UPDATE: This piece was published in slightly modified form on 8 July 2012 in the first issue of the Sunday Manila Standard-Today, revived after an eight-year hiatus.
There’s this old Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook that’s been in the family for years. It belonged to my mother, Malu Ledesma Lacson Alonso, who received it from her nanny, Phoebe Elustrisimo. Lola Phoebe migrated to the US when my mom was a teenager, but she did bring many warm memories of baking cookies and muffins, and brushing my mother’s long brown hair in the mornings.
My mother and I, 1968.
As a child I preferred to stay indoors and read, rather than go out and play. On my great-aunt Bennett’s sugar cane hacienda in Bacolod, where I lived for a year, there were no other children my age and I was not allowed to play with the children “nga halin sa uma” (“from the farm”).
When I was brought back to Manila and our little apartment near Vito Cruz, the neighbor kids were mostly boys and played rough. Not that I minded the knockabout games. I was a little tomboy, and the best on the swing, going as high up as I could and jumping off at the very peak of the arc. “Dangerous” games proved your bravery; any kid who didn’t join in was a sissy. Girls were exempted from this, but a girl who was as tough as the boys got extra points in street cred. My rep was “small but terrible”.
To this day I’m amazed I didn’t crack a leg or some other useful body part. I wonder how nearly all of us went through our childhood practically unscathed. The only casualties I recall were Alan next door (his family owned the swing) who broke his arm, and Mars across the street who snapped something in his chest when rough-housing with his German Shepherd. The break never healed properly and he developed a “pigeon chest”, a sort of protusion that shocked us all into a wary respect for dogs.
It was boring and meaningless, keeping up the street rep among my playmates, and increasingly, I retreated into the other worlds of books. One of my favorites was this same 1956 edition Betty Crocker cookbook of my mom’s. I’d pore over it for hours, flipping through the slick pages, ogling the glossy color pictures of classic American dishes – apple pie, strawberry shortcake, Eggs ala Goldenrod.
Written in the politically-incorrect ’50s, before organic foods and vegetarianism became fashionable, many recipes call for lard (an ingredient banned from today’s enlightened kitchens, where “lowfat” cooking is de riguer), meal suggestions are built around red meat and carbohydrates, and vegetable recipes occupy less than ten pages – most of them variations on deep-fried this or that. Phrases such as “low-calorie” and “artificial sweetener” are nowhere to be found; “cookie” is spelled with a “y”. The illustrations are quaint and oh-so Fifties: women in flaring skirts and aprons lean over ovens, brandish ladles.
The chapters on baking were closest to my heart. The “Quick Breads” (pancakes, muffins, and waffles), “Cakes”, “Pies”, and “Cookies” pages became the most dog-eared and creased. An instructional manual, the book contains step-by-step pictures on how to sift flour, knead dough, roll out pastry. Sort of like a primitive “Baking for Dummies”, but with photos.This proved a godsend to me when I actually started cooking on my own after I got married in 1990. Though a beginner at cooking, it was like my hands already knew what to do, thanks to those instructions.
When my mom moved to the US in the early 80s and took that beloved cookbook with her, I was bereft, like I had lost a close friend.
There’s a happy ending to this, though. Maybe ten years later, I coaxed my mom to send that cookbook to me in a balikbayan box. She was reluctant to let it go; as for me, it had much sentimental value for her. I suggested that it was time for the next generation (my children Alex and Erika) to enjoy that heirloom. That argument proved to be persuasive. Once in my hands, I placed that half-a-century old book in a place of honor on the shelf.
Ik is the most interested in this old book. As I did, she studies the pictures and reads the recipes. Over the past several months this year, the inspiration built up to such a crescendo that yesterday, she convinced her ate Alex to help her bake muffins.
Here they are. Golden brown, fluffy, and perfect smothered with butter. Great with coffee? You bet. Congratulations, Ik and Alex!
The 52-year-old heirloom cookbook; the “how to bake muffins” page; Alex, Ik and muffins
For me, this particular cycle has come full circle, in terms of my children’s participation in the mythos of family traditions and rituals that shape so much of who we are and what we influence our children to become. Yet time in the real world is linear, not circular. I stretch my mind to the future, where I see my grandchildren reading that Betty Crocker cookbook (now 70, 80 years old), baking buttery golden muffins for their lola, tita, and mom.
Thus the cookbook is not merely a book, a construct of paper and ink, but a vessel of familial rites, a repository of histories, and a catalyst for the creation of fresh, life-shaping memories.