Michael Pollan’s 2nd rule in Food Rules is don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. I was fortunate enough to sort of grow up with one of my great-grandmothers, Lelang. I wonder if she were alive today and came to visit me what she would say about the food in the stores and the restaurants. Undoubtedly, she’d say what she thought in Ilokano and I would understand 1% of it. Okay, maybe 5%. I can usually pick up the gist of a conversation even if I can’t understand the whole conversation.
My father and his parents and their parents are from Nagbukel in the Ilocos Sur province of the Philippines. My grandfather left his family to come to America and earn the money to bring his family over. He worked as a laborer on a plantation on Moloka`i. I can still remember him and grandma bringing home a pineapple with them from work and enjoying the fruit of their labor out in the car port with my aunties and uncles. As long as I can remember, Grandma cooked with whole fresh foods that she grew or bought at the store in town. That’s what I remember with all the family on Moloka’i. Fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats and fish. Grandpa and all the other grandpas were always slaughtering pigs and goats for big parties. There was the occasional chicken.
Most of the processed foods in my grandmother’s pantry were sugar, flour, SPAM (I think every pantry in Hawai`i has SPAM in it), and cereal for my aunties and uncles. I think there were “snacks” in there, too. I don’t remember her buying much packaged foods at all. So, I can just imagine going to a large grocery store with Lelang and her pointing to things, trying to figure out what the heck a yogurt tube is. Or Lunchables. She’d be one confused old woman.
If I grew up around whole foods like that, how did I get immersed in such a typical Western diet? My parents. We get a lot of our habits from our parents. For a long time it was my sisters and brother that got my mother’s sweet tooth and knack for snacking on junk food. I remember one of my visits during college I woke up and found my brother and sisters packing their lunches: soda, brownies, and Rice Krispie treats. We couldn’t even keep ice cream long. By the time I’d want some, it was gone. In college I was forced to eat the food in the cafeteria that was sub-par every night. Every night but Thursday night. Steak and potato night. The only night you couldn’t go back for seconds on the entrée. I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, saimin, and tuna with soda crackers. Typical student diet. It got getter when I moved out and was living on my own. But I still had a lot of processed foods in my diet. I didn’t drink much soda back then. It was water or guava juice. Mostly water.
Fast forward to moving to Kentucky. This is where my diet really took a wacky turn. Depending on who you talk to, I’m in the South. Others say Mid-West. My husband says we’re South of the Mason-Dixon line, so we’re in the South. Ooooookay. Regardless of where Kentucky falls, there is a lot of fried food here. The one dish we’re known for, the Kentucky Hot Brown, is just one big oozing mess of hot fried fat, smothered in creamy fat. I think somewhere in there is a tomato. I tried a bite of someone’s once and wasn’t impressed at all. Then add to that working second shift, often eating at midnight, then going to bed. Ah yes, then there was the years of working all day coming home and not feeling like cooking so let’s pop a frozen veggie lasagna in the oven or “Babe, how about take out?”
Now, here I stand on the road of recovery, fighting a daily battle for my health. How far I’ve come. I’d like to think Lelang would love to come over for dinner and see all the whole foods I have in my refrigerator and pantry. I might not be able to cook a lot of traditional Filipino foods, but I could make her a few things that would make her proud.
I love you and miss you, Lelang!