This is my earliest memory of a perfect meal: I was five years old, maybe six. Doesn’t matter, I was young. I was home while my older sisters were in school. It was lunchtime and my mother, for one reason or another, didn’t cook lunch like she usually did. Instead, she gave me five pesos and a Tupperware bowl, with instructions to go outside, walk to the nearest eskinita, and buy myself five pesos’ worth of fish balls. Fish balls. That was to be my lunch. Not my mom’s yummy adobo with the sauce thick and slightly sweet and the pork fat soft and almost melting, just the way I liked it. Not her hotdog omelet fried to oily perfection. Not her specialty macaroni sopas, with chicken and hotdog bits drowning in milky, margarine-yellowed soup.
Lunch was fish balls. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic.
At that time, fish balls cost only ten centavos apiece so the five pesos my mom gave me bought 50 pieces. 50 fish balls, drowning in a sweet-hot-sour sauce made of parts ketchup and soy sauce, sugar and sili. All of it mine. I remember doing a happy dance as I walked home carrying my Tupperware of fish balls. I remember my mom’s indulgent smile as she watched me wolf down fish balls and rice.
This was only my first perfect meal. I have enjoyed the gastronomic pleasure of more than one perfect meal in my life. Granted, from the aforementioned example, it does not seem too difficult to please my taste buds. In fact, one may say—quite rightly—that I am ridiculously easy to please. One may say that I’ll eat anything. And one would be right—crass and rude, but right.
I am not a gourmet. When it comes to food, I believe in equal opportunity for all food groups to be consumed, nay, devoured by moi. Well, maybe fruits and veggies are at a slight disadvantage… And although I can be finicky about my pizza and pasta, foods I love so much I consider them to be a separate food group, on the whole, I eat indiscriminately.
So when it comes to the perfect meal, or in my case, perfect meals, it isn’t so much a matter of taste or how good the food is as it is a matter of passion, of the emotions food evokes. The perfect meal is also about memory, and discovery. Take, for instance, another perfect meal I had when I was an easily pleased child: pan de sal (Filipino bread) with ketchup as palaman (filling).
The scene unfolded thus: I was looking inside the refrigerator, pan de sal in one hand, searching for palaman. A glance at the condiment section revealed no mayonnaise, no chiz whiz, no peanut butter, no coco jam. In other words, no palaman. Since, to me, pan de sal without palaman is like kanin (rice) without ulam (viand), I had to look for something to spread onto my pan. As if fated, my young, easily pleased eyes fell on a bottle of Papa banana ketchup. An image came to mind, of an older cousin sticking his index finger in a pan de sal, pretending it was a hotdog sandwich. New knowledge settled in my ken like a Catholic-style epiphany… Ah, anything can be palaman, if one wishes it. Mayo, chiz whiz, peanut butter, coco jam. Yes, even index finger. And if index finger, why not ketchup? Why not, indeed. Faultless logic and almost mystical intuition, the same stuff scientific discoveries are made of.
I remember the glee with which I poured a huge dollop of Papa onto my pan de sal, the joy I felt as I bit into my ketchup sandwich, the giggle that escaped my lips even as ketchup dribbled onto my chin. It was the perfect meal, messy and joyous and full of discovery.
I don’t eat ketchup sandwiches anymore. (These days I prefer Mang Tomas Lechon Sauce). And I have had near-perfect meals that involved relatively more sophisticated foods. But I find that, invariably, the best meals I’ve had, I was eating cheap, simple, hearty foods that filled my stomach—without wiping out my pocket—and made my heart glad, whether it’s create-your-own pizza and oily carbonara at Napoli’s or sweet-spicy pork barbecue and salted egg at Beach House in UP.
So much has been said about emotional eating. Mainly, it has been blamed for the increasingly high incidence of weight problems. Diet experts say that the only goal of eating is, or at least should be, nutrition and nothing else. Eat to live, as the old folks liked to say. Therefore, eat routinely and without emotion because emotions invest food with a purpose higher than mere sustenance and staving off of physical hunger.
Many people are embarrassed to admit that they, like every other human being on the planet, do eat emotionally and for reasons that have nothing to do with nutrition. Eating, much like other biological imperatives like sleep and sex, is motivated by things that go beyond the physical. When we eat emotionally, therefore, we assert our ability to push the limits of our biology, even to transcend it. This is admittedly a roundabout way of saying… I am not embarrassed. I admit it. I do eat emotionally. And I never quite understood why I should eat only to live. I eat with joy, with glee, with passion, with love. I eat as I live. There’s nothing embarrassing about that.