that was my life. I was very proud because I was trained by the best in the Philippines. It was a lot of hard work, but I learned so much for very diverse industries. You learned to write for everything — motor fuel, airline, cars, butter, noodles, ice cream, beauty soaps, detergents…
When we moved to the US, life was different. Totally different from what you see in the movies and magazines. It just shatters everything you dreamt about living in America. Our youngest son was only three years old then, so I opted to stay home and raise them, even if I had offers to work in ad agencies. New York City was over 50 miles away and I just couldn’t leave them. I took some part-time jobs along the way, just to be close to home.
I’ve been home-cooking the whole time. Cooking at home is the norm for our family.”
On raising a family around food
“Food, family, and cooking have always been central in our lives. I taught my sons how to cook, and now I’m very proud they do better than me in the kitchen. It’s always a feast when they come home. There’s so much noise. We fight. They shoo me away from the kitchen. Now they think they know better, and they actually do! It’s a very fulfilling and gratifying feeling. I’m proud of how they turned out.”
Growing up on a farm in the Philippines
“I grew up in a very rural, agricultural province. My father — by nature and by profession — was a farmer. We owned rice fields and sugarcane fields; I was raised in that kind of environment.
Our home had a huge backyard. We had cattle and a piggery, chickens and geese. I can’t even remember what other animals we had. We also had fruit trees and vegetable crops. I didn’t step into a supermarket to buy food until much later.
As a child, I remember being tasked with collecting eggs from the chickens we raised. For as long as I remember, they were always brown eggs — from farm-raised, free range chickens. For years I did this, so when we went to the city — by this time I think I was in the fourth or fifth grade — I saw white eggs in the supermarket. I was shocked. The first thing I asked was, ‘Who washed them? Why are they white?!’
So that was my upbringing. Everything we had on the table was from produce that we grew in the backyard or our farm. As the seasons came and went, our vegetables and fruits came with the seasons too. And that’s how I learned to cook.”
The story of mangoes in a jar
“A few years ago, I saw really nice mangoes in a market and said to myself, ‘Let me recreate the mango jam of my childhood.’ I tried, but I couldn’t quite get it.
I was taking writing classes with Monica Bhide at the time, and I told her about my mother’s mango jam. She said, ‘That’s a beautiful story. Why don’t you write about it? Write about how you made mango jam with your mother.’
So I set off to write, but soon went back to Monica. ‘There’s a problem,’ I said, ‘I can’t write the essay. I remembered that I never asked my mother for the recipe. My mother died in 1981, so of course I couldn’t ask her. How sad is that? It’s something we did for so many years and I took it for granted. Why did I not ask her?’
Then Monica says to me, ‘You know what? There’s your essay! Write about the sadness.’ And I said, ‘My God! That’s hard! I’m going to be crying with every word.’
‘And that what makes a good writer,’ she said.
So I wrote the essay. I showed it to Monica, my sons, my husband, and they all said it was good. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s good. But I’m not giving it to anyone,’ and I put it away in a drawer. I kept it in that drawer for years. Then, one day, I learned the Doreen Gamboa-Fernandez Writing Award was open to submissions and that I could submit even if I was in the States. I finally emailed my essay, and I won.
When I first wrote ‘A Hundred Mangoes In A Bottle’, I asked Monica, ‘Who will be interested in this? People who don’t know me aren’t going to care. It’s about my personal sadness, and there’s no recipe. So ultimately, no one will care.’
From my perspective — if you didn’t know me, were you going to care? Who’s going to care about mangoes if they’ve never tasted mangoes? I also reminded her that it’s about a rural town in a province in the Philippines that people have probably never heard about. ‘There was really no draw for the reader,’ was what I kept thinking.”
A lesson learned
“So what did I learn from that? Well — nobody else has your story. Every person is unique and if you worry about things that haven’t yet happened, it’s an exercise in futility and it’s just going to make you crazy. I should not have said to myself, ‘Hey, nobody’s going to care.’”