Taste Test

I was never raised in a kitchen. Growing up, the vivid memories of cooking I had were of frying pre-processed food, boiling eggs, and adding sauce to instant products. Both of my parents were working, so cooking needed to be fast and efficient. There was no room for tutorial blunders. Instead, I was often told to focus on my homework while waiting for dinner to be ready.

I had childhood thoughts that when I reach my twenties, I would be able to afford my own apartment and even hire househelp. Work hard now so that someone would work harder for you later. Someone taught me that. Until now, I still feel misled. Life is hard enough as a cog in this capitalist machinery. It is kinda pointless and inhumane to earn more just to make someone else’s life attend to my whims.

My early twenties was a period of shifting houses and working multiple jobs to earn my rent. I was living in San Juan, the heart of Metro Manila, and it was generously peppered by restaurants ranging from quaint to familiar. Eating out became a habit until I realized that I was spending 500 bucks a day. Standard for some, but I was only scraping 10,000 a month. I barely survived the next fifteen days on cup noodles and almost expired bread.

Local eateries became my next sanctum. Word of mouth led me to a small carinderia near P. Parada Street. It was singlehandedly run by a mid-forties woman who responds to the endearment Ate Baby. At lunchtime, office workers would flock at Ate Baby’s house, checking the day’s meals in pots displayed at her front store. She doesn’t have a consistent menu. She usually cooks what she feels like cooking, or what she could buy from her weekly market trips. Nevertheless, hers was the closest meal that reminded most of us of home. She doesn’t even charge much and would often let her patrons keep a tab until the end of each month.

I relied on Ate Baby’s generosity for home-cooked meals until conditions forced me to relocate to Makati and eventually to Taguig. A well-off friend adopted me as a house pet, and I was grateful for the free food in exchange of companionship.

It was from Twinky that I learned the basics of home cooking. She’d let me watch at the sidelines while she minced onions and garlic. She’d show me how to cut beef strips thin enough to melt in my mouth. I’d listen to her day’s stories as she seared chicken on the griddle. The pan sizzled at the touch of butter and oyster sauce.

At weekends she would take me to the grocery. Being a freeloader, I was grateful for whatever that would be served on the dinner table, but I took pointers from her shopping list. Premium canned goods. Organic dairy and vegetables. Meat— in different cuts. And spices. She couldn’t live without her McCormick shakers.

Eventually my friend ended up adopting three dogs, and I found myself overstaying at my partner’s apartment. We haven’t really wrapped our heads around the concept of cohabitation yet, so the first few weeks were romantic. We’d go out and try a new restaurant then look for a new place for afters. When we got (lazier) more comfortable, we discovered excuses to maximize delivery apps. Still, we’d share meals together on his bedroom floor. The take-away was the realization that we didn’t really need to go out to have an interesting conversation.

As weeks turned into months, I’d occasionally pick up the knife to show off. Call it pride, but I wanted Marc to believe that I was wife material. Tasty videos made it seem simple enough to fillet a chicken breast and turn it into a paprikash. I thought I could do the same if I visualize it repeatedly. I spent hours at the kitchen counter wrestling with a semi-defrosted chicken until his brother, an HRM graduate, came over to check on me.

“You’re about to chop your fingers off if you continue to hold the knife that way,” he said. I was exposed at first glance.

With his help I persisted, and oddly enough my dish turned out to be fine. What I lacked in knife skills, I made up for taste. It was as if the years I spent eating out and trying new and familiar things were translated to tastebud knowledge. I didn’t know I had developed an innate understanding of how flavors worked together. I felt like a kid who unlocked a secret feature from a toy I always play with.

The subsequent days were lost on me being proactive with meal prep. This time it was not entirely for Marc nor for appeasing any social conventions expected from a woman. It was largely for myself— an outlet for my culinary curiosities. I wanted to try what flavors would complement a chicken; what sauce has more depth to pair with a particular white fish; what happens if I substitute sesame oil for vegetable oil. The permutations are endless.

There is something about cooking that requires both discipline and imagination. It is an exercise of the senses. Frying fish, for example, seems simple yet becomes complicated in terms of texture and seasonings used. I remember getting too excited and serving an undercooked dish for dinner. Then there was this incident when I overestimated the frying time and had burned off the skin from the meat. It took me a lot of trial and error until I learned to rely on the hiss of the oil, the color of the meat, the temperature of the pan, and the familiar smell of meat being cooked. I had to spend time being acquainted with these other sensations just for frying to become natural.

As for taste, I noticed that I cook based on how I imagine ingredients would interact with one another. I tend to go for flavors that blend rather than burst in the mouth, so I usually stock up on butter and salt. Seasoning is intuitive for me. I pour and sprinkle based on what feels right, and it works just as well. Marc, on the other hand, is baffled that I don’t use measuring spoons and cups to balance flavor. His cooking is also good, but tends to rely more on precision. He is very meticulous about following the recipe to the exact unit. Mine is more liberal or conservative, depending on how it tastes on my tongue. To each his own.

Of course it wasn’t always perfect. Like the time I cooked shrimp alfredo and I overloaded on cream and cheese. Rich at first taste, but it got too heavy on the next few bites. I learned that using too much ingredients is an assault not only to the budget, but also to the tongue. Oftentimes, the basic is the best way to go.

Still, the kitchen has always been forgiving about my mishaps. The act of cleaning countertops and placing dishes in their racks is cathartic after a botched experiment. The same credit goes for the people I cook for. Marc and his brother give me generous space to explore, yet they are quick to lend a hand in case I get lost. The best part is that they finish whatever I cook- regardless of its taste. It is always a joy to serve these people.

After all the things I have written about food and cooking, It is still surreal that I have gone from being just an avid diner to someone who would actually take charge in the kitchen. It feels so good to be empowered, and I realized it didn’t happen overnight. It is an accumulation of varied experiences coupled with supportive people, and nurturing environment. To these, I say grace.

I still want to continue exploring and conversing with food. I believe that my tastes and my cooking will change and develop as long as I practice it. For better or for worse. That being said, it will always be a private activity— a worship to my God, a gift to my loved ones, a joy that I get to savor in my solitude.

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Reflections on Self Expression

Ever since I stopped working, I took it upon myself to rediscover the creative side I have lost when I was still teaching. It’s not that there is no creativity in being a teacher. There is. Lots of it. Every waking day is a hands-on experience: sprucing up an old concept, making sure keynotes are visually aesthetic, designing (and most often than not, improvising) activities that students would love and learn from, etc. Teaching is definitely not a blackhole of artistry. But there were also countless nights when I felt drained (or at times, even suicidal) right after I clocked out from work.

Maybe it was because of the religious nature of the school that I was in, but teaching eventually became a tedious chore for me. I knew that everyone meant well, but I felt that my being as a teacher was constantly judged from the moment I stepped inside the school grounds down to those random nights when colleagues would politely ask me about the choice of memes I shared. There were weekends when my students would randomly spot me strolling in a mall with my friends, and I would get anxiety attacks about what I just wore or how appropriate my behavior was. It was as if my life became a 24/7 reality show.

It took me some months to realize that as much as I enjoy having others appreciate my craft, I also need an outlet where I can express myself without any need of validation or approval.

Of course, I turned to poetry for recluse. The stories I wanted to share, but felt I would be called out for, made its way into a figurative line or two. What made it fun was the ambiguity and the fact that I could hide behind it. There will always be two or more interpretations to a seemingly indecent line ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°), so it was never brought out into the scrutinizing glare of light. It became a safe space for my other self that only a few people acknowledge.

When I quitted the academe, I vowed to focus my creative energies on poetry. I spent quiet nights in a nearby cafe, customized a notebook to call forth the muses, and even went for a social media detox. I mustered all my mental energy for a provocative imagery.

Alas, there were no ravens nor vultures. No lightning at the tip of my fingers. I didn’t have any words.

It took again a considerable amount of time to unpack that my poems are external manifestations of my internal turmoil, and that I couldn’t write because I am not tensed anymore. I have wrote about my life—one that is peppered by abuse, loneliness, and general sadness. Having cut myself away from all known triggers (a sudden live-in arrangement with ze partner did the trick), I found myself bereft of verses. Just how would I describe this new experience I have right now?

I used to maintain an acquaintanship with peace and joy. I knew how to spot them from the sidelines. They were regulars at this yoga studio I used to frequent in before. I ran at them in quiet coffee shops and other creative spaces. They were a hippy couple—one that has a million or so followers in Instagram. When I started living with them, I found out that I had missed so much.

It is so cliche to say this, but they are all about the small details: waking up without being hurried, having a clear agenda of what I need to do, and being patient with household chores. The day ends in gratitude, resting in the knowledge that I have accomplished everything I had to do, and that my palms would not run out of any basic need. The sleepless nights I sacrifice for achievement seem measly compared to the bliss I get every time I sleep without worrying about tomorrow’s performance.

I find it hard to write about peace and joy because fuck, I’ve been gloomy and anxious for the past x years of my existence. I am not prepared for it. I still have no words to capture the sunlight that radiates into my bedroom. Or the feeling of being safe after a long while. Unlike pain which operates on hiding behind ambiguity, happiness runs on a different language. It is sublime, but it does not rub itself on one’s face. It is bold, but at the same time does not draw attention to itself. It illuminates instead of making a material more sinister than it seems.

This is something I have to learn and get used to yet. Not only as means to channel creativity, but also as a way of conversing with life.

Meanwhile, I turn to other mediums for self-expression. In the absence of familiar structures, we learn to adapt to whatever form that is available. Or even create new ones. Journaling about the mundane helps a lot. Photography is an awesome method too (although I have to borrow ze partner’s camera from time to time). Cooking is my all-time favorite.

I will write about cooking the next time I have the chance to.

Postcard

I am writing this as I wait for dinner to be done. Tonight my partner cooks. He is still busy configuring out the basics of bistek, a local beef stew dish. Meanwhile, the kitchen air is filled with the aroma of simmered soy sauce and caramelized onions. The soft hiss of cooking pan is faintly heard next to the croon of his favorite artist.

This has been a typical night for both of us.

It is still surreal that a few months ago, I would clock out at eight and still be at lost as to what I should be doing after work. Well, for one, there was more work— occupied by keynotes needed to be animated, grades that must be computed, assessment tasks that should be drafted or conceptualized. It was not surprising that I have developed a tendency for procrastination— after repeatedly being advised to work smart, not hard. Well, foine. If you really insist to turn off all lights at six, maybe I should get life after work.

The alternative life would mean signing out at five and exploring whatever city life has to offer for a poorly paid yuppie. Having moved out from my parents and settled at my friend’s couch, a fringe benefit entitled me to a lot of unsupervised free time (well, saved from those nights when my host needed me to tutor her kids, but you get the drift). I entered the wonderland of dating, and boy was it magical.

Still, the spell would wear off at the strike of a certain hour or on particular days when a date suddenly ghosts, and I would find myself brooding and listless at social media. What to do now?

It took me three specialists, two mental breakdowns, and a barrage of office memos to finally realize that what I need is more than a break. I need a vacation.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t really had a legit vacation ever since I graduated college. After being hurled out screaming from my alma mater’s, I focused on one thing I was weaned to do: survive. I moved from one job to another, traversed cities, and even entered graduate school— all for the dream of being this sophisticated self-made woman.

What I am right now is SO far-fetched from the ideals I had imagined back when I was a graduate. For starters, I am currently unemployed. I try to scrape out an income by tutoring from time to time. Fifty percent of my purchase power is fuelled by my parents’ unconditional(?) love for me. I secretly live with my partner to regain the sanity I lost when I was teaching. My media subscriptions are all on hold. Aside from some books, I have nothing else valuable except time…

…which I am learning to enjoy indiscriminately. I used to abhor how time runs so fast while I, weighed by responsibilities and personal demons, trudged far behind it. Now that I am on an indefinite vacation, time stretches like a wide paved road, and I have the option to stroll wherever I please.

It is very ironic to have found my sense of routine in a space devoid of rigid structures. Without any morning commitment, I now regularly wake up at nine. I am slow in preparing food, but always make it in time for lunch. Afternoons are spent either responding to mails, playing video games, or napping. At five, I go to my tutee and we would have a productive time learning together. I usually arrive home at eight, just in time for me and my partner to decide on what we are going to have for dinner. My routine is a tad boring than what I used to do, but I overall feel alive, accomplished and happy.

To add, this has been going on for two months- the longest I am able to sustain a routine without any sort of internal revulsion.

Do I want this to last forever? Partly. But I am also aware that there is life after this LIFE. ;). After all, I am an adult who has bills to pay, plans to save for, and places to travel to. Staying permanently in this utopic set-up would prolly defeat the purpose of being human. So yes, I will soon be returning to the throng of mass workers who digests Metro Manila traffic for breakfast. This time I clutch dearly onto my souvenir: a better sense of what I should do and what my work is worth for.

Meanwhile, I relish the remaining time I have here while ze partner is setting the table for dinner.

Footwork

what spectators don’t see in dancing
is that every movement is an act of vulnerability.
every pose and gesture
is read and translated
as a language
of reliance

exchanged in hours of pains and prickles
spent waiting on one’s toes;

developed in a gasp for breath
before the shifting of weight
from one foot to another;

still hoping
that an innocent misstep
would not crush the other’s foot.

there is no easy way to dance, they say

but we’ve waltzed over the first few rounds
like pros
never minding forms and conventions
dictated by tempo.

lover,
this isn’t the first time
i have been swept off my feet.

i have long been passed
from one partner to another
in some bizarre round dance
i was half aware about,

but you stepped in
at such perfect timing
to pull me out of the loop
with your offbeat footwork
and awkward coordination.

when the melody fades into a blare,
will you still be there
to hold my hand
and match my two left feet?

State of Undress

A/N: i don’t usually give context about the poems i write about, but i’ll make an exception for this: SOU is a piece made to reconcile the horrible experience of finding myself naked, alone, and bleeding in a hotel room. It was one of those bad hookups that my friends warned me about, but i ignored because the person seem decent and easygoing.

I am already tired of using pain as an excuse for writing, but I need to exorcise this one. Yes, there are instances that writing about hurt hinders the growth of art, but there are also times that hurt must be grieved over and be exposed for what it is: an open wound. This is my attempt to to stop and disinfect the bleeding.

Hopefully the next poems I will write will be from a state of joy. From a place of security and affirmed affection.


What seemed to be relief last night,
became glaring curse at morning:
this darkness
courtesy of a middling hotel room,
an alternative go-to,
in case we’re too proud to admit
that we’re cheap
enough
to sell our skins by the hour,
to be rubbed raw,
in exchange for a stranger’s soul,
either too naive or too hollow

For hours, I’ve lain awake
over and under the dim’s thin blanket,
wondering
where shade’s light is,
where warmth should come from
in the absence of a body

How many people were there last night?
two? seven? fifteen?
twenty four if we combined all the ghosts of our pasts,
us, our two, included?

How many people have i made love to?
Screwed over and fucked by,
only to be left hanging
on an empty chair, a limbo
between second-use and replacement.

I have lost track of figures

in my pursuit of transcendence;
I have managed to detach
my mind from my heart,
my heart from the body
which continues to disintegrate and float
on the vast ocean of this queen-sized bed:
appendages, limbs, torso,
and at the core of the shipwreck— my sex
weeping blood in its wake.

Get dressed, my mind tells me. Take a shower.
But my body has long drifted,
farther and farther from this hotel room.
It searches for light
in the nooks and crannies
of every lover it once had.
Begging for an ounce of sympathy
or even pity
from what has been stripped,
fondled,
sucked,
slapped,
bitten,
stretched,
and made vulnerable.

There is nothing
but the red stare of the digital clock
reminding me of the time
to check out.

What the ravens told me

(1) how long will you sit at the marketplace, selling your flesh by the pound for such loose change?

(2) how often have you found yourself lying at the roadside next to a waiting vulture?

(3) how much pain are you willing to tolerate for the sake of art? or are you only using poetry as an excuse for self-destruction?

(4) where is your home? how far is it from here?

(5) who are you now? do you still know yourself?

Pilgrim

My feet are scarred from all the walking.
I have treaded pebbled paths
sharp enough to leave a trail of my own blood;
I have pitched my tents on cracked soil
that begs for the company of my tears;
I have lied awake at the roadside
patiently waiting for death to pass
but was only sustained by crumbs from strangers.

It is still surreal to believe
that this hardened earth-
also lends itself to the existence
of lush forests whose grass tenderly kiss the blisters on my soles;
of loam that yields itself to the turn of the seasons;
and of fine sand still clinging even if i shake them off.

The heart of a pilgrim
is always indecisive.
Torn between making a home in a place you feel loved,
and knowing that there is no permanency on any land.
Only continuous walking.