Something about beef at the right time seems downright curative. One of the best meals I ever had happened during one of the most dispiriting periods of my early married life, years ago when my wife and I had our condo unit renovated.
It was a major job: walls ripped out, other walls repainted, and so on. We rented and subsequently moved into another unit in our building, but our unwisely selected kitchen supplies dealer turned out to be going through some kind of financial meltdown and delayed construction so much that the renovation ran longer than the lease on the rented unit. We were forced to move back into our unit just when the dealer’s men had finally begun to install the long-awaited cabinets in the kitchen, the least completed part of the condo.
The walls were bare concrete, as mounting the cabinets properly necessitated stripping them of plaster. Months of disuse had persuaded the roaches that the stony ruin was a fragment of the kingdom that had been promised them by their six-legged God.
Entering the condo or turning the light on invariably set off a burst of skittering noises as a small army of them scuttled away into the walls. We would have moved in with my family members but we’d had such a bad experiences with the dealer’s people that it seemed wise to keep a close watch on the proceedings and make sure they didn’t try to cut any corners. We had running water and had hooked up the stove and refrigerator, but nearly everything else we owned was either in boxes or wrapped in plastic to protect them from the rain of dust that construction showered on everything. We essentially were reduced to living out of the Master bedroom
My brother and his wife had given us a huge tupperware of homemade bulalo, a Filipino beef stew, during a family dinner one weekend. It had sat in the freezer for the duration of the following week, which seemed to grind on forever. Friday evening found us tired, grimy and depressed, sitting down to a dinner of reheated bulalo in our bedroom, the one place in the house that wasn’t covered in sand, hoping only to get something in our stomachs before going to sleep.
Little did we know that we were sitting down to what was to be one of the best meals of our lives.
It goes without saying that my brother makes excellent bulalo. His sensibilities run towards epic abundance. A recipe he emailed us asserts that “one (1) whole bone per person is the absolute minimum. Don’t kid yourself into buying less; but buy more by all means!!!” Furthermore, it is commonly known that stews generally improve with age and reheating—provided only that NO CABBAGE IS COOKED IN THE STEW. Cabbage makes leftovers sour and smelly, which is why we boil it seperately and serve it on the side.
Still. Neither of these facts account for the magical, full-body dimensions of the experience. Eating that bulalo was like a combination of getting a night’s sleep, a massage, a hot bath, and sex in the middle of a sudden rain in the middle of the desert. Every mouthful seemed like something out of a Tolkien fantasy of elven potions: healing that poured directly into your veins, knitting together everything that was bruised and raveled, and returning light to a dark, abraded world.
Interestingly, the actual taste of the meal is a blur in my memory. I do remember that the tendons had grown so soft that they were nearly indistinguishable from marrow. I also remember that the soup had gotten richer and thicker; but what I really remember is the pleasure the food occasioned, and how it lifted our spirits and evoked this dawning sense that we were just a bit tired, that everything was really all right. The bulalo somehow proved that the world was a wonderful place.
I think we were both in something like an altered state of consciousness, a polite way of saying we were probably both high as kites. The bulalo must have caused our brains to release a flood of endorphins into our bloodstreams, triggering massive waves of pleasure and well-being. We were probably a beer and dessert away from seeing God.
And I was pretty proud of the last three paragraphs until I asked Chako how she remembered it and she just said “It saved us,” which is the simple truth of what happened.
We’ve had bulalo before and after that, of course. And, of course, it’s never occasioned anything near a similar experience. An experience like that happens by grace and surprise; you can’t be looking for it, or be thinking that you’ve got an ace up your sleeve that will turn everything around. In short, you can’t be saved unless you really are at the end of your rope. On the other hand, the experience definitely made me realize that context plays at least as big a role in our enjoyment of food as the actual food itself.
The difference between food and fuel is that food is a kind of gesture. Every dish is like a word or a sentence, something full of meanings and associations, and that these associations can be used or deliberately amplified to heighten enjoyment. These days I always have half an eyeball out for the opportunity to make the interesting gesture—serving or ordering something so that it arrives as a surprise, a treat, a compliment, an allusion, a reminder, or even a joke.
As part of a performance, the comedian Andy Kaufman once took his audience out in twenty-four buses and treated them to milk and cookies. For my part, I have a good two kilos of meat and bones in the freezer specifically earmarked for bulalo during a typhoon, something to fill up the house with the smell of stewing beef when rains are punishing the city.
What else can you say with food?
• Tad Ermitaño writes a column, Culture Tech, for the Infotech section of InterAkyon.com.