Martha Stewart Came Over for Lunch at My Family's Heritage House in Pampanga
“We had Martha Stewart over for lunch” is a statement I never thought I would utter in my lifetime. Fortunately for my extended family and me, that opportunity came to pass yesterday.
The Emmy Award-winning lifestyle host arrived at the home of my great-grandparents in San Fernando, Pampanga, clad in a casual flowy polo shirt and khaki shorts combination. She and her posse of personal assistants and friends had just arrived from Sta. Rita, after having planted rice at Andy Alviz’s farm.
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Something I always wanted to do Plant rice! In pampanga province in the countryside two hours by car from Manila we were hosted by Andy Alviz farmer and philanthropist the whole town turned out to extol the importance of native rice for the local population Thank you people of pampanga
Our Guest of Honor
When I was in grade school, my great aunt Carmen, or Lola Meng as we called her, was the last surviving member of her eight siblings. She had never married and lived alone in the five-bedroom house that her parents Serafin and Encarnacion Lazatin built along Consunji Street in San Fernando. To keep her company, my siblings and I joined her for dinner and took turns sleeping over at her house every night. That was when we were first introduced to the Martha Stewart Show, which would be playing in her bedroom just before we all communed for a meal at the marble-topped dining table. It was always the same—Martha before dinner and the primetime teleserye just before bed. How excited and awestruck she would have been, I thought, if she were to see her television idol setting foot in her childhood home. But also how proud she would have been to see the generations of Lazatins after her come together to host the pioneer of all hostesses.
There’s an argument that to discover the best Kapampangan food, one needs to visit the homes of Kapampangan families, as opposed to finding it on any restaurant menu. While Lola Meng and her older sister Anita, or Lola Itang, upheld the family’s reputation for authentic Kapampangan cuisine in the latter years of their lives, there were two other women who served as the backbone of their kitchen. Perla and Lourdes have been with the family for over 50 years and knew the family’s signature dishes by heart. Lourdes grew up in that house and was raised by our grandmothers, while Perla was around since the ‘70s.
While family and guests flocked to Martha for photos, the homemaking guru personally requested to have a photo taken with Perla, Lourdes, and the rest of the kitchen staff. It must have been her way of saying thank you in advance for the meal they had lovingly prepared.
Martha Stewart Pays a Visit
Before this, Martha was given a tour of the second floor. She instantly shared a connection to the heritage house, which was built in 1926—coincidentally the same year that her house in Maine was built, she said. As the small tour group transferred from room to room, several elements caught her eye—the wide floorboards made from Narra and the 12-foot ceilings.
In one room, she admired a pair of antique Chinese chairs—the two pieces of original furniture that were fortunately not taken or ransacked when the Japanese used the house as a base during the occupation. The highlight of that room, however, could be found in the adjoining bath—an opulent bathtub from Spain carved from a single piece of marble with gold-finished fittings.
Lining the corridor walls were photos of the family—vintage wedding photos and the annual family photos that we, and generations before us, would take seated on the steps of the house on Christmas day.
In another bedroom characterized by its green walls, Martha took notice of Lola Itang’s extensive matchbook collection framed and hung on one corner. These were collected throughout her travels and included matchbooks from World War II and from the U.S. and Philippine elections of the 1950s.
Back downstairs, she paused to take photos of the collection of emptied eggshells housed in a glass cabinet integrated into the house. After paying a visit to the kitchen, she proceeded to the dining room and inspected the silver toothpick holders in the shape of pineapples. These dated back to the 1800s and were the same ones described by Jose Rizal in chapter 26 of Noli Me Tangere, “Ang Bisperas ng Pista.” She was also gracious enough to offer to sign her own cookbooks that Lola Meng, my cousin Lara, and my aunt, Tita Dely, had owned for years.
“It’s a Good Thing”
Lunch was to be served in a separate venue, so we all headed to the function hall in the back of the property, which once served as a Pelota Court. Pelota is a racket sport popularized by the Basque region of Spain and similar to Jai alai. While the family still calls it the Pelota Court despite it no longer serving that purpose, Martha fondly referred to it as “The Party Room.”
A full day earlier, my cousin, professional chef Maj Lazatin Imperial, had led the household help and other cousins in the preparations for the meal. Among the dishes were family recipes passed down by our grandmothers. For starters, there was Quekiam, diced fresh shrimps and pork fat in batter, which were then formed and wrapped in caul fat before deep-frying. There was also sinuso, a traditional rice porridge served with beef mammary glands. Other entrees included a homemade aligue pasta; bringhe, a sticky rice dish similar to paella; tidtad, more commonly known as dinuguan, served with puto; a sautéed pigeon dish; hito and buro resting on a mustasa (mustard) leaf; and a cochinillo.
After taking a moment to admire the spread and snap some photos, Martha wasted no time in taking a plate and heading back to the buffet table. Despite the offers to serve her at her table, she wanted the pleasure of choosing her own food. She helped herself to the pasta, the pigeon, and the bringhe. She delighted in the crab cooked in taba ng talangka (crab fat), which she enjoyed from its shell.
There was a special place in Martha’s heart—and stomach—for the desserts. Apart from specifically asking for rambutan, she finished two cups of tocino del cielo, custards from egg yolks, butter, and sugar, and four wedges of the family’s tri-colored orange jelly, which my aunt Dely had prepared.
After the meal, the family presented her with a series of plates to sign. She might have noticed the collection of plates our grandmothers had collected in their travels and hung on the walls of the dining room and the pelota court. This could have influenced her to sign all the plates with variations of her name—Martha Stewart, Martha Kostyra Stewart, MarthaStewart48 (her Instagram handle)—and in different handwriting styles and fonts. She meant for the plates to be kept together as a collection.
After extending her thanks to some of the family members for the meal, she was off to her next stop to visit the woodcarvers of Betis. Before she drove out the gates, she blew us kisses goodbye.
Martha Stewart once said, "The homes I like the best are totally occupied, busy, and useful, whether it's a tiny little house or a great big one."
While having to entertain Martha Stewart was exciting, it was also heartening to see the cousins getting together and continuing the traditions of Kapampangan cuisine and hospitality that our grandmothers had passed on to us.