Friday, December 03, 2004

Center of Christmas celebration

Center of Christmas celebration

Updated 10:55pm (Mla time) Dec 02, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the December 3, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WHILE Christmas carols have been playing in some shops since September (the beginning of the so-called "ber" months leading to December), I have not really felt the Christmas cheer. By this time Christmas trees, lights and lanterns are already up, but nothing struck me as hard as missing the "Gloria" at last Sunday's Mass. The once colorful celebrant's vestments have turned dark, reminding us of Advent. Not a very cheerful liturgical season really, but one cannot emphasize the joy of Christmas without providing contrast.

Driving north and south of Manila recently, I gazed at rice fields and noticed the white herons walking or flying about. This is one of the signs of Christmas, migratory birds escaping from the cold winds of China, resting in the Philippines before moving off to their next destination.

Looking at the beautiful birds, the Pinoy in me wondered if they were edible, and if they were, did they taste best roasted, fried, stuffed or drowned in some dark and thick sauce? I guessed they were not very good or that at least they were swift enough to elude hunters because most of our seasonal visitors survive the long trip and return to their point of origin.

Short of causing panic, I also asked aloud if they were immune to bird flu. I answered my own question and suggested that the warm and polluted Philippine air eliminated the virus.

Two Sundays ago, after lunch in my favorite aunt's house in San Fernando, Pampanga, there was a scramble for something on the table. Wrapped in newspaper and banana leaves was the fragrant “duman,” young, green, semi-sticky rice sold only in November and December. Since a small bag costs P1,800, it was not served on a platter but was lovingly and sparingly coaxed from the bag and everyone grabbed handfuls without waiting for the chocolate in the kitchen that had not yet come to a boil.

With the first bag quickly gone and enjoyed, my aunt waited for the hot chocolate to come in before opening the second bag of duman. Again the mad rush, but this time the duman was mixed with the chocolate and scooped up like there was no tomorrow.

While this was going on, people expressed their preferences. Some liked duman as is while others liked theirs fried and popped to make what is better known as “pinipig.”

Different people have different ways of reckoning the seasons, using varying signals that are usually visual. But for me, food is a major marker. With duman, the countdown to Christmas and everything nice begins.

Aside from being with the truly extended family, it is the meal that is at the center of the celebration. It is odd that while the menu has not changed in decades, everyone looks forward to it. After midnight Mass (which these days is often celebrated earlier), the cool air gives one a hearty appetite and an appreciation for steaming hot chicken and pork “nilaga” with added zest from roasted ham bones boiled to make the stock. Standard fiesta fare will be found on tables: “rellenong bangus,” “rellenong manuc” or “galantina,” generous slices of “queso de bola” (aged edam cheese, usually of the "Marca Pato" or "Marca Piña" brand, with the trademark duck or pineapple on the red cellophane cover), tamales, glazed ham, fruit salad, “biringhi” (the Spanish paella indigenized in Pampanga, made with sticky rice and given a distinctive green color), and, if available, “apahap” which was once considered the only fish proper for a fiesta table because it was the most expensive.

Then, of course, what fiesta table can be complete without “lechon,” roasted suckling pig, as the centerpiece? (But in recent years, I have noticed that the apple in the snout is not as common as it used to be.) My aunt has the best freshly popped “chicharon” (pork skin) with “laman” in town. She encourages us to enjoy the chicharon, assuring us it is healthy having been deep-fried in canola oil.

Dessert that sits on a separate table could be said to be just as important (or perhaps more important) than the “ulam,” or viand, on the main table. In Pampanga, we have a sweet tooth resulting in a wide range of choices: hot chocolate with duman, “tibuk-tibuk” (loosely translated as "shaking" because it does jiggle like Jello but has more calories since it is made with a lot of nipa sugar and carabao milk topped with “latik,” or sweet curdled coconut milk), “leche flan,” “jale ube,” and “tocino del cielo” (children call it mini-leche flan, which it is, except that each bite-size piece contains one whole egg yolk), “pastillas,” “turron de casuy,” sans rival (from the French "without rival" because it is a deadly combination of wafer and butter topped with chopped cashew nuts), “silvanas,” and the commercially bought cakes, pies, and breads. All these goodies make the dessert table and Christmas memorable for children.

In the first volume of "Remembrance of Things Past," Marcel Proust begins a narrative triggered by the taste of Madeleine on the tip of his tongue. It's a kilometric novel about a man eating cake. Our writers have gone to libraries and the world in search of material for the great Philippine novel after those written by Jose Rizal over a century ago. But why go through so much trouble inventing a collective history or a worthwhile literature to find ourselves? There is so much waiting to be unearthed and written down -- a lot, literally, on the tip of our tongues.


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