Love is in the Grease
From co-editor Asela Lee Kemper: This personal essay by contributor Dina Klarisse revisits childhood memories through food. It explores conditional shaming and the ongoing journey to overcome it. This is "Love is in the Grease" by Dina Klarisse.
I wake up to a faint sizzling sound of oil on a hot pan, and the smell of frying garlic makes its way into the room. The kitchen is down the hall, and I feel the cool hardwood against my bare feet as I shuffle towards the smell and sizzle. My grandma stands at the stove, one hand on her hip, the other spooning oil over frying eggs. A serving bowl of sinangag, garlic rice, sits on the table. Bits of slightly burnt, leftover rice sit on top. I pick at them, relishing the crispy garlic taste that gave way to fluffy, carby center.
“Maligo ka na,” my grandma says as she wipes her hands on her duster, a faded red cotton house dress that all the women in my life wore at home, a colorful uniform of floral and aquatic patterns. I give her a quick hug before running back to the room to take a quick shower and throw on the clothes my mom folded on top of our TV before leaving for work earlier that morning.
A silog is a Filipino breakfast, the name a mashup of two components — sinangag and itlog, or egg. This duo is served with the ulam, or a type of meat, usually dishes like longanisa (seasoned sausages), tocino (sweet pork), daing (dried salty fish), Spam, corned beef, or really whatever you have on hand. The hybrid dish is thus named with a new mashup consisting of the ulam: longsilog, tocilog, etc. It is always heavy and greasy, always delicious.
The food was heavy and warm, sitting in my stomach like an embrace throughout the day as I colored in bubble letters and learned multiplication. Before leaving the house, we crowded at the bathroom sinks and rigorously brushed our teeth, gums, and tongues, washing away the flavors of our home with extra strength Listerine and Colgate. Once, when my grandma was babysitting, I hadn’t brushed hard enough and saw the polite, almost-hidden recoil in my teacher’s face when I said good morning. Though she said nothing and returned the greeting, I saw the controlled grimace and felt ashamed of my breakfast, wanted to deposit the happy fullness in my stomach into the tanbark outside.
As I grew older and my habits became Americanized, so too did my palate. In fear of smelling like ulam and being called a FOB at school, I told my grandma to stop cooking sinangag and meat and asked for the sugary breakfast cereals I saw my American-born cousins enjoy. The longsilog and tocilog gave way to Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs. The most I would venture back into FIlipino breakfasts was with pandesal and Spam, inoffensively salty. When my dad chaperoned on field trips, I begged him to leave the pancit canton and lumpia at home and instead bring Hot Cheetos and Wonder Bread sandwiches with soggy lettuce and thin slices of ham or turkey, seeking safety in the bland, textureless food.
I’ve just turned 25 and have been a vegetarian for six years. Now that I’m older, I’ve grown even more conscious about calories and fat and carbs, and have diverted even farther from the silogs of my childhood. But I yearn for the crispy pieces of rice and garlic sitting atop a mountain of sinangag and the way my grandma hummed as she scooped more oil onto a fried egg, the sizzling sound mingling with the smell of grease and salt as they greeted me.
Over the years I’ve tried to make my own vegetarian versions of the Filipino dishes I loved. My grandma’s gone, but I can see the quizzical arch in her eyebrow as I google possible meat substitutes for my favorite ulam. My dad, the main cook in my family and the highest authority I go to when it comes to taste, is my most important critic. I feel the same full warmth from my childhood breakfasts as I watch him try a mushroom-tofu Kare Kare or a Gardein Filipino Spaghetti. It is this bright remembrance and approval in the eyes that I seek when I spoon oil onto tofu and onion, listening for that sizzle.
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Chopsticks Alley Pinoy Contributor
Dina Klarisse is a writer/poet/editor/YouTube binge-watcher living in the Bay Area. Her writing explores identity, religion/atheism, and the Filipino-American immigrant experience, all from shifting feminist, postcolonial, and lapsed emo gurl perspectives. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in ASU's Canyon Voices, Marias at Sampaguitas, Rejection Letters, The Daily Drunk Mag, and Emerging Arts Professions SFBA. More of her writing can be found on her Instagram @hella_going and blog www.hellagoing.com.