MANILA, MAY 30, 2006 (STAR) By Migs Villanueva - (Winner, Lifestyle Journalism Awards 2006 sponsored by The Philippine Star, Stores Specialists, Inc. and HSBC).

I come from a family of business executives. My brother Jun is a vice president at a major multinational bank; my sister Edith helps run a packaging firm; her husband Oscar retired as the country manager of one of the world’s largest petroleum companies. Other siblings, cousins, in-laws, and more distant relations have been engaged in business, and the large and happy lunches and dinners of our extended family would invariably be punctuated by boardroom chatter.

For a brief but exciting time, I, too, was a CEO, managing a manufacturing concern owned by my husband Alex, himself the boss of several large companies. My degree was in Psychology, but I quickly learned the ropes of management and finance, and enjoyed all the perks that came with the job: the Anne Klein suits, the limousines, the first-class travel to Nagoya, London, and Los Angeles.

That’s a past life for me now, as I enter middle age seeking serenity and solace in the surer arms of art, but even in my reincarnation as a writer and graphic designer, I get to meet business leaders and luminaries, each with an interesting and inspiring story to tell.

Any one of these, and any one of my well-placed relations, could have been my hero in business, overcoming all manner of adversity and challenge to succeed in an often viciously competitive world. I could come up with boardroom dramas worth a novel or a screenplay, with tales of corporate headhunting, of mergers and acquisitions as suspenseful as a Grisham or Clancy best-seller.

But when I look back on a life that began in the old streets of Pasig, Rizal – well before it became a city, and well before it had lost the genteel customs and gestures of a real neighborhood made up by generations of families and friends – my thoughts can’t help but stray to a fellow I’ll call Alex, a funny little man who, with his wife Ine, opened a lugawan that became a landmark in our barrio of San Nicolas.

In the early 1970s, San Nicolas was still a place people grew up and died in, populated by families of impeccable pedigree: the Sanchezes, the Santoses, the Reynosos, the Dimanligs, and we Cruzes. My grandfather, our patriarch Mariano, would stand in the front yard in a freshly pressed suit, greeting pretty passersby with extravagant praise. There was mahjong for matrons in the afternoons, and my mother was a regular at these sessions, her amusement affectionately condoned by my father, who was putting in full working days at IBM. At the other end of the social scale were the neighborhood toughies who, after a flood, prowled the sides of the large creek that ran the length of M.H. del Pilar, looking for the snakes – thick as thighs – that rose with the swirling water.

And holding them all together, beyond the gambling and the gossip, was food – trays and tablefuls of it, served and devoured for whatever reason proved useful, prepared by armies of caterers and helpers. Food kept family and community together, and there was never enough of it, not even with a place like Lola Caring’s, a full-service carinderia doling out meriendas to the San Nicolas folks and pedestrians – students from nearby schools, mostly.

Alex – impish, reportedly henpecked Alex – must have sensed a business opportunity in focusing on the one thing that up to now conjures warm memories of the old days for Pasigueños around the world: lugaw, that most comforting of comfort foods, thick and creamy with a sprinkling of kasuba blossoms on its bubbly surface. Lugaw has always been ballast for the Filipino stomach, a dollop of sustenance enough to last the morning or the afternoon.

One day, seemingly from out of nowhere, Alex and Ine put up a lugaw stand in their front yard, with little more than a plain wooden table, some benches, and a killer recipe whose secret lay in the toyo they used for the obligatory side dish of tokwa’t baboy. Such a small but significant detail: a dash of soy sauce to tickle the pedestrian palate – out of such touches are triumphs made. (It didn’t hurt Alex that the people at Lola Caring’s were known to be surly – masungit – giving him an outright edge in another business basic, public relations.)

Alex and Ine parlayed that touch into a rousing business, even if they didn’t have so much as a shop sign, at least not until they opened a branch at the palengke. Soon people from even out of San Nicolas were visiting Alex’s for his rice porridge, and the business grew even bigger when the couple put up a building on a nearby lot they owned, and lent some permanence to a makeshift delight.

The place came simply to be known as "Alex’s," although, with the fairness of hindsight, it should’ve more properly been called "Ine’s," as she was the one who stood in the kitchen and behind the counter – a large, feisty Visayan woman, fair-skinned and pretty, but tough as nails. As happens so often in our histories of business, the men take the credit for the women’s quiet labors.

Not that Ine was all that quiet; she never hesitated to speak her mind, least of all to Alex – who, in another of those twists that accompany many a success story – was later reported to have become besotted with another woman whom he took to a motel, only to be tracked down by his sharp-nosed wife, who put her lugaw ladle aside just long enough to take care of some domestic business. Shortly after, Alex died, presumably chastened but fulfilled.

But Ine and her sister have kept the lugawan going, and it continues to be faithfully dispensed to the denizens of San Nicolas with love and kasuba, bonding those dispersed by the diaspora, reviving memories of a Pasig long lost to malls and manufacturing.

When my mother died a few years ago, Ine sent over vats of special-edition lugaw, of a kind you never got streetside, with not just goto to thicken the broth but chicken as well. We had it for several nights, and then after the funeral we all repaired to Alex’s lugawan for more. It felt absolutely right – especially to my siblings now based in the suburbs of California – a return to roots forged in the belly of memory.

Alex and Ine didn’t just put up a homegrown business and succeed in it; they catered to a community’s need for constancy and familiarity, in a world gone to the global and the generic.

"Tubong lugaw" is a popular Filipino expression that means "earned without much effort." The Filipino poet, lexicographer and National Artist Virgilio Almario opines that "tubong lugaw" came from the observation that Chinese entrepreneurs seemed to make millions from what began as simple lean-tos.

Alex and Ine made tubo from their lugaw, all right – but it was anything but unearned, and their efforts have gained the lifelong gratitude of this one customer.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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