My grandmother, a brilliant cook, came to live with us from the Philippines when I was in the third grade. It was a happy event for all concerned, but especially for my brothers and me, because she had an exuberant disposition, spoke an unusual brand of English, preferred walking around barefoot and possessed the nearly supernatural ability to smoke a cigarette with the lighted end in her mouth. Plus she loved television and cooked with a passion.
For the first year or so of her stay, I became accustomed to the Third World sights and smells she brought to our kitchen. Heavenly smells that carried me undulating nose-first to the table like a cartoon character floating on an irresistible aroma. Or hellish smells that instantly transformed my legs into buzz saws to carry me fast and away over distant hills in the opposite direction.
I slowly grew used to setting the chocolate milk carton next to the whole octopus sitting moodily on a green plate in our icebox, and turning away while my grandmother shouted her suggestions for contestants on "Let's Make A Deal" while eating \o7 balut\f7 , a salted, nearly hatched duck egg that looked like it could be used in a "special effects" display at a science fiction convention.
Except for these and a few other rather "far-out" dishes (one called "Black Out" or, alternately, "Midnight Meat," for example) I loved her cooking. I learned to want her chicken \o7 adobo \f7 more than I wanted any other meal on this planet. It's cut-up chicken, boiled in white vinegar and soy sauce with garlic, peppercorns and onions, and then left to sit in a dented pot at room temperature for three days. And no, it does not spoil. My grandmother grew up without the benefit of refrigeration and knowledgeably put food in situations that would cause psychological convulsions in even the most open-minded of Americans.
Dinner each night was a joy. Our kitchen was transformed into a cross-cultural Norman Rockwell painting (if Norman Rockwell could paint a plate of \o7 pansit\f7 being served by a 4-foot 8-inch Filipino woman with one eye on the TV and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth) and remained so until the day my grandmother entered into what can only be described as her "hot dog period."
For various reasons, money began to get tight. My family had to cut corners wherever they could. My grandmother's solution to the problem was the hot dog.
She adored the hot dog. She loved the economy of it, its easy shape and its adaptability. And even after we were over the hump of our financial troubles, her involvement with it continued. Perhaps it was destiny. The story goes that "hot dog" was the first thing she learned to say in English after "Hello Joe!" To my grandmother, the existence of the hot dog was ample proof of a loving God.
She bought them in bulk and used them to transform previously mouth-watering examples of Filipino cuisine into, well, something "different." And when she was feeling especially adventurous, she worked from recipes from my mother's red-checked Betty Crocker cookbook, replacing actual meat with sliced hot dogs whenever possible. As in: spaghetti and hot dogs. Hot dog stew. And the unforgettable hot dog \o7 cacciatore.\f7
My grandmother was unfamiliar with and uninterested in the traditional way of serving the hot dog. To see one in a bun at my house was a rare sight. To see roundels of them peeking out from a hillock of fried eggs and left-over rice at breakfast was a vision I looked upon nearly every morning for the duration of this particularly tragic culinary epoch.
I grew tired of the hot dog.
When I opened the refrigerator and saw the stacked orderly armies of them lying in wait, I grew melancholy. I soon developed a reputation as "a picky eater."
There were reprieves. On nights when my grandmother had bingo duty, my father led rescue missions to the Dag's Beefy Boy drive-in, or my mother took the Harvest Gold electric frying pan out of its original box and made the unimaginably delicious scalloped potatoes with sliced ham and Campbell's mushroom soup. But inevitably, the hot dog would return to our table, however disguised, and we would know it and feel sad.
We lived under this cloud for many moons, and then just as mysteriously as it descended upon her, my grandmother's hot dog period lifted. Glory to God in the most high! The days of \o7 adobo \f7 returned! Plus Grandma, apparently challenged by Col. Sanders' boasts about his "secret recipe," began experimenting around and came up with a way to fry chicken that made you do anything to get it. I mean literally.