For those who love to love and eat
For those who long to love and eat
I fell in love with the book Banana Heart Summer by Merlinda Bobis as soon as I read the title of the first chapter of the book (quoted above). Those words, strung together, told me I was going to like the novel — I’ve always subscribed to the idea of a correlation between loving and enjoying food.
Banana Heart Summer is a Filipino novel published locally by Anvil Publishing (internationally by Delta), which tells of a summer in Bicol (right at the foot of the Mayon volcano) in 1960. Twelve-year old Nenita,inspired by the myth of the banana heart (Close to midnight, whent the heart bows from its stem, wait for its first dew. It will drop like a gem. Catch it with your tongue. When you eat the heart of the matter, you’ll never grow hungry again), leaves home to become a helper in the house next door so she can earn her mother’s love and put food on her hungry family’s table.
Banana Heart Summer is a novel of food and love, divided in three parts: “the heart of the matter.” “the spleen of the matter,” and “becoming a heart,” tracing Nenita’s coming of age in fifty chapters, each a discourse on local cuisine. Nenita’s experiences with food (both the cooking and the eating) are woven together with the love stories of the folk on Remedios Street — Nenita’s parents, the small town belle, the seafood vendor, the store owners, the Japanese vegetable grower, the rich folk from the mansion, and so on — that fateful summer.
It’s a book rich in Filipino flavor, both literally and figuratively.
I am not Bicolano, but I’ve been to the province enough times to get a clear picture of Nenita’s street , described as “between two gods,” being situated in between the volcano (the photo above shows the volcano on a cloudy day) and the church. The neighborhood depicted in the book is still generally the way some neighborhoods are in the country (our provincial hometown is something like this) — where your business is everybody else’s business and nothing is juicier than the town’s latest scandal.
And then, of course, there’s food. It’s not just a showcase of traditional Filipino food, although it describes in exquisite detail snacks like turon (banana and jackfruit in a sugar-laden rice wrapper, fried golden brown and crispy) and halo-halo (literally mix-mix, a medley of sweetened fruits on a bed of ice, shot through with milk), and savory dishes such as the Bicol Express and dinuguan (pork blood stew). The book also depicts the Filipino culture that revolves around food: making use of every bit of a free-range chicken (from the flesh to the innards); buying odd little units of food and sundry from the local store; the preparation of food for the annual town fiesta (festivities in honor of the patron saint); despedida parties (sendoff feasts); turo-turo (local fastfood); and other food-related nuances.
There is also nothing quite like summer in the Philippines — long afternoons of sweltering heat going up to 39 degrees — and it’s often the season for eating, too, as town fiestas are often during summer, and the kids are off from school so afternoon snacks are prepared at home. And yes, I think there’s also the fact that eating makes the heat more bearable. I myself spent my childhood summers feasting on my grandmother’s cooking, which showcased a different snack everyday: soupy coconut milk concoctions, rice cakes, sugar-dipped-and-fried bananas or sweet potatoes, champorado (rice in a soup of chocolate!), and iced refreshments.
The highlight of the novel for me is Merlinda Bobis’ writing, which vibrates with so much soul. Here’s one of the passages I liked:
“I still love the indiscreet fragrance of kitchens. They reek with appetite and all its attendant wickedness. Kitchens don’t know temperance. They are contagiously improper… You walk into it and you find your flesh afflicted, You leave oiled and spiced, as if you had been marinated in the stew about to simmer on the pot.”
and this one:
Years later, I was told that *** and *** [me: no spoilers] loved and raised five children in a farm five towns away from ours. They planted rice a forest of vegetables, bittermelon included. They also kept chickens and I presume piles and piles of Mills & Boon where they could roost. Surely they missed no train. It was the train that missed them, thank God, with its cargo of offal breath.
It was just rain, just water. Without sweets or spices or condiments, without our expert or fumbling interventions to make it taste better, without our need to disguise its nature, but how we reveled in each drop. Sadly love is not just water; we do things to it. We dilute it with other daily longings or the wishes for more, or our fears, angers and sorrows, then our pangs and recriminations, our ludicrous inclination towards endings. If only we could leave love alone, like the uncompromising and uncompromised glass of water at our elbow.
Banana Heart Summer was one of my first reads for 2011, and I truly enjoyed it. Anyone who “loves to love and eat” or “longs to love and eat” will surely enjoy it, too.
Banana Heart Summer, trade paperback, review copy from Anvil Publishing (thanks to the efforts of Honey for Flips Flipping Pages, and I’m truly sorry this is overdue!)
My rating: 5/5 stars
Book #1 for 2011 (I will have to do something drastic about my 2011 backlog!)