How do you create stability in a changing world?
One way is to hold on to tradition and customs.
Customs carry the thread of story into the next generation.
Food carries story.
Not only through its flavors, but with stories that are passed on along with it at the table.
There are dishes prepared the same way, by memory, with no recipe.
Passed on by observation and voice, rarely written down except for a list of ingredients.
This is stability.
For these traditions are not passed on by electronic submission
or watched on YouTube T.V.
They are observed in a tiny orange kitchen, hovered over a vinyl countertop with Pyrex bowls and a wooden spoon.
Where not only the process is observed
but the art of passing on.
The art of conversation and stories
and questions and “how are you doing?”
The slip of a chocolate treat from a nearby drawer into the palm of the observer
is part of the comfort of this comfort food.
My mother had recipes in her head that she brought from the Philippines:
the pancit, the lumpia, the adobo–the savory.
The bibingka, the leche flan, the espasol—the sweet.
But as if to represent her life in this new country, she ventured out and attempted new dishes
Her signature dish became one that was discovered on the side of a Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup can. Lola’s roast beef: chuck roast, cream of mushroom soup, mushrooms, carrot, celery onion, bay leaf, and the secret ingredient: Johnny’s Seasoning Salt
I don’t quite remember when this dish became such a hit.
Maybe I had already left for college, when she had more time to try new dishes.
But as our family extended, and my parents hosted more family members coming from the Philippines to live in the United States through their support, Lola’s Roast beef became a staple at family gatherings.
Maybe it was because it was something new.
Maybe it was because it was outside the norm of a traditional Filipino meal.
But over the decades Lola’s roast beef was the centerpiece of the crowded dining table where my family and cousins and aunts and uncles and later nieces and nephews and my own children would stand, paper plate in hand, as Lola dished out chunks of the tender roasted meat and spooned the creamy sauce over steaming white rice.
In a small dining room an ornate wooden table stands beneath a hovering oversized chandelier, symbols of life in America. Fifteen to thirty people crowd around into the space. The four legs of this table were the pillars of stability in my family. These table legs upheld the memories and chatter and dishes and paper plates and laughter that were the foundation of my family.
Three generations later, the table continues to hold up my family.
My grown children in cities scattered across the country call and ask for Lola’s recipes.
Here is where electronic submission is handy, as I point and shoot a photo of the ingredients.
Over the years they have watched me prepare these dishes, so they know the steps and the process.
When my mother passed away last summer, three generations gathered in our parent’s lake cabin to celebrate her life. Over seventy of us from all corners of the country and the world crowded into her home.
The centerpiece dish on the long wooden table: Lola’s roast beef.
My niece, Melissa, prepared the dish for us.
She remembers as a little girl peeking around the corner doorway watching my mother cook.
She remembers her smile and the way she would dance from one corner of the vinyl counter to the stove back and forth as she prepared the food.
Decades later, Melissa opened her own restaurant, Musang, on the edge of the International District in Seattle.
She opened a year ago, right before the world changed.
And when her restaurant doors closed temporarily, she found ways to provide a meal for those in need in the local community. Like my mother, she found a way to meet the needs of others with the comfort of a good meal.
When her doors reopened, all her tables were full.
She was awarded “Best New Restaurant” by Seattle Met Magazine.
She was asked to be part of the creative team for Bon Appetit Magazine.
One Wednesday afternoon last fall she texted me.
“Auntie, can you come to the restaurant tonight. I’m starting a new Wednesday special. Do you know what the feature is? Lola’s Roast Beef.”
I immediately took the one-hour drive there to meet my sister.
We sat across each other, around a tiny table in her crowded restaurant, beneath a painting of women planting in the rice paddies of our parents’ homeland.
My niece placed in front us two bowls of the featured dish with a scoop of white rice.
Three generations of this recipe passed down was served to me atop the legs of this small wooden table.
And I ate every last bite.