Toiling in anonymity
In response to my post about comfort food, many of you shared your favorite soothing dishes, which ranged from kimchee soup to the many incarnations of pasta. However, a few of you also brought up an intriguing point: the comfort you felt was derived not from the food itself but from the person who prepared it.
My SIL LouAnn at Oyster Food and Culture wrote that she loves her mother's curried shrimp but admitted that it bears deep meaning only if Mom makes it. And Mediterranean Kiwi, who blogs at Organically Cooked, offered this comment:
"I am comforted by all kinds of food . . . and the most comforting food of all is the one presented to me and cooked by others."
The feelings evoked by comfort food - of being cared for and coddled - come from the loving acts of others, whether it's a husband bringing breakfast in bed, a grandmother making her special caramels for Christmas, or a college roommate baking brownies for a cram session. For some, those feelings are deeply embedded in particular foods and are potent regardless of who prepares it; for others, the thought that someone cares enough to expend time and energy on their behalf imbues any food with a special quality. Of course, this latter point assumes a close personal relationship between the giver and receiver, which led me to wonder: is the food still special if you don't know the cook from Adam?
We tout the pleasures of home-cooked meals but most of us still enjoy eating out and that means being nourished by strangers. The term is relative, however - by virtue of reputations for extraordinary culinary skill, outsized personalities or both, certain chefs have become celebrities who are as familiar to us as our own families, even if it's unlikely we'd ever meet. They come into our homes through television, books and the Internet, and some of us have even learned how to cook from them - a role traditionally played by our mothers and grandmothers. We may never taste a morsel of the food they create and yet we have no doubt that the experience would be transcendent and special (thanks to rhapsodic reviews from more fortunate foodies).
But for every Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller, for each El Bulli and The French Laundry, there are thousands of unheralded souls at corner bistros, storefront diners, food stalls and pushcarts, whose food is eagerly consumed but whose efforts are, for the most part, unrecognized. How often have I focused on the dish in front of me, savoring the pleasure of eating, with nary a thought to the person who prepared it?
Too often, I realized, as I went through the photos of our recent travels in the Philippines. Image after image of dishes and drinks remind me of the wonderful meals we enjoyed but only a few depict the faces behind the food. In places such as the Salcedo Saturday Market in Makati City, they are folks like the young man selling ice cream from a cart emblazoned with a carefully handpainted name ("Celso Boy") and the woman proudly offering an amazing array of inihaw fish and meat as her companions tend to the grilling behind her.
I stopped to take pictures but didn't bother to speak to them, to ask questions that now come to mind: are you Celso Boy? Is this your own business? Is that your family at the grill? Are these your recipes? I was so enamored of the surroundings and the food that I virtually ignored the people who generated the market's vibrancy and created delicious dishes.
But then, there were those vendors who could never be overshadowed by their fare; indeed, their personalities drew my attention and added to the flavor of their offerings. There was the gregarious Ike Miranda of TonG (pronounced 'ton-Gee') Coffee who handed me a generous cup of his dark, aromatic brew and spoke with obvious pride about personally selecting the beans, creating the blends, and overseeing the roasting process. I might have passed over his product on a grocery store shelf crammed with other brands but hearing firsthand the passion in his voice about his conscious efforts to offer high quality made me feel as if these beans were roasted especially for me.
Ike Miranda and TonG Coffee
And who could possibly overlook the proprietor of the food stand Gigi La Crêpe, a Tagalog-speaking Frenchman named Gilbert Rault, whose burly physique belied the delicacy of his authentic Breton crêpes and galettes? Preparing them alongside stalls of strange tropical fruits, freshly caught seafood and grilled pork skewers, he deftly flipped dainty little crêpes from the griddle onto parchment paper, to be buttered and sugared before being handed over to an eager appetite. Each plate is made to order by Rault and every component of the dish receives his full attention as it cooks. You may have to wait in salivating anticipation but rest assured that at that moment, you will feel as if you were his most important customer.
Gilbert Rault and his griddle
I know it's impractical to believe that I can meet every sous-chef or short-order cook who will ever prepare a meal for me; in fact, it's likely that most would rather not be accosted by some strange Asian woman. And quite frankly, there are food service providers to whom I am nothing more than just another order. But for my part, I can at least be mindful that there is an individual behind the counter or kitchen doors and in those instances when I do make their acquaintance, I've found that even a brief encounter adds a personal - dare I say 'special'? - component to the food. They may not create my meals with the same sentiments as my loved ones but these anonymous chefs are no less deserving of my thanks when they provide a satisfying and enjoyable dish.
If you're ever in Makati City on the weekend, please visit the Salcedo Saturday Market and its Sunday cohort, the Legaspi Market, and say hello to Celso Boy, Ike and Gilbert for me!
Ike and Narda Miranda
Gigi La Crêpe
Tel: +632 729-7783
For an extraordinary story of real behind-the-food heroes, check out Comestiblog's post on the "Unsung Heroes of 9/11".