My name is M--- and have I got a story to tell you. Only I’ll get to it later. First let me settle the whys and wherefores of why I am sharing in the first place. Consider them my narrative raison d’etre. Plus, if I started any place else, none of this makes any sense. Just bear with me.
On September 24 of an undisclosed year, I joined the human race, butt naked, slimy as a slug, and for all intents and purposes, ignorant of my preferred status in the Animal Kingdom as a homo sapien. Opposable thumbs? Check. Oversized brain with hyper-developed cerebellum? Check. Upright walking bi-ped? Coming soon, so check! Ability to think symbolically? At that point, more of a capacity than an ability, but check! anyways. What I was not born with was my humanity. In other words, I entered the world a homo sapien but had yet to learn the ins-and-outs being human entailed.
On the surface, it may appear that any number of things we do on a normal day qualifies as something exclusive to us. Marmosets don’t pay taxes. (Though maybe they should?) A prickly-faced sea raven doesn’t watch Sharknado. (Though if it did it might be mildly amused, if not bemused.) And duck-billed platypuses, long maligned as a natural huckster, simply doesn’t carry a concealed firearm. (Though even if they could, they probably would still take a pass on it since they are one of the few venomous mammals found in nature – alongside ex-wives. (Kidding of course. (And yes, low hanging fruit, but hasn’t easy-to-reach-apples – some say pomegranats – always been a problem? Et in Arcadia ego.))) The list goes on and there is an absolute truth to the fact that animals don’t do those things. Yet there is a distinction to be made between things that we do as humans and things that make us human. In terms of the latter, three candidates – usual suspects, at this point – crop up: burying the dead, art, and cooking. Of the lot, only one qualifies as a non-negotiable to our existence. (I’ll allow you to hazard a guess which one.) That does not detract from the other two though.
But here’s the thing. While without a doubt, cooking makes us human, so do our stories. Oddly enough, the two have always gone hand-in-hand. (If you throw in the ancient tradition of funerary feasts - which we still do today but have rebranded - you have the human experience par excellence.) They share a natural affinity for each other as I am sure many couples have experienced early in their marriages. Nuptial bitterness aside, sharing a meal with other people harkens back to an originary event forever lost but always present.
There are numerous theories about the way cooking and eating around a fire led to the socialization of humans. I’d be willing to bet that many an intricate yarn was spun while sitting around a circular hearth many millenia ago. I know this the way I know people must have chewed their food. It’s something that just happens. Same way, whenever people gather together, there’s always one storyteller in the bunch, for better or for worse. Those stories – forged through social bonds – opened a window to our humanity. They provided us with the myths and folklore we’d turn to when tasked with defining ourselves and our surroundings. You can’t underestimate the significance of atall tale - or a tall drink for that matter.
So in honor of those raconteurs of the distant and forgotten past, I am making a 1,482-word offering. It is a story about how I inched toward humanity by toiling in a sweltering room. There’s conflict and violence and not an ounce of redemption. As far as arcs go, it’s more of ramp. It’s far from perfect. But that’s fine. Think of it as my contribution to food folklore. And if you need that common hearth, lighting a match while you read will have to do for now.
Growing up in Queens, New York, it felt like my time was rigidly split between two places: St. Bartholomew’s elementary school and family parties. Afternoons Sunday through Friday afternoons belonged exclusively to my studies. But come Friday evening or all of Saturday –look out! – it was party time. If nothing else, Filipinos understand the need for a good party and how to best achieve those ends. It’s ingrained in the cultural psyche like after-work pints in England or pit-stop-quick-shot espressos for Italians. In the Filipino mind, it’s not so much a question of “Do you want to have a party?” but of “Where? When? And what should I cook?”
My mother never had to ask what she should cook because it was understood that she would make the dish her town was famous for: Pancit Malabon. A rich and elaborate noodle dish, it boasts layers of flavors from land and ocean, influences from Spain, China, and the Philippines, and enough ingredients to break the bank. It also has the dubious honor of being one of the most labor intensive dishes known to mankind. Whereas most, if not all, noodle and pasta dishes belong to the “boil the noodle, make the sauce, mix” or the “let the sauce simmer for hours, low maintenance, boil the noodle, mix” type, Pancit Malabon entails hours of prep time followed by hours of cooking time that requires the unfortunate cook to stand over the stove for the entire travail so that the right ingredients are added, taken off the flame, or drained at the right moment. It is an all day affair. The number of hoops you need to jump through in order to plate this dish would leave even the most resilient French chef winded. Little wonder friends and relatives always asked for it. They lacked the skill, tenacity, and desire. Plus, the recipe was a secret.
On Saturday mornings, I would wake up and watch my cartoons. In the kitchen, the snap of knives banging on chopping boards, shrieking blenders, and pots being stirred filtered through the apartment along with a fragrant aroma. The sounds grew all the more pronounced when I had to mute the television in order to scream for more juice. Eventually, however, I would manage to roll off the sofa, and wander into the kitchen. Without fail, I would find the room in a state of warm, controlled disarray with my mother standing by the stove. Looking back, I don’t think that at that moment when she noticed me, she saw me as her son. No, I believe she saw me the way all capitalists see other human beings: as a source of labor. I say that because the first thing she did was put me to work. No smile, no queries into my needs. Just “Here, do this.” In all fairness, it was nothing too involved – after all, there’s only so much an eight year old can do. But what I did sure was fun.
One of the secrets of Pancit Malabon lies in the mixing of ingredients, one of which is cicarron – pork rinds – pounded and ground to such a fine texture that they coat and cling to individual noodles like bread crumbs. My sole responsibility was to beat the bejeezus out of bags of cicarron. Needless to say, I assumed the role of pork rind abuser enthusiastically – what child wouldn’t enjoy banging things around – and with rolling pin in hand, stepped to the kitchen table and let’er rip. Whack! Take that. Smack! Who’s your daddy? Blap! Beware of boy. Crush! You can’t hold out much longer. Eventually, my mother would intervene in the Battle of the Pork Rinds and snatch the smoking rolling pin from my tiny hands. By that point, the bag had usually broken and miniscule bits of crushed – and defeated, I might add – pork rinds were starting to scatter about the table and kitchen floor and in my straight-Asian-bowl-hair-cut. Winded and light headed, I would step away from the kitchen, satisfied that I had done my part in creating something I loved – a giant mess. (The realization that I was actually helping to cook a dish as wonderful as Pancit Malabon came much later in life.) As I grew older, my responsibilities changed and I was called on to chop up eggs to a dry pulp. But that was nowhere as fun as pounding ciccaron, so I’ll keep that to myself. Plus, the Battle of the Hard Boiled Eggs just doesn’t have the ring or the drama.
So that is my story. One day, it may join the canon of folktales, legends, and myths. “The Boy and the Battle of the Pork Rinds.” If it does, I won’t be surprised. It’s a story about food and in case you forgot, the combination makes us human.
Marc Landas is the author of The Fallen: A True Story of American POWs and Japanese Wartime Atrocities (John Wiley & Sons, 2004) and is a contributor to an anthology about Queens, The Forgotten Borough (SUNY Press, 2011). His short stories have been published in literary journals such as Crack the Spine, In Stereo, the Commonline Journal, Conclave, Thrice, and the Grey Sparrow Journal.