Eating Our Way Home
Many childhood memories revolve around summer vacations. For my large, extended family and me, the last day of school signalled that it was time to take the Grand Trip from Manila to Vigan with my Mamang Nila as the leader to a cluster of aunts, uncles, and hordes of cousins following behind. Estimated time of departure was before dawn, which meant no sleep for the teenagers, too little sleep for the pre-teens, and continued sleep for the infants and children still in their pajamas, bundled into their respective cars straight from bed. Kilometer zero was my grandmother’s house where everybody would converge from wherever they came. My grandmother had her own sturdy car and patient driver, and those who rode with her were her cook and majordoma, one other adult for company, and I, her favourite grandchild. With her car at the head of a caravan of seven or so cars full to the brim with people, pillows, and personal belongings, we would leave the family compound, looking forward to another eventful summer.
With my Mamang, what was already a long ten-hour trip could turn into a fourteen or sixteen-hour adventure. Time was when there was only one highway north that connected to the then-two-lane MacArthur Highway that still goes through the towns of Bulacan, Pampanga, Tarlac, Pangasinan, and ends in La Union before the left turn into Pugo towards Ilocos or straight on and up to Kennon Road. The road was scenic and provided many interesting foodie stops. Along that 405 kilometers of highway there were always (and still are) farmer’s tables piled high with produce in season, like watermelon, mangoes, fresh boiled corn, and—straight from the rice fields—freshly caught hito (catfish) or plump frogs tied by their webbed feet and hung like a bunch of grapes on the rafters.
Mamang was the ultimate foodie and knew exactly where to find the town specialties even if it meant a long detour and a lot of grumbling, especially from the male family members. She loved to stop at each of the public markets along the way and buy home-made kakanin or the fresh catch of the day or produce from small backyard farms. Should my father be in the same car, he would sometimes whisper to the driver to drive on, which the driver would gladly do and simply apologize profusely to a sulking grandmother whose spirits would lift only at the next stop. Each stop was a chance for the others to go on ahead although the agreement (way before the appearance of the cellphone) was we would all meet up again for the big meals—breakfast and then lunch at designated suki restaurants.
First detour was for biscocho from the aptly called Biscocho Bakery in Santa Maria, Bulacan where the Mendozas, my grandfather Vicente’s family, are originally from. My grandmother generously provided each car with one or two packets each which by the time we got to Vigan were all gone. There were, however, several cans in the trunk to be served while in Vigan and for the requisite pasalubong. Biscocho was only the pre-breakfast snack, along with home-made egg sandwiches before breakfast at Everybody’s Cafe in Angeles, Pampanga, which we would practically take over for about a long hour or so. By this time, we were all, to a child and adult, ravenous and enjoyed a rich variety of Pampangueño food at the turo-turo style restaurant.
After the hearty breakfast it was straight on and right to San Miguel, Tarlac in time for the next big meal and only because Mamang has fallen into a food-induced stupor. Lunch was at the best Chinese restaurant north of Manila, a popular pre-war destination housed in a two-storey wooden structure that had withstood the perils of war. It was nestled under the broad canopy of a large, old acacia tree where the cars parked and the drivers caught up on their sleep after a hearty lunch. Like breakfast, lunch always extended beyond the one hour allotted for meals—the conversations always lively and full of laughter and ending with the obligatory smoke before another long stretch.
In Damortis, La Union, Mamang would make another detour to the local market in search of the tiny clam shells called capiz (window pane oysters) which would be added to the dinengdeng for dinner as soon as we arrived at the house in Vigan. Back on the highway, the dried espada (swordfish) hanging from the rafters of small makeshift stands selling danggit, dalag-baybay, sapsap, pusit, turay, dilis, bagoong alamang, and patis was another must-buy and would be served at breakfast along with scrambled eggs, chopped tomatoes, fried rice and, of course, the beloved Vigan longanisa that some family members would continue to have for lunch and dinner.
We knew we were in Ilocandia when in Carmen, Pangasinan vendors would approach the car with baskets filled with tupig, coconut strips and sticky rice rolled in banana leaves and cooked over an open fire as evidenced by the burned edges of the leaves. This was also the perfect time to gas up and Mamang made sure it was at the gas station of a dear friend whose house at the back of the station we invaded for a chance at a clean bathroom.
We passed under the arc of Tagudin, and knew we were finally in Ilocos Sur and only a few hours away from Vigan. It has been a long stretch of non-stop driving and we stopped to loosen sore leg and bum muscles and at the same time pay homage to the heroes of the Battle of Bessang Pass by patiently reading the marker, as suggested by Mamang. We made a last stop at Candon for the grossly called kulangot but really only a sweet concoction of molasses and bits of coconut called calamay that are sold along the highway in small little coconut half shells, each wrapped around with red crepe paper that came in sets of six and that could be readily eaten with one or two swipes of the finger (thus the name). Today they are no longer sold in this manner but flattened into a very thin pancake, wrapped in plastic and sold in stands in the park along with the new trip snack that is cornicks or fried corn kernels in salt and garlic.
Finally, we were on the scenic winding road with a view of the majestic China Sea that would take us onto the Quirino Bridge that spans the grand Abra River and into Vigan. We were home at last just as the sun has dipped and were ready for the steady barrage of Ilocano food, the beach and, without fail, the rituals of Lent. It was a magical time when everybody could put aside their problems and create memories, surrounded by family.
Written by Carla M. Pacis
Illustrations By Djinn Tallada