Sunday, June 5, 2011

Food and Oral History: The Merienda Party Itself - What Really Happened

One must always have a fruit tray at a Filipino Party 
The word Merienda means "afternoon snack."  I should have known better that my family is incapable of bringing together anything small much less a light snack.  The mere size of my family does not lend to little afternoon parties with nibbles.  When my mother  and aunties arrived to my "Merienda" they quickly corrected my marketing of the event and what the word Merienda was meant to mean.  The party was immediately renamed "The Little Big Party".

Everyone proudly displayed their dishes as they walked in and posed in a photographs with their dishes.  This was an exhilarating feeling to see and hear their own stories and journeys of trying to cook their own recipes.  Some instructed their children to make the dish, some made what they wanted to eat.  Now, the point was to share the recipes, but nobody brought a copy on paper, they were all chattering away in the kitchen on their approaches and techniques.  Here was an oral history moment in the making.  I thought to myself that this was going to be a challenge to collect all the stories and write them all down.  

In the earlier chapters, I spoke of my nemesis, the coconut.  The coconut lay on my counter, pathetically displayed in the kitchen, for all to see my failure to crack the thing open.  The coconut is a constant character at the party I have now decided.  
Father trying to get the coconut opened without a machete

As people entered my home, I had to keep up my charade that there was an actual event we were celebrating.  I learned that my family were having trouble coming to my house without a purpose.  A mere "Merienda" and a custom invitation snail-mailed to their house was not enough.  "Is it someone's birthday?" They would ask.  "What are we celebrating again?"

My answers ranged from, "Judy's belated birthday" to "Did grandma not pass away about this time a few years ago?"  So, having to live up to the picture I began to paint for the guests, my Tita Verma said (not asked), "Where is the plate for your grandmother?  You have to set a plate for her.  Also, you need a photo and candles."  I quickly cobbled together these things and created an instant mini monument in the kitchen.  My sister leaned over to me and whispered, "Isn't that a Chinese thing?  Do Filipinos do that?"  So there were all kinds of how-to voices in the room.  My uncle said I needed to put her plate in a secluded place, because the spirits prefer to eat without anyone around.  All of this information, was so new to me and had NOTHING to do with what I thought my goal of the party was supposed to be.  At this point, I was just trying to please the guests and carried on with a matter of fact-like air.  I mean of course we should have a plate out for grandma, Merienda or not, right?

As the guests collected themselves, I realized my father had not yet arrived.  He is what we would refer to as the head of the family I think.  My uncles even defer to him.  I set out chips and other nibblers and realized people were starving, but nobody dare touch the food that was beginning to crowd the kitchen table.  I told my uncle that if he was hungry, he could start eating.  He said, "I will wait for you dad."  This set the tone for everyone else of course.  Nobody approached the table of food, other than to complement how good the dishes looked and the story of how the dish got there.  A few brave souls snatched pieces of my burnt Cassava Cake.

The young adults gathered around the grill outside to watch my brother, Jun, make the Chicken Dish With No Name.  Some still were pondering, before deciding to come, what we were celebrating exactly.  My sister quieted their preliminary inquiries about the party and simply said, "Christy is having a Filipino party."  "Cool," one young friend said.  He brought his sister, but felt empty handed later that he had not brought a dish.  He had also somehow concluded that he thought the party was going to be like a poetry slam where people would walk in front of everyone and present their dish in poetic fashion with some kind of story.  I noted this for a later idea and asked that he perhaps help make this idea to reality at a later time.

Father using husband's fancy knife
to open coconut
Finally, my father arrived.  We can now begin to eat I thought.  False alarm.  Impromptu rosary for grandma needed to be recited before eating.  "Don't you have an alter Chris?" my mother asked.  Shamed, I pulled a red satin cloth, the kids table, a crucifix my mother gave me, and a statue of the Virgin Mary together in one fell swoop in the middle of the living room.  Thank god I kept that red satin cloth, you never know when you need to put together an emergency alter.  Again, I am thinking to myself that I did not recall placing "Novena" on my invitation.  Immediately, the aunties kneeled, then the whole house of twenty plus people kneeled.  One aunt happened to have spare rosaries on hand.  These were distributed quickly.  At this point, I am not sure how this happened since I did not know what to think.  I was nudged to lead a couple of prayers and children were also called upon.  If you stumbled through a prayer, you did not need to be shamed.  You knew to self inflict your own shame for not remembering the Hail Mary for god sakes.

Finally, the rosary was over and we were able to commence eating.  My father had no idea of the impact of his tardiness, so I took liberties to ask my auntie, whom we had not seen in a long time, to start first as the honored guest.  Nobody objected.  

Many food tangents followed.  One tangent I have yet to close out and document, is that darn coconut.  One of the aunties saw it lying on the counter and asked about it.  I mentioned my tango with the coconut earlier, but did not expect that she would be so adamant as to make it her mission to get the thing opened.  She called upon my father, found my husband's favorite knife and directed him to chop it open.  I am not sure why this took so many people to try to figure out.  Eventually, my father gave in to the directives from my auntie and my mom.  I could tell he was beginning to get a little annoyed. 

Finally!  After much anticipation and histrionics, the coconut was finally cracked open.  My father ended up chopping it open on the floor of my kitchen on a cutting board.  Did I mention with one of my husband's prized knives?  My aunt immediately asked for a straw so that I could take a sip of the coconut water.  She took the drink back from me and took a drink her self.  I could tell she was instantly shot back into time as a young child drinking refreshing coconut water in the islands.  Since it was a fresh young coconut, the insides looked soft and rich like melted cheese, but white.  I have to admit, it tasted pretty good.  I look back and the part I remember the most was the feeling that I was so glad the coconut was conquered.   

By the end of the party, a lot of the food was consumed, but there were a lot of left overs.  Good thing I had to-go boxes on hand.  Out of all the things that people packed for themselves, most wanted the fried fish my dad brought - the one dish that really did not require much of an elaborate recipe or set of instructions to make.    

Victory!  Coconut finally cracked open!
The party lasted well into the next day since guests spent the night and the leftover rice was cooked into tasty garlic rice.  People walked away asking when the next "Merienda" was going to take place.  I promised another event, but not a repeat of this one.  I do not think it is possible to repeat this one.  Although the party was a success, it did not turn out as I exactly planned.  There were a lot of unspoken rules and impromptu activities I had not foreseen.  Parents seemed pleased that we took the time to figure out how to cook the dishes.  The younger ones were inspired by the need to tell their own stories and the camaraderie.  I think my dad ended up handing out fishing knives to everyone.  He happened to have a stock of them in his car.

I learned that the food was an energy reviver in the family, a connector to those who felt that they were losing something, but could not exactly place what that something was.  In spite of all the inspiration, stories, rosaries, and tasty food, I did not acquire one recipe in my hand that night and I am okay with that.

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