Dear Charlie and Jack,

Several posts ago, I wrote to you about our daily food.  Today, to celebrate the holidays, I am going to write to you about our party food and how we, the Villanuevas, party.

I.      What We Eat

As you probably already know by now, we belong to a very big extended family scattered up and down the Bay and Sacramento areas.  Because there’s always somebody in our family celebrating something– birthdays, kindergarten through college graduations, baptisms, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, weddings, welcoming to the US, despedidas from the US—we have a party pretty much every weekend.  We also party when there happens to be no scheduled party.  Many of your Titos and Titas coordinate their weekends off from work for maximum partying.

Regardless of what it is we celebrate, we almost always celebrate with the same food.

Even when we’re not specifically celebrating a birthday, there’s bound to be pancit or sotanghon or behon or misua or some kind of noodle dish for long life.  Your Lola (THE Lola) makes her pancit with shredded chicken,  shrimps, fish balls, carrots, cabbage, baby corn, and some dried mushroom called tengang daga (because they look like rat’s ears).

For good measure, your Tita Tet (Kuya Ethan, Ate Chriszelle, and Erthon’s Mama) also cooks spaghetti.  Not the kind that your Papa and his Italian family are familiar with, no.  Filipino spaghetti is cooked with Jufran banana catsup, ground beef and pork, sliced shiny red Purefoods hotdogs, and loads of shredded cheddar cheese.

Spaghetti_Bolognese(Filipino spaghetti)

Your Tito Erwin (Kuya Ethan, Ate Chriszelle, and Erthon’s Papa) is the grill master.  He usually grills beef burgers, chicken wings and drumsticks, pork ribs, squid, whole fish, and hotdogs.  He can grill and char anything, as long as it is not a vegetable.  He doesn’t know what to do with vegetables.

The vegetable salad is your Papa’s “specialty”.  We are always asked to bring the vegetables primarily so your Papa, usually the only non-Filipino in the party, can have something to eat.  (Your Uncle Eugene (Ate Alyse, Kuya Michel and Kuya Vince’s Dad) is Chinese so we consider him kind of Filipino.)  Nobody really eats the vegetables except your Papa.

Your Tita Ellaine (Kuya Jayson, Kuya Christian, and Kuya PJ’s Mama) makes leche flan.  Hands down, sweet sweet caramely syrupy leche flan is everybody’s favorite.

Leche_flan_Filipinas(leche flan, cream custard)

Your (Big Tummy) Lolo Boy, however, takes home the prize with his Rellenong Bangus.  I don’t know how he manages to debone an entire milkfish and not get cranky by the end of it.  Milkfish is supposed to be the boniest fish on the entire planet.  This is probably not true but you get my point.  Sometimes, if you ask nicely, Lolo Boy will make the  Birds Eggs Nest Soup or the Shark Fin Soup or Kinilaw, the Filipino version of ceviche.  His dishes are usually the first to disappear.

The rest of the complicated dishes that nobody has the time (nor the skills, quite frankly) to prepare- Dinuguan.  Ginataang Isda, Sisig, Pinakbet, Bistek, Menudo, Kare-Kare, etc.–  are usually ordered from the local turo-turo restaurant (the kind where you point and point at what you want) or from a friend of a friend with a small time catering business.  Your Tita Ollie, the one with the head for transactions that involve money, is usually the one who figures out which dishes to order.

 Bistek_Tagalog-02(bistek, beef )

 Kare-kare(kare-kare, ox tripe in peanut sauce

 At the start of the party, all the food, served in large shiny tin foil trays, proudly showcase themselves in the middle of the kitchen (or living room or hallway or garage).  The greasy chunks of meat gleam, the white rice steams.  The whole house has that distinctly Filipino kitchen smell of fresh pungent fish sauce and shrimp paste and fried garlic and onion.  No one passes by the table without drooling and reaching for a paper plate and plastic fork and spoon.

Bahala na ang  gout, heart attack, cholesterol, high blood pressure!  You only live once,” somebody says as he heaps tripe and peanut stew next to a mound of rice on his plate.

Bay, they say it’s mostly genetic,” I offer him the convenient half truth that I tell myself when I think about my skyrocketing cholesterol count.

Eventually, however, the grease must congeal.  Soon the dishes sit alone and untouched, becoming, instead, mere spectators of the party.

II.     How We Party.

(Due to the various levels of privacy needs of our friends and family members, I can not post photos.  I will show them to you if you want, just ask.)

Our parties have no official start time.  “Come whenever,” the hosts say.  Some show up at 12:00 noon, others at 5:00 in the evening.  We are the late late comers, the ones who arrive at 7:00.

By now, you both are addicted to our family parties.  Hours before we leave for the party, you start to transform into something fiendish:  Your cheeks become flushed, your eyes glitter, you talk fast and loud, you laugh for seemingly no reason.  When we finally get to the party and let you loose, we know you will forget we are your parents and that we exist.

To be fair, most of the adults also forget that all you kids exist.  At a Christmas party a few years ago, we were all surprised to hear banging on the door.  We knew it was a stranger, not because it was already close to midnight but because whoever it was obviously didn’t know that the door was unlocked.  “Man, I’ve been hella knocking for a long time!”  a tattooed young Filipino complained.  “Does this kid belong here?” he asked, holding up your 2 year old Ate Chriszelle.  Her clothes and face were muddy.  “Uh, yes,” your Tito Erwin replied.  “I found her on my mom’s front yard, messin’ around with the water sprinkler.  Take care of your kids, man!”  He passed your Ate Chriszelle, made an unintelligible noise as he shook his head, and turned away.  He walked a few houses down and then crossed the street to the only other lit house in the neighborhood.

More recently, at a birthday party, Jack went missing.  Nobody knew where he went or when he was last seen.  We almost called the cops.  We eventually found him hiding behind a couch, nose glued to somebody’s Ipad he had taken without permission.

By and large, however, you all do fine without adult supervision.  You and your cousins in the same age group (Ella, Jacob, Erthon) run up and down the stairs pretending to be caped superheroes and “bad guys” chasing each other.  In one corner, the older boys (Kuya Josh, Kuya Jarrod,Kuya Ethan) play video games.  In another corner, the older girls (Ate Chriszelle, Sarabelle, Ate Emi, Ate Janna, Ate Lichelle) watch music videos of boy bands and female teen stars on someone’s Ipad.  The teenagers and the young adults (Kuya PJ, Kuya Jayson, Kuya Christian, Ate Millicent, Ate Alyse, Kuya Michael, Kuya Vince,  Ate Kristine) find themselves an empty room and they either sit around talking among themselves or ignore each other as they FaceTime with their (boy/girl)friends or play a game on their Iphones.  Regardless of what it is you all do, you are all too busy to eat and drink.

Not the adults, however.  The adults eat.  And eat.  And eat some more.  Only after their third plate of food will they finally venture beyond the table to look for their little groups.

In the main living room, a group gathers around the 65” screen for videoke.  Pawala sa stress.  It has been proven time and time again:  nothing conquers stress and depression better than singing and emoting to heart wrenching Tagalog and Bisaya love songs.  The louder, the better.  When he’s feeling like it, your Lolo (THE Lolo) will join the group and croon the songs of Rico J. Puno.

While the concert goes on, the ladies (Ate Hannah, Tita Ollie, Tita Babus, Tita Prima, Tita Tet, Tita Ellaine, Tita Marie, and Lola Genie, Lola Precy), take over the couch, drape themselves on each other, and talk about their bratty kids or their annoying patients at the hospital where they work.  Sometimes they mix themselves really sweet and strong cocktail drinks and they giggle and cackle and sing along as loud as they can.

When there is a major event to celebrate, usually an anticipated boxing victory of Pacquiao (over Bradley, Rios, De La Hoya, Cotto, etc.) the living room concert hall becomes a boxing ring sideline.  We make sure we close the windows and the doors so the neighbors won’t call the cops on us for destroying the peace and quiet of the night.  Usually there is a bet.  Since it’s a given that Pacquiao will win, the bet is on which round the fight will end.  Everybody, even you, Charlie and Jack, scream with glee when Pacquiao pummels his poor opponent’s face into a bloody mess.  Baby Dominic watches on with eyes and mouth wide open.

The gamblers in the family don on their puffy coats and huddle in the cold garage.  There, surrounded by dozens of stacked Balikbayan boxes, power tools and cleaning gadgets, collection of old shoes, 6 months worth of toilet paper, and a basket of unfolded clothes next to the washer and dryer, they play poker.  Your Lolo Jun joins this table even though he doesn’t always play.  He likes to argue about US policies (on immigration, terrorism, whatever’s on the news) and rile the other players into a heated debate with his hypothetical scenarios.  Later, after the party, they all  head out to the casino and gamble until morning.

Outside the garage, your Tito Erwin and Tito Eric and Tito Noel smoke and talk about the art and business of bonsai.  Depending on where the party is, your Tito Eric sometimes brings out his gardening tools and prunes any overgrown shrub he can find.  Cigarette hanging from his lips, he talks about the interconnectedness of all forms of life while he snaps the pruner without hesitation.

The quiet ones, those like your Lolo and your Mama, sit by themselves in the farthest corner of the backyard to look at the night sky.  “Pag ingon ani ka hilom, mingaw kayo, mura ug sa malaybalay sa unang panahon,*” your Lolo once commented.  I knew then that he was intensely missing his family, loved ones whom he had not seen in decades since he left for America in the late eighties.

To all these the trays of food bear silent witness.

This is how we party, how we always have, and hopefully always will.

I hope someday, with or without this letter, you will remember our parties the way they are.


 (When it’s very quiet like this, it’s melancholic, it’s like how Malaybalay was in the olden days.–your Lolo)