It wasn't a request; it was an order. I had to follow her rules otherwise there'd be no party. My mother didn't agree with my fashion sense but she let me practice self-expression if I followed her rules. So I took off my chains, put on my apron and whipped up scotch eggs and Pineapple Upside-down Cake from recipes in Good Housekeeping with Joan Van Ark on the cover.
My mother's culinary ability runs the gamut from edible to average. Her recipe for spaghetti is to simmer the sauce to perfect mediocrity. At age ten, I made better sandwiches than her. I knew how to make sandwiches with capers and cilantro - two ingredients that were not popular in the Philippines during last century’s petroleum crisis - the '70s.
In elementary, I bribed my classmates to be my friends with my succulent creations. I thought that at least I was bribing them with something invented by an Earl.
My mother saw the perfect opportunity to be a great cook through me. She dissuaded me from pursuing other artistic endeavors like drawing. She told me that my sketches of Lauren Hutton - copied from Vogue - looked like roasted corn on the cob. Every time I reached for the sketchpad, she guided me towards the stove.
I grew up eating decent food: rice, noodles, chicken teriyaki and the occasional meatloaf. But my taste buds was upgrading so I complained to my mother that our food selection was rather dull.
So she said, “If you don't like the food being served to you, why don't you go to cooking school?”
The next thing I knew she enrolled me at the prestigious Manila Academy of Gastronomic Arts and Food Styling or MAGAFS. That's when I realized that my mother may have been a bad cook but she was definitely smart. She chose her twelve-year old son to fill her inadequacy.
Just as my friends in school were training to be future jocks, science fair stars and baby daddies, I was at MAGAFS separating the yolk from the white with one hand, a skill that has proved to be helpful today since we live in a world of text messaging. I learned how to debone a whole chicken using a paring knife. I peeled, cored and sliced apples and arranged them like a Spanish fan for the fabulous Tarte Tatin. I molded wantons into flowerlike dumplings.
My early teen years were spent with middle-aged women. While they were learning how to cook to please their men, I was there to please my mother.
Once I proved that I was skillful in the kitchen she made me the family chef. She was very subtle and sophisticated in her form of abuse.
Her friends would praise her for the dishes I cooked like the Salmon en Papillote or the flaming Baked Alaska. I knew they were praising me but of course I was busy in the kitchen, so it was only my mother who marinated in the glory.
My mother's friends hailed her as a socialite. It was a title that I was also aspiring to be. My friends did not care about my passion for cooking; they were more excited about the second British Invasion than the Dutch oven.
As I segued into my late teens, I put my passion on the back burner. I thought I should be spending more time in the pool hall than in the kitchen. So I slowly swam back into the mainstream.
My mother was disappointed and felt she just wasted her investment in me. I knew she was praying to the Saint Laurence, the patron saint of cooks that once again my epicurean curiosity would be aroused. I knew that I was going to wear an apron again but I wanted to explore other hobbies like being a fashion victim or dancing to the songs of Spandau Ballet.
In college, I was introduced to the movie “Babette's Feast.” Babette was a French chef who took refuge in the house of two Danish sisters. She wins the lottery and as gratitude for their hospitality, she prepares them an authentic French dinner of turtle soup, rum cake and caille en sarcophage or translated, quail in a puff pastry coffin.
Sarcophage, that sound, Sarcophage, was enough for me rediscover that my palate was once sophisticated. I told my mother that for the coming holiday I was going to prepare a dinner party. The menu was Veal Medallions in a Balsamic Reduction, Roasted Rhubarb with cinnamon glaze and for desert a Rum Cake in a Coffin.
Mother was elated to hear of my plan. But when I told her that before I could start the feast we needed a new oven, her face morphed into the shape of doubt.
“Our oven is old and the thermostat is inaccurate.” I said.
“Then buy a thermometer and adjust the fire manually; you are a good cook, right?” She inflected as she correctly adjusted her wig.
I was determined to prove my culinary commitment to my mother. I was wishing for a miracle apropos the oven situation, until I saw the fire extinguisher under the sink. I was never sure about the contents of a fire extinguisher. Was it water or some fast-acting retardant, like me?
I sautéed the veal in truffle oil, parboiled the rhubarb in lightly salted water and tranquilly shaved butter curls. Then, a sudden explosion, it was hot. The butter curls suffered a meltdown. My mother's stove finally gave in. The gas pipes claimed victory when the stainless steel door collapsed. What started as “Babbette's Feast” ended in “Airport '75.”
When I reached for the fire extinguisher, I realized I would finally see what was inside the tank. When I squeezed the lever, a substance like powdered sugar came out and covered the whole kitchen. I stood there detached, cold and stoic with the fire extinguisher in my hands like a trophy.
My mother came down and assessed the damage. She asked if I was hurt, then she gave me a look of confusion and anger with a hint of resignation, looking like Imelda Marcos when she landed in Honolulu as an exile.
There was no exchange of words or any form of explanation. My mother just knew she would have to buy a new oven or the dinner wouldn't happen. Before she left to buy the oven, she asked, in a restrained manner, what type of oven should she buy. I said whatever, as long as it’s shiny.
The dinner was a success. The guests complimented my mother for hosting a delectable feast and for raising a son who could make international versions of the béchamel sauce. When I came out to say hi to the guests, I was greeted with applause.
No one in the family has dared to ask why the oven exploded, but if ever they do, I have an answer, from the movie “Dolores Claiborne:” “An accident can be an unhappy woman's best friend.”