Jeff and I were raised in homes where each of us had a parent who loved to cook.
By curiousity and observation, we learned how to cook various dishes since we were children.
We share the same feeling of happiness when the smell of sauteed garlic permeates Casa Ruffolo Uno.
The smell reminds us of our respective childhoods in California and in Cebu/Leyte and how the smell of garlic made us feel safe and secure. The smell evokes a feeling of belongingness, of family, of home.
I never got the chance to meet Jeff’s mother. She passed away a couple of years before I even met her youngest son.
But I got to know her through recipes and her handwritten notes on them.
From these recipes, I came to know a feisty and funny Italian woman who was deeply passionate about food and cooking.
For every recipe which detailed the kind of tomatoes or the unlimited amount of garlic needed for homemade spaghetti sauce, Marie Antoinette Bernadette Grego Ruffolo had a note on the side. In one recipe, she noted: “Be careful, this food will add a few inches to your waistline.”
My sister-in-law Mary Reeder took on the laborious task of compiling all of Mom’s recipes.
She scanned whatever copy of recipes she had, printed them out and gave copies to her siblings.
She handed a folder of these recipes to me during our first visit in her Utah home back in 2014. Along with the recipes, she gave me Mom’s rosary beads. It was an emotional moment for me.
Mary is Mormon and yet she kept that precious Catholic piece from Mom. As fate would have it — or as the heavens willed it — Jeff got married to a Catholic. Some call this a happy coincidence. I call it Divine Providence.
Raised in a typical Filipino neighborhood, I learned to cook at the age of nine.
The setting was in barangay Libas, Merida, Leyte where my father grew up.
My siblings and I were required to learn how to make fire using firewood, paper and matchsticks.
Whenever he was home from abroad from his work as a seafarer, my father would make us wake up at four or five in the morning on school days so we can cook our food. I learned how to make inun-anang isda from him.
The freshest catch was delivered to our door step almost every morning by fishermen who knew my father since they were children. He cut up eggplants, okra and tomatoes and place them inside a claypot with the fish.
I can still clearly remember the wooden chopping board he used.
Onions, garlic and sili espada were added to this potful of goodness.
He seasoned this with rock salt. Coconut vinegar — harvested by the mananggot from my grandmother’s coconut tree — was poured over the fish and the spices, after which the whole pot was placed on top of the fire which I started.
Oil –better if it’s oil used in frying fish –is usually poured on the entire dish after it is cooked.
While I grew up in a home with gas range, my father insisted that we cook food the traditional way; in what was called a dirty kitchen. The “stove” was made of three big rocks, positioned in triangular formation. The firewood used was gathered from a day in the mountain with cousins who also doubled as my playmates.
There are many ways to kill a chicken, they say. I learned one way by observing how my neighbors did it. I have repeatedly witnessed how a young pig enjoyed his time in the morning and was transformed into lechon in the afternoon.
I learned to cook for many people; that is especially true for people who are raised in a village with neighbors who are relatives and are invited in all special occasions.
So it was not a surprise that my marriage with Jeff also became a marriage of food and traditions. Admittedly, he is more diligent in cooking than I am.
Meat loaf, spaghetti and meatballs and fried chicken are staples in our home along with inun-unan, utan bisaya, adobong manok and mais.
Humba is a treat that I cook whenever I accomplish something major such as the end of one semester of graduate school. Our trusted Ate Joy is a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church so her no-pork diet somehow influenced us.
Among our three children, four-year-old Antoinette is the one who has serious interest in cooking. She can make scrambled eggs now. She assists both her Dad and I in the kitchen. She loves to cut up vegetables, onion and garlic.
Her twin brother, Nicholas suggested that she cook for children who do not have food. We might just do that soon. I use the hashtag Karinderya ni Tonya (#KarinderyaNiTonya) when I share photos on social media of her cooking.
We have a saying at home: “We may live in a shanty but we will never run out of food.”
Jeff panics when the refrigerator is almost empty. I come home from every errand with a food item.
The other night, I came home with a kilo of fish and vegetables from the wet market in Yati.
The fish was fresh and the vegetables were cheap.
I could not resist them. I made inun-unan from these finds. Inside the freezer was a bag full of spaghetti meat sauce.
My husband transformed the house into an Italian delicatessen the whole day I was gone. Home-cooked meals comfort our bellies and our hearts.
No argument here.
The busiest part of the house is our kitchen. It is not Disneyland. But it is the place where magic happens.