“Nikko! Get the table ready, the food is done!”
Piping hot bowls filled with bakareta, a beef stew with tomato sauce, carrots, and potatoes, and pancit, a noodle dish. My dad serves all of us. My family sits down at the table and we are shouting hallelujahs because of the good food we are about to eat. “Alana, Nikko, Deby, come on eat some more,” my parents would insist. My dad makes a face with his eyebrows raised, always starting up a conversation.
“Ha, see Nikko, you’re not eating anything like this in Boston. You miss this food, right?” I mumble with my mouth full, “Yup,” and we all laugh and smile. And man, does that hit the spot. To be eating great food with your family. That hits the spot more than the beef and rice hits the pit of my stomach. “It’s that experience, man,” I would say in my head, like the movie scene of Frodo happily drinking with the other hobbits at the Shire bar.
Oh man, but there is a bad part about eating with your family. And that would be the questions. Especially the questions asked by parents. Especially the repetitive questions asked by my dad, with the huge lion voice that is installed in every male of the Salvador family.
“Nikko…so what is your major now in school? Nikko…what are the graduate schools you want to apply to? Nikko, why do you and your group of friends only play jazz? Play something else too.”
“I just want to eat right now,” I say. “I don’t want to answer all these questions like it’s some interview.”
Another subject comes to save the dinner experience. Sometimes my dad and mom share stories of what happened at work the other day, or maybe a funny story of their past or when me and my sister were little kids, or maybe a story of my baby niece saying something funny.
“Deby, remember the time when you and me first arrived here in America and you met your dad? You said in Tagalog, ‘I don’t like you!’”
“So funny! And when Alana went up to me, stuck her finger up my nose, and said ‘smelly.’” Laughter would consume us naturally.
There was one day, however, where my mom and sister got into a serious fight right before we all sat down to eat.
“We’re working so hard to support you and Alana! Just to bring you to school and buy you things you need! You have this ungrateful attitude!”
“No, I don’t! You just don’t understand anything and take everything the wrong way!”
Here we go again. I don’t remember the reason why they fought, but they always disagree about a lot of things. My baby niece was actually quiet and not shouting and singing Disney tunes like she usually does 24/7, and she had this sad face that I’d never seen before. Her playful attitude was gone in a second. Everything was awkward when they were done, and all I remember was my dad telling them to stop and for me to change the plates and glasses because it was just “not good” to eat off something that has just experienced a bad event.
“Okay… okay… no more. Stop now, we can’t do this in front of the table of food. It’s bad karma and bad luck. Nikko, change the plates, spoons, glasses, and the servings. It has to be brand new.”
“Because it’s bad luck. The food that brings us together just experienced a negative event in our family. We cannot continue after that event; we have to restart it with a new event, with all of us eating together.”
I thought about that after we ate in silence. The silence was unbearable, and my dad was trying to start a conversation at the dinner table while my mom was in her room silent and angry. But then I thought about my whole family, including my grandma, grandpa, uncles, aunties, cousins, nieces, and nephews. When there’s a big party we eat so much and drink so much alcohol and laugh the whole night away. Everyone has some sort of cholesterol or high blood pressure problem, yet when we eat as a family, there is this happiness in the air like nothing bad will happen. Maybe it’s a Filipino thing. There’s this fish dish my dad makes all the time when we eat, but me, my mom, and my sister don’t like it at all since it smells strong. Yet my dad loves it. I asked one time, “Dad, you made this really good beef spare rib stew, but you’re only eating the fish you make every time.”
“Well balong, your Nanang cooked this for me and your uncles when we were young and poor, and we were happy eating it together,” he said. “And since I make so many types of food as a chef, I always miss the things that I ate as a child in Sinait.”
What I learned from my dad is that eating food is more than just filling a stomach; it is a happy, satisfying experience. He told me that even though the food he makes is great, it tastes a million times better when you eat with the people you love. Because when you share food you also share stories, and learn even more about your family. Because he told me these things, I take breakfast, lunch, and dinner seriously, especially with family, friends, or other people that may be with you at the moment.