Tradition through Food: A Short Memoir

One dish that I associate with comfort and family is adobo, a traditional Filipino dish typically served on a bed of rice and consisting of meat–usually chicken or pork–a variety of spices, and bay leaves. No two families make the dish the same way, and I have grown accustomed to the addition of potatoes and carrots in my bowl of happiness. These modifications make the dish personal to my family. While others may find the vegetables to be out of place in this dish, adobo without them would feel incomplete to me. The scent of my grandmother’s adobo conjures up memories of time spent with my cousins.

I distinctly recall one incident in which my cousin, Annie, was appalled by the vegetables floating in the soupy swamp. I am five years her senior, and she was only three the first time she tasted adobo. It was a most eventful night.

My mother claims that food prepared by elderly ladies in gargantuan pots, akin to a witch and her cauldron, is the best kind. She has also told me not to trust a skinny chef, which has never prevented me from consuming my petite grandmother’s aromatic stew. With an expert hand, Grandma submerged spicy peppercorn and pungent garlic in the tangy adobo broth, relying on her culinary instincts and Filipino heritage to tell her what amounts of various ingredients to add. This was routine to her, and she required no recipe. In the pot, I knew tender, succulent chicken was close to falling off the bone, marinating in a fragrant broth of acidic apple cider vinegar, soy sauce, and chicken stock. The chicken provided enough taste without added salt. Potatoes crumbled in the boiling liquid, and juicy carrots glistened under the fluorescent kitchen lights. Flaky bay leaves and hard peppercorn swam in the bubbling liquid gold. Grandma improved the dish, in my opinion, with the non-traditional addition of potatoes and carrots. My mother swapped out the common side dish of white rice for brown. “More fiber,” she argued, “and a better texture.”

My sister Malena and I hovered over the pot in anticipation. The tantalizing fragrance beckoned us. I surreptitiously slid a straw into the pot to take a sip of the broth, but Grandma spotted me.

“No samples until dinner time!” she chided good-naturedly.

My younger cousin Annie had been waiting to try this dish, but doubted that it could live up to the hype that surrounded it. Malena and I were on the edge of our seats. We knew she was in for a real treat.

“Time to eat!” Grandma called from the kitchen. She assigned my mother to dish up rice in paper bowls, then ladled meat and vegetables on top, making sure to smother the goodies with a liberal shower of broth.

“Come on, Annie! Try it!” Malena exclaimed, waving over our pint-sized buddy. Annie tentatively approached the piping-hot bowl and peered into it.

“This thing has vegetables? What?” Annie screamed. Her father shot her a look. “I hate vegetables,” she murmured in an inside voice. “Just try it! They’re marvelous!” I briskly gulped down my fourth bowl of straight broth.

Annie was dubious, and everyone made attempts at gentle persuasion. If Annie didn’t like the adobo, there was more for us. Some might say that it’s an acquired taste, as vinegar is extremely sour. Still, we knew that one taste would convert her to our side.

Malena and I tried to cajole her into eating a potato. We danced around, carrots on our forks. We even began to sing. She grew more and more agitated, balling her fists. “No!” Annie howled, knocking over her bowl onto the stick-on linoleum floor. A puddle of broth formed, concealing the blue flowers. Grandma surveyed the area, silently retrieving a mop and bucket from the hallway closet. Annie tearily descended the stairs into the basement, her father at her heels, attempting to console her.

“I hate vegetables!” she shrieked, her shrill voice traveling from the basement. “I won’t touch that!”

She never had been an adventurous eater.

Minutes passed. Those of us in the kitchen chewed solemnly.

It became eerily quiet. When Annie reappeared, somewhat less pouty, we attempted to lift her spirits. Grandma placed another bowl of adobo in front of her, as a suggestion. She patted Annie’s fluffy curls.

“Annie, did you know that adobo is a traditional Filipino dish? You’re half-Filipino!” Grandma declared. “I have been making this dish for over sixty years. My family has modified the dish and made it personal. Adobo is part of our identity. One day, you can make it for your grandchildren!” She hummed to herself and organized the cookie display in the pantry.  Personally, I was excited by the prospect of having a pot of adobo all for myself.

“Why don’t you try a potato? You love fries. And I’ll be happy if you eat a carrot!” I coaxed her.

“Audrey, you’re always happy, so that won’t work.” Annie’s eyes trailed to Grandma, puttering away in the kitchen like always. Her effort often went unnoticed and unappreciated, but Grandma still worked to keep her family satisfied. Annie knew that Grandma had spent hours making the adobo; it was a labor of love.

She took a small bite of chicken.

“Not bad,” she conceded. Malena and I rejoiced. She didn’t touch the carrots, but we were all proud of her. Annie declared that adobo was better than she thought it would be, and that it was an important part of her Filipino background.

Annie’s first experience with adobo was laden with histrionics. To this day, she evades all carrots, even those found in adobo, and I have yet to see her consume anything green. However, that day taught me that adobo is more than a comfort food; it is part of my culture.  Through observing my cousin, I learned that family tradition intertwines with individual people, and adobo is a small fraction of my family dynamic. It is important to keep ties to your past through culture, and this can be accomplished through traditional song, dance, oral history, and even certain foods.

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