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COVER STORY : Pork Memories : When grandma is the Filipino master of pork, true kid happiness is a pig roast at Uncle Ding's

August 03, 1995|LYNDA BARRY | Barry, a playwright, cartoonist and a fiction writer, is trying to beat the heat in Illinois

I reread "Charlotte's Web" the other night and cried my eyes out all over again.

In case you don't know the story, it's about a barn spider named Charlotte who saves the life of a pig named Wilbur. The farmer has plans to transform Wilbur from pig to pork until Charlotte spins some words into her web like "Some Pig!" that change his mind. The farmer even starts to love Wilbur the way Charlotte does, and after that, Wilbur is forever safe from the meat saw.

I read that book over and over when I was a kid, crying every time, probably while eating my favorite treat, one of my grandmother's delicious pork chops.

The other night I wondered why that book had a lifelong effect on the way I saw spiders, but never made a dent in my love of pork.

My grandmother is from the Philippines and she is the master of pork preparation. When she lived with us, we always had stacks of her cooked pork chops in the kitchen. She marinated them in the holy trinity of vinegar, soy sauce and garlic, fried them until they were dry, and then piled them on a plate. My brothers and I ate them like cookies during the happiest years of my childhood, a time I sometimes think of as the "Pork Days."

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My father was a meat cutter who had a good job in a huge new supermarket that was part of a national chain. He had a deal worked out with one of the checkout girls: She'd ignore whatever meat was actually in the plastic-wrapped package he sent over with my mother and look only at the label on it. For example, 20 pork chops might be marked "Soup Bones" and the price tag might say "25 cents." Ten pounds of slab bacon might be marked "Stew Meat"; it might cost a dollar.

We could have any kind of meat we wanted, but we always wanted pork. And lots of it.

I grew up in an extended Filipino family that revolved around my grandmother. Where she lived, everyone went. The number of people who slept in our dinky two-bedroom house shifted from 10 to 15, depending on who had recently immigrated, whose ship had just docked or whose mother just suddenly decided to run off.

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And then there were the dozens of people who drove up in packed cars and walked through the front door without knocking, because they were "family," which in the Filipino sense of the word meant my grandmother had known them for at least 15 minutes. They came because they knew that Grandma plus a heck of a lot of pork equaled "party time!"

And the Pork Days were party days! Elvis, who Grandma was convinced was secretly part Filipino, was always blasting from the record player we kept in the kitchen. Pompadoured "uncles" and "cousins" did the Twist in the swirling layers of blue cigarette smoke, while "aunts" shouted hilarious comments in Tagalog as they tied rayon scarves tight around their hips to help show off their incredible dance action.

No matter how loud it got--and it got loud--my grandmother's voice could always be heard. "Eat! Eat! N'ako po! Eat!" Our windows were clouded up with the steam rising from huge pots of food, and the smell of pork was everywhere.

There were no set meal times. We ate whenever anyone came over, and I mean anybody . The paper boy, the Avon Lady, even the fire inspector whom one of our neighbors called on us. They all had a plate of pork pansit noodles in their hands before they could get six words out.

My father was the white exception to the extreme Filipino-ness of my family. He wouldn't have gotten that meat cutter job if he wasn't. He worked behind a glass window all day during a time when the supermarket management felt sure that the customers who mattered would want to see only a white man touching the meat.

I loved that supermarket. It was the kind of place that decorated everything in a big way to attract customers. Garlands of huge paper daisies hung across the ceilings, immense bunches of cardboard grapes swayed over the produce section and big inflatable cuts of meat suspended on fishing line spun slowly over my father's part of the store.

Every once in a while he'd bring home some of this inflatable meat and we'd take it to the beach. Other kids had inner tubes and air mattresses. We floated on T-bone steaks, hot dogs and ham. It took a long time to master riding the inflatable ham. If you didn't do it right, it would flip you over. I remember the other kids all begging us for a turn on the ham. I remember thinking that I had the best life in the world.

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My father's store went especially nuts during holidays. It sponsored an egg toss at Easter and gave free rides around the parking lot on a real firetruck on the Fourth of July. At Thanksgiving, people dressed as Pilgrims were hired to hold out paper plates of toothpicked roast turkey pieces, which inspired us to invent one of our favorite childhood games called "free samples." We'd stick toothpicks in some of Grandma's cut-up pork chops and walk up and down the street offering them to whoever passed by.

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