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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

When there weren’t any holidays for my dad’s store to celebrate, the supermarket employees made them up. They rented a live monkey wearing a grass skirt for the “Hawaiian Days” celebration and asked my entire hula dancing class to perform. It was exciting to stand barefoot in that store with a plastic flower pinned behind my ear. When the music started, I directed all of my graceful hand movements toward the meat department, where my father stayed put because he claimed to be too busy to come out and watch.

The party house setup was starting to wear thin for him. He was coming home less and less. When he did come home, I’d sometimes hear shouting at night about where all the food was going, and how he could never get into the bathroom. And then there would be the sound of a slamming front door, then a car starting up and driving away.

This would always drive my grandmother onto the front porch steps where she’d sit, staring up at the street light and smoking her cigarette with the lighted end in her mouth the way she’d been smoking it since she worked in the rice fields as a little girl. I imagine she was missing home. She’d been doing her best to re-create it since she immigrated, but her efforts kept falling apart.

When we all lived at my Uncle Ding’s, where the party house used to be, the same thing had happened. Four hundred people living under one roof, eating, dancing, working out under-the-table meat deals and having a shouting good time, and then, BLAM! It was over. All because Uncle Ding’s wife ran off with someone she met at the Manila Cafe. And since everyone in that house was from her side of the family, we were out on our cans.

I was sad about leaving Uncle Ding’s. I liked sleeping sideways on a big double bed with an endless row of cousins, and I liked the wild things that went on there, like the time a couple of us kids wandered into the basement to see if there was anything left down there to break and we noticed a pig. A real live pig, standing corralled in a corner and squinting at us out of one eye.

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We all screamed at once, and that scream instantly telegraphed something to all the other cousins, who came avalanching down the stairs against our push to get back up so we could snag the nearest plate of food to feed the pig while trying not to get collared by my incredibly fast grandmother, who was already shouting “ Hoy! Hoy! Hoy! " One cousin tore out to the front porch on buzz-saw legs to shout an all-points bulletin to the kids in the neighborhood: “Pig in the basement! We got a pig in the basement!”

I have no idea how it got there. I never saw anyone bring it. I know Grandma had connections to Filipinos who worked the lesser jobs at the slaughterhouses because she was always climbing out of someone’s car with two clinking shopping bags of peanut butter and mayonnaise jars full of fresh pig’s blood. She needed it to make a dish called dinoguan , which she translated as “Black Out” in English.

Getting the blood was always a trick because it was illegal to sell blood, but we always had dinoguan . If she could get that much blood whenever she wanted it, getting a live pig into the basement couldn’t have been much harder.

For the next week or so, that pig became the focus of all the kids’ lives. Besides the things we stole or bought from the penny candy counter, Grandma gave us big plates of table scraps and bowls of milk to feed it. But I especially liked to feed it red rope licorice.

We’d scratch its ears, try to ride it, jump back when it tried to bite us, and fight over giving it names like Boris or Igor or “The Girl From Ipanema.”

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Then one day we were told not to feed the pig. I noticed some uncles drinking beer and digging a long rectangular pit in the back yard. We sneaked the pig some food anyway, then ducked out of the way when some other uncles showed up with long bamboo poles. Someone else showed up with stacks of firewood, and the amount of noise and cooking in the already busy kitchen tripled.

Then someone handed my oldest teen-age cousin the car keys and $30, and a shout went out for all the kids to cram into the car because it was time to go to the Blue Mouse theater. There was a double feature. And we were supposed to stay there and watch both movies twice. We were so happy!

There wasn’t a Charlotte in our basement to spin words into her web that could save that pig from what was about to come. And if there had been, that spider would have had to have spoken Tagalog.

When we returned, the party was full-blown. Cars were parked everywhere; people were all over the front porch. A tower of smoke rose from the back yard.

I jumped out of the car before my teen-age cousin could shift into park and was racing down the side of the house when I skidded to a stop in front of the open basement door.

*

Inside, beneath a swinging light bulb, I saw my father and uncles standing around a big old table, beers in one hand, straight razors in the other. On the table was the hairless pink body of what I thought was a fat lady lying on her side.

I screamed until the world disappeared. And then it was full-out crying time for all of the cousins.

We decided to boycott the party and park ourselves on top of the car in protest. No way were we going into that back yard. I sobbed in between drinks of green Kool-Aid and bites of bola-bola , my favorite food.

These rice balls, stuffed with pieces of bacon, were made by my grandmother, who carried them out to us in white pyramids on chipped gas station plates. She had such a sad expression on her face that I never once connected her to the killing, nor did it occur to me that the bacon I was eating came from my licorice-eating pig. Bola bola was the ultimate comfort food, and she knew it. It’s still what I crave to this day when I’m feeling bad.

Although all of us kids swore we would not go into the back yard where the party was getting louder and more fun-sounding by the minute, one by one, we made excuses to run into the house for just a minute, and then didn’t return. I finally broke down and poked my head around the side of the house and was instantly infuriated by what I saw: a big roasting pig being turned slowly over a fire--and some of my cousins were doing the spinning!

If I didn’t get over there immediately, I would never get a turn!

*

The smell of roasting pork totally obliterated that pig’s happier days from my mind. Its skin was golden and dripping, and my mouth watered at the thought of the greasy crunchiness of it. The record player was set up in the grass, hooked to an endless series of extension cords, and people kept playing “Twist and Shout” over and over, convinced that the song contained some Tagalog words. I remember asking my mother to name the Beatles and she said, “George, Paul, Dave and Swirley,” which made me laugh so hard I fell down in the grass.

I took my turn at the spit, using my hand to shield my face from the heat and fighting with a cousin over which direction to spin it.

I looked over and saw my parents dancing together, and maybe that was the moment the smell of roasting pork and a feeling of pure happiness fused themselves together in my mind forever. *

When my father ran off with that checkout girl at the supermarket, my “Pork Days” were over. And I never did find out why Grandma decided to move out about the same time he left. I just know there were a lot of hard feelings all around, and that my mother bought a shopping cart load of Swanson’s TV dinners and pork pot pies, showed me and my brothers how to heat them and then went to lie down in her bedroom for a couple of years.

It was so weird living in that empty house, and we got sick of TV dinners fast. You’d be surprised how hard it is for kids to get hold of some pork after adults stop cooking it for them. They didn’t sell it at the hamburger stand, and there weren’t pork TV dinners or pot pies. The closest we could come to re-creating the smell and the flavor of the food from our happiest days was to stand on the kitchen chair next to the stove and fry a piece of baloney.

About that time I started reading “Charlotte’s Web” again. And when I got to the part where Charlotte dies after saving Wilbur, I cried so hard that my mother actually got out of her bed, came into the front room and told me to shut the hell up.

I now realize that that book was less about saving a pig’s life than the thing I needed the most back then: a loving spider named Charlotte, who could change the terrible direction things were heading by spinning words in a web where all the people and the happiness had gone. It would say “Come Back” and “Bring Pork.”

It didn’t happen. But that book gave me something to help get me through the years until I was able to leave that sad house--and get to the meat department by myself.

So that’s why I only feel a little bit sad whenever I think about the pig that made my pork chop. But to this very day, I will never, ever, ever kill a spider.

FRAGRANT PORK ADOBO

The variations on pork adobo are endless. This one comes from former Times Food staffer Minnie Bernardino. Other Filipino cooks favor pork chops marinated in vinegar, soy and garlic, brought to a boil, simmered, then fried in oil.

1 pound lean pork meat (such as shoulder butt), cubed

2 teaspoons oil

1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced

5 tablespoons soy sauce or mushroom soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water

2 teaspoons cornstarch

Salt, optional

Cut pork into 3/4-inch cubes. Heat oil in heavy saucepan over high heat. Lightly brown pork cubes. Add garlic, soy sauce, peppercorns, vinegar, bay leaf and 1/2 cup water. Cover and simmer until pork is tender, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Stir cornstarch into remaining 2 tablespoons water until smooth. Stir into pork mixture. Simmer until thickened. Adjust soy sauce or salt to taste. Remove bay leaf. Serve hot with rice.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

516 calories; 1,383 mg sodium; 82 mg cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 2 grams fiber.


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