Only those who like. This is what Mama Lola said whenever she invited us to eat out.
Hala, sige! This is what she said next, as if anyone ever needed coaxing.
Eating out was something our family took very seriously. For us, eating out was to weekends, as school and work were to weekdays. We were almost always complete on these occasions, occupying the largest table available. It was usually at the same table, too. No matter where we went, we had a regular spot. As soon as we arrived at a restaurant, the manager appeared to take my grandmother by the arm, as if they had known each other for a long time. We stayed for hours, brunch extending from morning to afternoon.
This was the case for as long as I could remember.
At buffets, there was an unspoken rule. Dishes were ranked according to value, and the goal is to get your money’s worth. Caviar, roast meat, and salmon are ideal. Rice and pasta are frowned upon—a waste of space.
This was our routine, at least once a week, sometimes both Saturdays and Sundays.
No matter where we went, the eating continued throughout the day. Halo-halo from the restaurant by the bay, or peanuts that had been freshly steamed, the shells still caked with dirt that would get stuck beneath our fingernails. When we’d get home, it was typical for Mama Lola to open her giant refrigerator, asking us what we wanted for dinner.
Guests have noticed our obsession with food. “Bawal magutom sa inyo, ano?” they’d ask.
They were right. Going to the grocery was like stocking up for the winter, never mind that it was always hot, and brownouts were a frequent occurrence. This practice was a challenge, considering how much food could be stored in Mama Lola’s refrigerators—she had two. One for fruits, vegetables, and drinking water. The other was the special one, where she kept frozen meat, fish, and the fruitcake that emerged every Christmas season.
The refrigerators were older than we were, and they occupied the largest space in the kitchen. They were huge on their own, and appeared even bigger because of the concrete pedestal that Mama Lola used so that floods would not cause a problem.
Despite both refrigerators always being fully stocked, there was still a Lazy Susan that occupied half of the dining table. This is where the assorted spreads were kept, everything from guava jelly to peanut butter, next to a container that seemed to magically refill itself with pan de sal.
“You eat,” she told us constantly. This was a command rather than an invitation.
Like other grandmothers, ours was fond of retelling stories, peppered with characters we were not acquainted with. She also talked of places we didn't know of, only because, it turned out, they'd been renamed. When she wanted to go to Dewey Boulevard, she meant Roxas Boulevard. When she said Herran, she meant Pedro Gil.
Most of the time, conversations with Mama Lola were light. But other times, there were other stories that were not included in her usual repertoire, which featured names like Tiya Laura and Tiya Pacing, people we didn't know but probably should have. When Mama Lola talked about them, she would grab our arms while regaling us with details that, for the most part, were completely lost on us.
Most of the time, she told us stories about other people. When she did talk about her own stories, her eyes would fill with tears and she would grab our arms tightly, her fingers digging in. There were stories of her working at Botica Boie, or how she became a doctor by memorizing and observing. “You just memorize everything,” she would tell us whenever we found something difficult at school. She seemed certain that her ways worked, and she was almost always right.
And then there were stories of going hungry.
My grandmother grew up as an orphan. When she was young, she was passed back and forth among relatives, staying wherever help was needed around the house. She was treated as an outsider and a burden, so she learned to keep quiet and make herself useful. She resolved to make herself indispensable.
Once, she helped herself to a glass of milk. “Sinong uminom ng gatas ko?” the owner demanded. After this, my grandmother would not touch their food.
When she was hungry, she would take a spoon and scrape a sliver of butter ever so carefully, so as not to be noticed. “Para lang magkalaman ang tiyan,” she explained to us when she told the story. She was tiny then, but she could eat a lot. Even when she had gotten older, she still exhibited an impressive appetite. “Hala, gluttony!” she liked to say when she would get a second or third helping.
My grandmother had plenty of favorite foods, but she never touched the butter.
She was firm about saving. Not just when it came to money, but with everything. She would mend socks and underwear until the garter was beyond repair, and even then, the garments would find new life as rags or costumes. Her stockings were like quilts from all the stitches, and at one point, her eyeglasses were held together by a paperclip.
She saved on everything except food. No trip was complete without a meal, either at a restaurant or wrapped up to be brought home—or both. Although Mama Lola never said it outright, we knew she was determined to take care of us all, and making sure we had more than enough to eat was just one of the ways she did this.
It's been two years since she died, and her two giant refrigerators have since been replaced with one smaller, more practical model. Not surprisingly, the freezer's contents are more than enough for several meals, even months after she was gone.
Although not as often, the family still eats out, and while there are many new things to talk about, the stories always come back to Mama Lola.