My only child does not have a photo album. I have taken countless pictures from the time she was a bump in my belly up to, well, last night at my nephew's birthday party where she happily stuffed her two-year-old face with cake and it has been duly documented in social media. However, as for a tangible collection of images to sift through in my old age, I have none.
Not that I don't care, quite the contrary, actually. She's the center of my universe and she better not forget that when she's 15 and calling me a "crazy bitch" (which, if I raise her according to my core values, she most probably will). However, I don't form lasting attachments to material things. I was not built in a way that I wax nostalgic at the sight of a ceramic ashtray, or a dusty-haired Barbie, or faded photos of random moments in time I thought were so cool I had to stop and take a picture. Anyway, that's what hashtags and Instagram is for. But, for me, my most precious and most powerful memories are all banked in the deep recesses of my mind, occasionally dusted off and reminisced in my quiet moments.
Many times, these memories are conjured by food—a pungent spice, a dish at a restaurant, or even the catching burn of alcohol. Good, pleasant memories, usually, since the bad ones are buried deep with hopes of being forgotten. But, the nice, fuzzy ones are remembered with the corresponding food, no matter how simple or downright mediocre. Case in point: The moment I found out my ex-boyfriend was playing hide the salami with my (crappy) friend—I knew I was at a restaurant, but where or why, I forget. However, the night I got engaged—after he proposed, I treated my new fiancé to dinner at the now-defunct French bistro La Regalade along Pasay Road and we had what was otherwise a forgettable lamb tagine. But, I remember it with much fondness, and I am still apologizing to my husband for taking him to that restaurant many years later.
Food memories, even on its own, can be very powerful and vivid. Why do people line-up outside the Jollibee in Skokie, Illinois for seven hours for burgers and fried chicken? These are dishes in America that you could pick up in at least 20 other places within a mile of each other, perhaps products of even higher quality and better value for money. Yet, thousands of homesick Filipinos made the drive on opening day and patiently sat through a harsh Chicago summer just for a taste. Of what? Home. A happy childhood of agawan-base and Batibot. Basically, a mouthful of sweet spaghetti and over-processed burgers that ultimately remind you of simpler albeit happier times.
So powerful is food nostalgia that, as the above stated poignantly proves, it doesn't even have to be the best tasting. While I was at the Rockwell, Makati branch of popular cafe Single Origin, all it took was one bite to remind me of how downright decadent a plate of Crab Fat Pasta can be. Chef Jay Saycon asked: "Remember the cafe in Rustan before? I wanted to make my own version." I believe he meant Bon Apetit—the department store cafe that served, at most, edible food. As a child, I do remember eating there many times during shopping excursions to Shangri-la Plaza, where I would be rewarded a plate of lasagna (strangely named Plato Italiano and not just, well, lasagna) for accompanying my mom while she ran some errands. Funny how, of all the places that served pasta in '90s Metro Manila, it's the aligue sauce by a long forgotten line cook which haunts the Single Origin chef to the point of attempting duplication.
However, Chef Jay's Crab Fat Pasta is hardly a cheap copy. Fact is: I'm quite sure it's the improved version of the original—with plump shrimp and tender squid adorning a flavorful, briny red sauce. I believe that it's these happy results which set apart the "inspired" from the "lazy imitations"—a creation borne out of a true moment in time in somebody's life. Chef Jay confesses: "Food memories are my experiences. They are very important to me because they're my fallback, my basis for anything I cook. I may use a certain food memory when coming up with new flavor combinations to try. It is what makes the dishes I cook decidedly mine."
The same goes, of course, for those who partake. Chef Jayme Natividad of Taza Fresh Table in Taal Vista Hotel, Tagaytay shares an incident when one of his dishes got a diner all emotional. He served his version of southern classic Shrimp and Grits in one of his former restaurants, when after service, he was approached by a lady as he was standing by the bar chatting up the bartender. "I noticed this beautiful lady approach me and asked if the shrimp and grits was my creation. I said 'yes'," the Pittsburg-educated chef shared. "Next thing I knew she hugged me really tight and said thanks. She said the dish brought her back to her childhood in South Carolina and that it reminded her of her grandmother's version of the dish."
I still get panic attacks about that photo album—I imagine empty, self-adhesive pages accumulating every month as my daughter conquers milestones as quickly as she discards shoes. I'm quite sure I'll get around to it, eventually, but I am soothed by the thought that my memories of her—how her hair smells after a bath, or her mouth when she sleeps with it agape—are snug and safe in my mind. Right next to the scent of freshly roasted kasuy outside the old church in Antipolo where I walked to the car holding my dad's hand. Or perhaps that first sip of Boones Farm apple wine as my parents laughed in amusement at the underaged drinkers who regaled them by acting more drunk than they really were. All great memories, to be relived and savored in my quiet moments.