One of the things I remember most fondly are lively and fun family dinners we had every evening. What do I love about those dinners? Well, for starters, it was the one time in the entire day when my whole family would converge in our dining room and spend time regaling each other on our day’s adventures and mishaps. Everyone had their own thing going so this was the only time for storytelling, laughing and teasing. Admittedly, most of the airtime was dominated by yours truly, Joy would be a close second, and trailing not far behind was our dear dad (aka “Babbling Brook”). My mom, Atsi, Jules and Jim were a great audience, but believe me, they had their moments too!
Another thing I loved about family dinners, was , well … the food. Where do I begin? My mom is a big believer in well-balanced meals. So on a given night, we would have a representation of all major food groups – we’d have a meat dish, a veggie dish, a seafood dish, soup, and carbs (rice, pasta, potatoes or bread). For dessert, there was always an array of fresh fruits and something homemade like my mom’s apple cake, banana bread, brownies, food for the gods, cream puffs or some other thing she’d have baking in the oven. My mom is also a believer in theme dinners – so not only were our dinners well-balanced – they were coordinated too. We had Mexican night, and Italian night, and Chinese night, and so on … it was a regular United Nations convention at our place. We also had backyard barbecues, or a soup and salad buffet, or sometimes as a treat we’d have homemade pizza (where each one could top their own pie with their favorite toppings). Dinner at our home is never reheated leftovers or a dish where the ingredients are thrown together into a pot after cleaning out the fridge.
Sometimes I’d wonder what it was that really drew us to that table … was it the company or the food? I’d like to think it was a little bit of both. It also drew many others to join us for dinner - school friends, co-workers, cousins staying over, out of town guests, and stray people we took home. My parents are big believers that hospitality means feeding guests well and making them welcome at the table. Many of our friends would often ask if this is how we normally had dinner or if they were lucky enough to be invited to a party. It always made me laugh because to us, this is what a family dinner was all about!
When I moved to Berkeley, dinners were not as lavish but still gatherings around the table. I lived in an apartment complex with my fellow students and every night we would gather for dinner (and study sessions) in someone’s kitchen. My roommate was Turkish and a great cook so I got to try yummy Turkish delicacies. Inevitably it became my turn to host a dinner and I had promised my friends I would make adobo (most likely the Philippine national dish). That afternoon, standing in the kitchen, I discovered that culinary genius is not hereditary and apparently eating good food all these years does not automatically make one a good cook. I guess the upside to having a gourmet for a mom is eating well and appreciating fine cuisine. The downside to having Judy (aka “the Domestic Diva”) in the kitchen is none of us ever had to lift a finger when it came to cooking – which meant I grew up not knowing a mortar from a pestle. The first time I made adobo, I was so grossed out by holding raw chicken, I dumped the entire contents of the tray into a hot frying pan – chicken parts and the plastic mat at the bottom of the tray included! I consequently burned the chicken, melted the plastic and ruined the pan – not to mention bathed our tiny kitchen in the aroma of burned rubber for a couple of days.
When I moved to LA and lived all by my lonesome, I had to give up on having dinner with family and friends but was determined I would not compromise the quality of my meals. Armed with my mom’s recipes and advice from my favorite Food Network stars, I ventured into the culinary universe. I must admit my first forays were dismal and sometimes frightening (for the unlucky diners), but little by little I gained confidence in the kitchen. I was finally cooking, preparing meals, hosting dinners and contributing to potlucks. Of course, my early culinary experiences were mostly a hit or miss so I always had a take out menu on hand as a back-up. I can’t really say this was the start of my becoming a self-taught chef. As much as I tried to prepare good meals, there were times when even if the mind and spirit were willing – the flesh was just too tired, stressed out and weak. I had my share of meals that I know would make my mom cringe – “student meals” that were fast, cheap and tasty – never mind if they were unhealthy or eaten straight out of a can. Every time I had one of those meals, like microwaved spam and day-old rice, I could hear my mom’s voice, which would prompt me to eat an orange to compromise.
Now that I’m married, I’m finding myself looking forward to doing more cooking and entertaining. I guess it’s easier for me since now I get some help in the kitchen. Plus it’s always nice cooking for someone – especially someone like Jojo, who is so easy to please and who is so generous with praise. These days, I pride myself on having my own specialties and can be counted on to prepare a good meal from start to finish (just ask those who’ve been lucky enough to have dinner at our place!). Of course, with our busy schedules and depending on the time of the week (where our fridge could be empty or full), there are still hit or miss dinners – but honestly, more hits than misses now. But what matters more, is that Jojo and I have taken the tradition of sitting down to dinner every night, catching up on each other’s day, and enjoying the quiet time whether it’s a well-prepared home-cooked dinner or a hastily heated bowl of canned chili and hotdogs.