PHNO CHRISTMAS FEATURE:  A CENTURY  OF  CHRISTMAS  MEALS

[PHOTO AT LEFT - Author & PHNO Editor Sol Vanzi with grandson Kyle. Click
on the picture to read Sol's professional bio]

MANILA, DECEMBER 25, 2008 (PHNO) Sol Jose Vanzi - In the early 1900s, tenant-farmer Alejandro Sacramento was forced to drive a calesa for extra income to support his wife and children. Fellow Caviteño Lucio Mata, who owned a carroceria (calesa-making shop) in the neighboring town of Las Piñas, convinced him to become a calesa repairman. By the time World War II started, he had his own small repair shop, which he named Tatlong Bituin Carroceria after his three daughters, the eldest of whom was my mother.

After the war, his carroceria started turning GI jeeps into passenger jeepneys. Things were looking up and he could finally afford a decent Christmas meal with his wife and six children. This is the story of the Sacramento family’s Christmas meals, spanning five generations, a full century, and more than a hundred descendants now scattered throughout the globe. This is the story of my family’s Christmas meals.

Early in their marriage, Alejandro and his wife Florentina depended on vegetables they grew themselves and fish from the rice fields and rivers winding through the barrios of Imus and Bacoor. Christmas was nothing really special. Alejandro, an Aglipayan like many in Bacoor, did not approve of lavish Christmas celebrations, which he identified with the Roman Catholic Church. But Christmas was not an ordinary day, for it was when gifts of native fruits, root crops, and food preparations came from relatives and neighbors. Three kinds of suman came, wrapped in various leaves. Bottled sweetened fruits and beans were given as himagas (dessert) to serve with leche flan (custard) and haleyang ube (sweetened purple yam). Lunch was dalag (snakehead mudfish) either broiled or in pesa, stewed with green papaya and ginger.

When the war ended, Alejandro’s carroceria started converting GI jeeps into passenger jeepneys. Thus, an industry was born in Pulanglupa, hitherto only famous for its bamboo organ, dance halls, dime-a-dance painted women, and salt beds. The Sacramento family was no longer poor. The jeepney shop had 30 employees and was now also building passenger bus bodies.

By this time, two of his daughters were in college, at the University of Santo Tomas. They came home once a month, preferring to stay at a boarding house in Sampaloc. Their visits became grand events and convenient excuses for Florentina to show off her culinary skills. The two daughters, influenced by years of living in the Big City, brought home new Christmas practices. They went to all the nine pre-dawn masses leading to the Misa de Gallo, chaperoned, of course. They brought apples and grapes from Manila for the dinner table centerpiece. The carroceria’s suppliers (lumber yards, hardware stores, and paint companies) sent whole legs of Chinese ham, complete with dry, leathery, unmanicured feet. Rich compadres came with queso de bola which cracked and leaked butter when cut in half.

This period, in the early 50s, was when salads first came to the Sacramento home. The UST girls made fruit salad and potato salad. Carrots came from a can, all diced and a bit mushy. That was the first time I saw carrots, which was not yet popularly grown in Baguio. Grandpa, grumping, allowed himself to stay awake for the Noche Buena with his favorite daughters, his other children, and two dozens of grandchildren. It was like being in the center of a Christmas card illustration. Sitting there with kin, I felt warm and loved. At the center of the table, beside the American fruits, was a huge ham, glistening with caramelized sugar burnt at the edges.

The ham is a story in itself. I don’t quite know how Lola Tina learned to cook ham, but she was a whiz in the kitchen and that did not surprise me. Weeks before Christmas, with the smelly Chinese ham hanging from the rafters above our wooden stove, Lola and I went to the public market in Zapote to find a used cooking oil tin container, the original balde. Four days before Christmas, I was given the gooey task of scraping all the molds off the ham. But first, the ham’s foot, up to the knee, was sawed off and reserved for future pots of boiled meats and soups. Using a dull knife, spoon, and stiff brush, I removed as much foreign material from the surface of the ham as could be humanly possible.

The scraped ham was given several baths in the balde filled with boiling water. Three to four times, the water was changed until no more suspicious foam floated on the surface. The ham was now ready to be transformed, first by simmering in the balde of water flavored with anisado wine, laurel leaves, cinnamon sticks, whole black peppercorns, sliced onions, smashed garlic, and an entire pineapple, skin and all. It normally took a minimum of three hours before the ham was removed from the balde, cooled and the skin pulled off. The fatty surface was sprinkled with brown sugar and burnt all over with a red-hot siyanse (spatula).

Paired with the aged Gouda cheese and ham was Tasty bread, the airy white sliced bread also known in the US as Wonder Bread. Lolo and I preferred Pan Bonete, a crusty roll shaped like a muffin, greasy with lard kneaded into its dough.

The Christmas Eve feast tasted better the next day. Cold sliced ham, apples, grapes, crumbly cheese, and dry white bread. So Christmas-y, especially with cups of scalding hot chocolate.

By the mid-60s, my Lolo’s family had started to move away. One daughter immigrated to the US, and she and all her kids became US citizens. One day, they all came for Christmas, with roast turkey, morcon, boxes of grapes and apples, mashed potatoes, and gravy; Lola and I made ham. An uncle brought a red ball of cheese. I went to Quiapo to buy Lolo’s Pan Bonete from Vienna Bakery in Carriedo. It was a happy and sad reunion. Everyone was leaving. I left home the following year; my brother moved to Japan with the members of his band.

By the time, I married an American journalist in the mid-70s; there was another generation to feed, new traditions to build. My five children were raised on a mixed menu of cultures. We did not have rice daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Because of an American in the family, we often had potatoes, pasta, and bread. Sinigang alternated with pot roast and dim sum. But watching me eat, they grew up loving fish heads, bagoong, and dilis. Naturally, our multi-racial Christmas meals were different from the ones I had as a child. A Weber Smoker made me an expert at converting a fresh leg of pork into a cured, smoked ham. My days of scraping mold off ham leg were over. I learned to smoke whole chicken using fresh guava leaves. Queso de bola was banished, too. Vic liked fresh, not aged Gouda, while the kids wanted American Cheddar. Yuck, Velveeta! I baked bread, often with excellent results. No more tasteless Tasty. But I continued to go to Vienna Bakery for Pan Bonete.

My kids grew up, got married, and moved away. Vic died three years ago. My grandparents, my parents, many or my cousins and aunts and uncles are gone. These days, there’s just me and my oldest grandson Kyle.

And what does Kyle want for Christmas dinner? Pizza, spaghetti, fried chicken, and gravy, mashed potatoes, muffins, ice cream. Horrors!

Where did I go wrong?
(by Sol Jose Vanzi)


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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