Excerpt: High Society by Jessica Hagedorn

Sep 20, 2017

One thing we keep hearing again and again about Filipino food is how it's a delicious mix of cultures. But cultures also have a way of mixing uneasily. Imagine a big family, with relatives of different cultures and classes visiting from all over the world. And they're coming to a country where people are so into Christmas they start decorating in September - and that makes for some intense holiday dinners. That's the slice of life the artist and writer Jessica Hagedorn bring us with her selection "High Society," abridged from Dogeaters (Copyright 1991 Penguin Books).

When my father’s mother, Socorro Pertierra Gonzaga, visits us all the way from Spain during the crazy Christmas holidays, we children have to be on our best behavior. We call her Abuelita; she is a widow like my mother’s mother, Narcisa Divino Logan, whom we address as Lola.

My parents host bienvenida parties in Abuelita’s honor, and the entire Gonzaga clan in Manila attends: Uncle Agustin and Tita Florence, my favorite cousin Pucha and her brother, Mikey, my antisocial Uncle Esteban and Tita Menchu with their grown-up sons, my cousins Eddie, Ricky, and Claudio, who we call “DingDing.” Plus Eddie’s wife, Nena and Ricky’s wife, Cristina. Nena smokes too many cigarettes, is painfully thin, and is considered one of the best-dressed women in Manila, second only to Isabel Alacran. Nena survives on a diet of ice-cream and TruColas, which she consumes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cousin DingDing is in his early twenties, always comes alone to our parties, and leaves early. He adores my mother, and entertains her with obscene jokes. My father avoids him. Everyone in the family suspects DingDing likes boys; no one discusses it openly.

My relatives make me sick sometimes, kissing and fawning over Abuelita Socorro like they do. Tita Florence and Uncle Agustin think that Abuelita Socorro will die soon and leave them her sizeable fortune. My mother, who’s the only one who treats her like a regular person, says none of it matters.

Author Jessica Hagedorn with one of her grandmother's vintage Filipino cookbooks.

At our lavish Christmas parties, our amazing cook, Pacita, creates sumptuous feasts under my mother’s direction. Abuelita prefers rich foods covered with creamy sauces; she loathes vegetables and fruits of any kind, and never eats anything raw or green. “I feel like a cunejo,” she says, waving away the bowl of salad which our servant, Aida, offers to her. “All that lettuce gets stuck in my throat –“ Abuelita Socorro makes the sign of the cross, makes clucking sounds with her tongue at her own revelation. Everyone at her guest-of-honor’s table, decorated with a red tablecloth and a miniature Christmas tree centerpiece of blue tulle sprinkled with fake snow, falls silent. My abuelita seldom speaks, and when she does it’s usually in the lisping Castilian Spanish which Uncle Cristobal has to translate for some of us. But this time she has spoken in English, which sounds bizarre. My father pats her on the arm to reassure her. “Enjoy yourself, Mama – eat whatever you want,” he says to her in Spanish. He and my mother are the only adults in the family who don’t call her “Mommie Darling.”

Pacita roasts baby lechon and bakes three-tiered cakes oozing custard, guava jelly, sugar and cream. She calls them “Gonzaga cakes.” Pacita also makes the best leche flan in the world -- not too eggy, but firm with the bittersweet flavor of blood orange and burnt sugar syrup as the perfect counterpoint. Abuelita Socorro practically swoons when she eats it. Leche flan’s all I can stand to eat at these family fiestas. I help myself to three or four pieces, maybe more. I refuse to eat leche flan in other people’s houses; I never order it in restaurants. After Pacita’s ethereal concoctions, all the rest is a disappointment.

“You’re insane,” my cousin Pucha says, piling her plate high with thick slices of lechon meat, crispy lechon skin, and mounds of rice with lechon gravy from the buffet table. “Why don’t you eat real food?” She asks me.  What Pucha doesn’t know is that when all the guests have gone and only the elders of the Gonzaga clan are left on the candlelit terrace having their cigars and coffee and cognac, I will sneak off to the little room behind the kitchen for a secret midnight feast with my other grandmother, Lola Narcisa. She is never included in the festivities, and she never complains. We will eat with our hands: rice, salt fish, adobong kangkong, and more leche flan.