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Banana Heart Summerby Merlinda Bobis
For those who love to love and eat
For those who long to love and eat
When we laid my baby sister in a shoebox, when all the banana hearts in our street were stolen, when Tiyo Anding stepped out of a window perhaps to fly, when I saw guavas peeking from Manolito's shorts and felt I'd die of shame, when Roy Orbison went as crazy as Patsy Cline and lovers eloped, sparking a scandal so fiery that even the volcano erupted and, as a consequence, my siblings tasted their first American corned beef, then Mother looked at me again, that was the summer I ate the heart of the matter.
So how did it all begin?
With this lesson about the banana heart from Nana Dora, the chef of all the sweet snacks that flavored our street every afternoon, except Sundays.
"Close to midnight, when the heart bows from its stem, wait for its first dew. It will drop like a gem. Catch it with your tongue. When you eat the heart of the matter, you'll never grow hungry again."
From the site of her remark, I will take you through a tour of our street and I will tell you its stories. Ay, my street of wishful sweets and spices. All those wishes to appease stomachs and make hearts fat with pleasure. And perhaps sweeten tempers or even spice up a storyteller's tongue.
Let's begin with appeasement, my first serious business venture long ago. Let's begin with a makeshift kitchen, a hut with no walls, under banana trees in bloom. Here, Nana Dora parked her fragrant wok at two in the afternoon. By three, the hungry queue began.
Turon: the melody
The sound of deep frying was a delectable melody. Instantly loud and aggressive when the turon hit the pool of boiling coconut oil, then pulling back. The percussion was inspired to be subtle.
"Ay, it sounds and smells like happiness," I said, nose and ears as primed as my sweetened tongue. Happiness that is not subtle at all, I could have added. Such is the fact about the turon, which is half a slice of sugar banana and a strip of jackfruit rolled in paper-thin rice wrapping, then dusted with palm sugar and fried to a crisp brown. How could such fragrance be subtle? My nose twitched, my mouth watered, my stomach said, buy, buy.
"So you're an expert on happiness?" Nana Dora asked. Her face glowed with more than sweat and the fire from her stove.
"Believe me, your cooking is music, Nana Dora."
"Hoy, don't flatter me, Nenita." She made a face. But I could see the flush deepening on her cheeks, the hand patting wisps of hair in place and the coy turning of the neck, as if a lover had just whispered sweet nothings to her ear.
I hovered closer, bent towards the wok, no, bowed, paying obeisance to its melody: mi-fa-so-la . . . no, definitely a high "do." There were about five turones harmonizing in the deep wok. The aroma climbed the scales, happiness from rung to rung. Can I get one on credit? I wanted to ask, but only managed, "Can I help you roll, Nana Dora?"
"So you want to burn your nose or flavor my turon with your grease?" she scolded.
I withdrew the endangered appendage from the wok's edge, along with my grease, or sweat, which I imagined was what she meant. She stared at me, sizing me up in my dress that was once blue.
"I'm just saying hello, Nana Dora," I explained. "If you must know, I'm actually off to a . . . a business venture." And I'll be earning soon, so can I get one on credit? But the question drowned in the pool in my mouth. I swallowed, but another wave washed over my tongue, my belly made fainting cries, like little notes plummeting, and my esophagus lengthened. "When you feel it lengthen, you know it's really, really bad." Who said that first? Nilo, my fourth sibling, or Junior, the second, maybe Claro, the third one, or perhaps Lydia? There were six of us, so it was difficult to tell who said or felt it first. Not that we called it esophagus then. We just said "it" and motioned with our hands from the throat to sometimes beyond the stomach. Then we squatted for a long time, "to arrest the lengthening." Better than saying we were feeling too faint with hunger to keep on our feet.
"Business venture, hah!" Nana Dora snapped.
Of course she meant, leave business to me, girl, as she wrapped a turon in a banana leaf and handed it to a customer right under my nose. I kept my hand in my pocket.
"Hoy, aren't you supposed to be in school?" Of course she meant, school is your business and don't you forget that! But I was unfazed as I listened to the sweet noises behind me—the "ow-ow-so-hot!" then the blowing, then the first crunch, then the customer's masticating. This was how the melody culminated.
"I . . . um . . . stopped school—"
"Stopped school?" Her huge frying paddle—I called it a paddle—froze in midair.
"I'm on my way to some . . . er, business, that's why, but all's well—so can I get one on credit?" My last words were too soft to get me anywhere, but of course she was not meant to hear them.
"Stopped school in its last month, santisima!"
It was early March, supposedly the end of my sixth grade and the beginning of a very hot summer. "Yes, stopped school," I said. "I'll be a working girl soon, you know." I pushed out my chest to proclaim my upgraded status. Not that I had anything to show for it yet underneath my blouse.
"How old are you?"
She stepped back, hands on hips, and squinted at me. "And what happened to your arms and foot?"
I didn't think she would notice. "Accident—cooking . . ."
Nana Dora said something under her breath, then curtly, "Hoy, sit down and help me roll," while the paddle waved about. She looked angry, but I didn't know why and didn't care as she handed me the hottest, crispiest, sweetest turon that I ever had in my life. And it was not on credit.
My nose twitched with pleasure, my hand burned, my lips cooked. I heard the paper-thin wrapping shatter against my teeth as my mouth pooled and pooled.
Shredded heart in coconut milk
"I'm as barren as soup without water, so don't ask me that question again!"
Nana Dora shut me up with this retort when I asked, "Why don't you have children?"
The customers in the queue had heard. Their ears perked up for more juicy details beyond soup and they shuffled closer. Their bodies leaned slightly towards the bristling woman and their faces glowed with the heat from her stove, while the turones in the wok performed with more earnestness, believing that they were the object of everyone's curiosity, if not desire.
Her lips thinned. I could see she regretted her little outburst. She tossed more turones too emphatically into the wok—the oil leapt and nearly caught my arm. I stepped back, everyone stepped back. I hugged my body to myself, I remembered last night's disaster, I cowered. Fuming, she wiped her hands on her oil-splattered skirt.
"I'm sorry," I said without knowing why.
"Humph," she answered. I was dismissed.
How did we come to talk about soup and stuff? First she asked me why in the world would I stop school and I wanted to say, because of last night, then she said, there's too many of you that's why, and I argued, but we're only six and anyway Father said it's always cheaper by the dozen, and she shook her head savagely so I said, what about you, Nana Dora, how many do you have, and she said, none, and I asked why, and she talked about soup, spitting her words.
Nana Dora was like jackfruit. Too prickly outside but sweet inside, though only if she was ripe enough to entertain your intrusions. She rarely smiled. Every day she cooked the best and cheapest snacks, except on Sundays. Little was known of her; she did not live in our street or our town. All that was told, again and again, was the story of one early afternoon in the summer during the big drought, when the strange woman arrived and built a makeshift hut on an empty cul-de-sac in our street, then set up stove and wok and pot. She worked with incredible speed. The story went that by five o'clock she had finished building the hut and was grating coconuts, then shredding banana hearts while frying some fish to go with the hearts, then serving her first customers by six-thirty. Why she changed from dinner to afternoon snacks, or from savories to sweets, no one knew.
It must have been the shredded heart, some of those first customers would later surmise. "It was too hot, too salty, too coconuty, ay, too high-pitched in all respects." Even the savories had their place in the musical scale.
"And she didn't know how to shred a heart properly, so we all had the shits."
How to shred a heart.
It must be the right heart, it must be the soft core of the right heart, it must be the yellowish part of the soft core of the right heart. It is this that must be thinly sliced, or shredded if you will, then crushed to let the water out, to bleed it. But how do you flavor a shredded heart? How do you get the pitch right? With a bit of dried fish, a bit of shrimp paste, a bit of little red chili, a bit of garlic, a bit of onion and the milk of one or two mature coconuts. A bit of, just right, not too much, enough to induce that perfect chemistry on the palate. But how can you tell or taste perfect chemistry? When you desire a second helping before you have even finished your first. When the second helping inspires a third. When you don't get the shits after too much inspiration.
So, close to midnight, when the heart is sweet with herbs and spices, it bows from its stem. Wait for its first dew. It will drop like a gem. Catch it with your tongue. When you eat the heart of the matter, you'll never get the shits again—ay, yes, that's more like it. Much later, this state of affairs was revealed to me with unequivocal conviction, or more specifically to my stomach, or to my own heart, or maybe to the space between the stomach and the heart which often suffers that condition called heartburn.
Tomato-lemon carp with hibiscus
I never told Nana Dora that I burnt the fish, that Mother beat me as if she were separating the rice chaff from the grain. Ginik. What Mother called this kind of beating. Under the ancient two-burner stove, I prodded the welts on my arms and wondered if the skin would come off.
"Only on the bum, Maring, only on the bum, please," Father pleaded. He always pleaded on occasions like this when Mother couldn't see perhaps where to land whatever object she had laid her hands on—his belt, the broom or the large soup ladle dented not from its usual chore, but from carrying out her idea of justice. Anything would do, anywhere would do—bum, back, arms, face.
Under the stove, I gritted my teeth—one is not supposed to cry—after Mother threw the wok at me, burnt fish and all. Spots of oil hit my arms and the fish was like a black hole stuck on my chest, but it was my left foot that suffered most. The oil caught my toes. Only the left foot, only the left, I consoled myself, and not that hot really, compared to Mother's rage. It was always silent but full of fire, like a house burning down. Burnt fish, burnt house. Later, as always, Mother scavenged through the ruins for something "saveable." She sat me down and talked to me as if I were her favorite child. "You know why we hit you? Because we love you. Parents must do this, because they want their children to be good."
But I always want to be good. Do you? I was tempted to return the want to my mother on occasions like this. But before her big blow-up, I'd only managed to explain, in my absent-minded way, "I wanted to cook good, Mama, but it was the fault of the fish." Instantly the house lost its oldest window shutter when Mother grabbed the loose peg that held it together, the closest thing at hand, and began beating me.
Mother's was a poker-faced fury. Her face could have been someone else's, a handsome woman meditating over her laundry or ironing. It was a patrician face: broad forehead, high cheekbones, thin nose and lips, always in appealing repose. Fury occurred only in her hands, as if the callused fingers could not be appeased until they had exhausted themselves. Throwing the wok was more of an afterthought really, a late flick of the wrist.
But why blame the fish? Because its eyes were no longer clear, because its gills were a grey-pink rather than red, because its scales were falling off, but I bought it anyway. It was the only one I could afford with the three pesos (the rice and oil cost two) that Father handed me after he was sacked from his mason's job. After all those salary advances, his last wage was so light on my palm.
It was a weary-looking, passed-over carp, the size of my two palms held together, for a family of eight. Not enough, so I decided to improvise. I sneaked out of the house while the fish was frying (so now you know why I burnt it) to steal one green lemon, one not-so-large tomato and, in a sudden inspiration, one hibiscus half-bloom from Miss VV's garden next door. I felt no remorse. I took extra care to recite mea culpa, while beating my chest as we did at church during the Lamb of God supplications, each time I plucked a needed ingredient.
I only wanted to cook good, I only wanted to delishusize the thing. Delishusize: to make delicious. I was given to improvisations even then. But how to make delicious a passed-over carp? Scale and clean to immaculateness, rid of all signs of being passed over, the muddy eyes and smelly gills, then rub with salt and fry in coconut oil, fry to a crispness that would surely be percussive in the mouth. Set aside. Now core the tomato. Mash core and save with juice. Slice tomato into thin rings, then lay slices on the browned body. Lay tenderly, like babies on a cot. Then add tomato mixture to the lemon, this sharp-sour fragrance that will hide the passed-over smell of the fish. Only one little green lemon, thumb-sized, so its juice should be extracted to the last drop. Now pour tomato-lemon sauce on the fish. Then grace the dish with the hibiscus, at the right spot where it will curve with the tail. It must only be a half-bloom, it must not be bigger than the fish.
Nothing must be bigger than the fish, especially not the stomach. When this aberrant proportion occurs, then we have a problem. But don't we always have a problem anyway? Because desire is bigger than anything that can fill it. Desire is a house with infinite extensions, even renovations, like my little prayer of want after that household conflagration:
"I only want to cook good, I only want to eat good, I only want to be good."
I found this recitation in my head more soothing than "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" while I applied Colgate to my blisters.
My father Gable, so baptized in honor of the Clark Gable and Carole Lombard love-team, quickly handed me the toothpaste after Mother had finished with me. "You'll be okay, Nining," he whispered, eyes averted as if he were the one who had just meted out the punishment.
Nining, not Nenita, for when I was loved again.
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