Heirloom Recipes

A 4-Ingredient Dessert for Sticky-Fingered Mango Gobblers

January 13, 2017

I was born in Manila, the youngest of seven, less than three weeks after President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines. When I was three, my brother, three sisters, and I became first-generation immigrants to the U.S., where our parents had arrived many months earlier to get settled before bringing the kids over. We grew up in Carson, California, in the "South Bay" region of Los Angeles County. Lots of Filipino restaurants and bakeries!

Many foods that remind me of home are not homemade but from the restaurants and bakeries in the area: Paradise Cake from King's Hawaiian on Sepulveda Boulevard; chicken kiev we bought frozen in boxes of six at Fedco in Cerritos, where we went monthly to stock up; salami subs we picked up from Giuliano's on Torrance Boulevard on the way to the beach; red bean ice cream from Sushi Katsu Restaurant in Lomita; ube (purple yam) and macapuno (coconut sport) pastries and halo halo from Goldilocks Bakery on Main Street near my high school. Our most frequently purchased Magnolia Ice Cream flavors were maíz (corn), avocado, mango, and macapuno.

Though we were not a make-it-from-scratch, home-cooking kind of family, a few special treats stand out. Some Saturdays, my mom would serve longanisa (sweet Filipino sausage) with rice and sunny-side-up eggs. Other Saturdays, she would fry bangús (milkfish), skin and all, until it was crunchy. Then she'd remove the fish and fry rice in the same pan so that it would pick up all the crunchy-fish bits from the bottom of the pan (as she did for the longanisa). For Christmas, she'd buy a ham, spoon brown sugar on the outside, small sections at a time, heat the back of a cast-iron spatula over the stove's flame, and sear the sugar into the ham skin. It was a tedious process but (for the rest of us) worth it.

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Sometimes for family beach trips, we'd cook a rice-cooker-full of sticky Calrose rice, unplug it, and take the whole thing to the beach, where we'd buy live crab cooked fresh at the pier. Then we'd set up our gigantic beach blankets and eat crab and rice with our fingers after playing in the sand and waves.

Mango was a constant, too. They were fifty cents each at the time. When they went on-sale for thirty cents, my mom or dad would buy an entire case or two. We were a family of seven, so even if we held back and ate two or three each per day, a case of mangoes didn’t last long.

Now, some decades later, my unrestrained, sticky-faced mango habit has grown into a broader enjoyment of my favorite luscious fruit. Yes, I still get messy with the mango, but I’ve also experimented, converting those plain mouthfuls into dishes: mango-spinach salad, mango salsa, and this elegant mango mousse, which was handed down to me by my eldest sister.

Did you grow up in a family that ate home-cooked food all the time, or are your strongest food memories of restaurant dishes and grocery store treats? Tell us in the comments.

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tamater S. January 13, 2017
How to edit? The 2nd word 'rigid' should read 'frigid,' damn spell check.
tamater S. January 13, 2017
It's rigid outdoors, and I got carried away - Also, it got so late I'm not proofreading - I hope you don't mind....
My very young and newly married parents moved from Philly Pa, to a village so rural there was only one store which sold mostly useful farm things, like nails, kerosene lamp wicks, bolts of calico, and corn husk brooms. There was a sparse selection of dusty lidded canned foods, and since we never saw anybody buy it, we thought of it as Emergency Food for if you couldn’t cook, because you had to Duck And Cover. There was Spam, creamed corn, and giant olive green peas, and stew that on the labels, looked just like dog food. The only real food was a selection of candy as good as you could get in any city store. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was where they made most of their money, because every Saturday, weekly chores checked, and allowances paid, every kid hopped their bike and peddled as fast as their little legs could get them, to the the weekly sugar rush. I thought Joe the store owner was a very considerate guy, because after your Hostess Cupcake or Babe Ruth, or if it was a hot day, your soda from the enormous chest cooler, if you still had a cent or two left, there was penny candy, which saved you from having to leave with change in your pocket.

Neither of my grannies cooked, nor wanted to, which was very unusual for the time. To my dad’s mom, who was an artist, food was an after-thought. When she noticed the sun getting low in the sky, she’d run from the studio to the kitchen, throw some stuff in the oven, and then rush back to the studio where she would stay until my Grandad’s car turned in the driveway, and she’d cry “Oh, jeepers, I’ve gotta get that food on the table!” Didn't matter if it was any old day, or a holiday. The roast would either be burnt to a crisp and we’d harvest what we could from the middle, or it would be raw in the middle, and we’d slice and scrape the more cooked meat off the outside. Mushy vegetables would hang limp from the fork, like swamp weeds. They used to say Grandad would always forgive her dereliction of duty in that realm, due to the fact that she kept her husband, son, and other family members from being starved and homeless during the Great Depression, by painting portraits of the Robber Barons who still had money to throw around…. and that subject never came up that we weren't reminded to feel lucky we had ANYthing to eat. At any rate, she was such a nice lady, and let us hang out in the studio with her as she painted, which was so cool, that we even pretended to like her food - even the time she used a can of barely heated thru tomato soup, just that, to stand for spaghetti sauce.

Mom’s mom was a career woman, a fundraiser for a large charity organization. When we visited her in the city, she'd take us to the Automat. We loved to see the spot-lit foods sitting on doilies in gleaming glass cases, turning around so slowly, and so tantalizing! That cool granny never ran out of coins, and she let us put the money in the slots all by ourselves…. so who cared if the actual taste didn’t measure up to the presentation? I didn’t realize that granny couldn’t cook till we were stuck at her place during a snow storm. She anointed me, the eldest, as her designated helper for the duration of our stay. “What will we cook?” I asked, as we headed off to the pantry. “I don’t cook, but don’t worry dear, I assemble.” She didn't have the basic things that one would expect to find in any normal kitchen, like flour and eggs with which, for example, to make pancakes, so for three days, we had curious buffets of Underwood Devilled Ham, little cocktail sausages, tins of mussels, relishes, pickles, and stinky cheeses in little tins, jarred pickled herring with onions, fruit cocktail, and jams, on rusks and Melba toasts. To my siblings, cousins, and I, it was pretty fun stuff. I marvelled at how different my grannies were, was from everybody else' grannies.

No one will be surprised to learn that my newlywed mom had to learn to cook by the seat of her pants; with only one cookbook, and stop-gap rescue advice from the local farmer-wives. I remember one time, my mom, knowing who was on the phone because we were on a party line, and everyone had distinctive rings, picked up the handset and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but my sauce has broken, and can you tell me how to fix it?” But by all accounts, mom had, who knew, a natural born talent for cooking. She got so good that the dairy farmer/milkman, Loyd Lindaberry, rearranged his route to stop at moms last, and they’d have a little chinwag over fresh coffee and her fabulous pastry, or whatever was in the pot. Our friends finagled supper invites, and made it known they were ready to trade lunches any day.

We used to get eggs from the neighbours till we got countrified enough to have a few birds of our own. Soon as the snow was gone, I'd collect bunches of green stuff to feed the hens, which made the yolks so bright and delicious. Every day our house was intoxicated with aromas of meatballs in tomato sauce, stews, from scratch corned beef, baked beans and salt pork, and steamed brown bread in tin cans. She made the best Boston Cream Pie in the land. Corn, peaches, and tomatoes were so good, that sometimes we only had one thing, “whatever’s up" for lunch, and were glad for it. Potatoes were dug up about an hour before supper.

Each year dad would have to go away for a month. The day he would leave, mom would pile us in the car and take us off to visit granny in the city. After lunch at the Automat, on the way home, mom would stock up for that month, at the A&P grocery, and on the way across the parking lot, she’d say, "whatever you kids want!” In spite of the garden fresh produce and well raised meat we were accustomed to, do know, that what we clambered for, were the prepared foods, the more industrial the better. In our young minds, ‘industrial’ equalled exotic! We chose Beefaroni and canned spaghetti by Chef Boyardee. TV dinners topped the list, because food served on individual trays, each item separated in it’s own little compartment, seemed ultra-sophisticated as to seem “European” and so we pretended to speak pretend foreign languages over Stouffers Macaroni & cheese and Salisbury steaks. Mom must have been killing herself to keep from laughing out loud. Her feelings weren’t hurt that we liked the factory food so much, probably because she was getting a break from all the cooking she had to do all the other weeks of the year. Praise the Lord and pass the tinfoil trays!

Back then we had no idea how lucky that our little tribe got to eat together daily; that one day it would seem like a quaint custom that went the way of the Dodo bird. If there was anything one of us didn’t like, there’d be a predictable chorus of at least two, to call out “I’ll have it!” and mom would remind us, “you'd better think twice, because you’re gonna be “good and hungry!” till the next meal, you hear?!” So except for the likes of tongue or pickled pigs feet, we learned to like it all, (“Like it or lump it was another momism) and we were un-judgemental as to where the food was from, be it from scratch at home, or from scratch at the factory.
Marc January 13, 2017
Wow, your story sounds just like my wife's. And you grew up in my backyard. I'm from San Pedro, and most of the places you mention here, I'm familiar with. Small world.
Monica S. January 13, 2017
Marc, small world, indeed! Nowadays I'm a Coloradan, but I love to visit L.A. whenever I can.
Marc January 13, 2017
That's even crazier, before I met my wife she lived in Littleton. We're in Nevada now enjoying the crazy weather. We're going to try out your mango mousse recipe, it looks good.
melissa January 13, 2017
i wonder how much of the fetish for "homemade" is a backlash against the mid-20th c. american popularization of industrial and pre-prepared foods (a divide which pitted stay at home vs. working moms). in other words, that debate comes out of a particular cultural context and historical moment: the idea of the mother or the nuclear family as the provider of food. in a lot of places around the world, food stalls and small food shops were BETTER and cheaper than homemade food.

so many of my childhood filipino favorites are NOT dishes that are homemade but rather were purchased from catering companies and bakeries before community feasts: lechon, pansit, pan de sal, halo-halo etc. some of these are these are large-format or mass-produced items that could be difficult or impractical to make at home. this is a totally valid way of remembering food and i'm so glad you brought this up, monica.
Monica S. January 13, 2017
Thanks for reading and commenting, Melissa. Yes, my family regularly purchased trays of restaurant food for holidays and parties, and "Goldilock's" and "Magnolia" were household words in my growing-up days.
Barbara N. January 13, 2017
My Mom made almost everything from scratch and there was usually something freshly baked waiting for us when we came home from school. My favorites were bread still warm out of the oven (we fought over who got the heel) and raised doughnuts coated with cinnamon sugar. I credit Mom with my love of baking. She's my guardian angel in the kitchen.
Monica S. January 13, 2017
Barbara, sounds like your mom was one amazing person indeed. I finally learned to make bread when I was in my twenties, and I learned it from my husband -- who learned from his mom!