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Eating the Past

Halfway through eating a Kalibo (what is commonly known as “saba” banana) this morning, I paused. A grandparent’s voice was stage whispering into my ear: do not forget that long thread-like thing in the middle of the fruit. When we were small, we were not allowed to eat that part, which is the place where the seeds cluster. That part was supposed to cause indigestion as it is tough. You do this only with saba bananas that are boiled: those cooked in sugar are left untouched.

The fact is there was a sense of fastidiousness in how our grandparents and their parents dealt with fruits and other products of nature.

For pregnant women, or those who have begun conceiving, it is a taboo to eat any kind of bananas that are “dingin” (in Ticao language) or twins. The obvious reason is the mother will then give birth to twins, whose delivery will not necessarily be easy. But there is a scarier warning about eating conjoined (like Siamese twins) bananas. One could end up having a baby with grotesquely shaped hands and fingers. In some towns, abnormal growth of baby’s fingers is attributed to eating bananas that are either attached to each other or grew in a gross manner.

“Langka” or jackfruit is a favored fruit in Luzon. And in Visayas, for that matter. When one goes to Mindanao, there is always an attempt to lump this fruit with one that has more notoriety - the durian. But those who swear by the name of the scented langka, will insist that where durian is preceded by its unusual (this is an understatement) smell, the fans of langka will insist it is one of the finely scented fruits in the Philippines, second only perhaps to the venerable Manga. No one could hide at all the said two fruits.

If Americans have their scent of apples to augur a season of longing and happiness, we have the langka and the manga to remind us of farms and open fields, of gurgling spring and lazy afternoons.

A grandfather figures well among my siblings. He was our Lolo Amboy, father of our father. He never visited us without a sack of fruits. All coming from his own - our own - farm across the Buhi lake. We only knew it by a name that spelled distance - “sa may sapa,” or right where the stream was.

No one among us ever reached that place. We relied on our father’s memory and our uncles who, when visiting, would recall their childhood in that place.

There, at the stream, grew Santol, Pili and, the most exotic (even for a farm boy) of them all, the Kamagong. Except for santol, the two trees were known to be tall. In the 70s, when the transportation from Buhi to Naga, the city where we lived then, was still difficult, Lolo Amboy managed not only to make regular visits but to bring a sackful of fruits. He had the sweetest Santol fruits when the variety was not yet attributed to Thailand and other neighboring Asian orchards. When taken out of the sack, they would fill a huge nigo (a circular basket) and our young aunts would feast on them - to our exclusion. Santol again could cause stomach aches for young children. We managed to eat one piece each. But the Kamagong was something else. It was only a few years ago that I learned its English name - velvet apple. It is a reference to its shape and its outer skin, which really felt like a reddish-purplish velvet. It has a distinct smell and our aunts were unanimous in declaring not to their liking. The result: I developed a fondness for it.

For every person who doubts my gustatory courage when it comes to dealing with Durian, there is always the Kamagong fruit to come to my defense.

A slow-growing tree, the Kamagong is considered an endangered species. When my grandfather passed on, and the management of the farm was informally turned over to an uncle, his first act was to chop all the trees from which all these fruits came. Up to now, we do not know the reason for that decision.

I thus call them our fruits of memories.

When our Lolo Ambo died, a death ritual was performed and it had to do with fruits and fruit-bearing trees again. As he was a betel nut-chewer, my aunts on the father side gathered all his implements for chewing: the metal box and the areca nut, the betel leaves, and slaked lime, which is either crushed or in powder form. These were buried under a bench that was propped up in front of the main door of the ancestral house by the lake.

The house is gone now, but deep under that ground, are those objects which accompanied our grandfather as he traveled from the town to the place of giant trees, near the stream, under an ancient volcano with a collapsed crater.


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