There is Nothing as Good as My Mom’s Weird LasagnaJanuary 14, 2020
As a food writer, I’m expected to have some semblance of a sophisticated palate. I’m meant to have gone around the world, tasting dishes in the places where they were born. I’m supposed to tell ingredients from one another, know taste and texture and depth, and only enjoy food when it’s utterly life-changing. Many of the memoirs penned by my favorite authors seem to have the same pattern—they all started when they were young. Either they’d been dining out since they were just children, or grew up in the culinary world in the back of restaurants, or trained their palates in kitchens with recipes their mothers received from generations before them.
Shit, that’s a lot of great pedigree right there. Am I screwed if all I can think about is my mother’s weird, perfectly unconventional lasagna?
My mother is very much a woman of her time. She grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, learning to love and adopt foreign traditions as much as Filipino customs. When raising her own children, that mentality was still very much ingrained into her spirit, and most of what I can remember from her cooking has much to do with Western food as it did provincial influence. Like every other Filipino mother on the planet, my mom will tell you she makes the best version of adobo, sinigang, kare-kare or insert-any-staple-Filipino-dish-here, but I remember her weird cross-cultural inventions the most.
It was always about her infamous lasagna. Her recipe had as much chicken liver as it did ground beef: this mammoth dish had meat sauce that was a cross between Italian sugo and Pinoy spaghetti, ladled in between thin sheets of boxed pasta and smothered with a béchamel so thick you couldn’t run a spoon through it properly. No one ever understood it but us. Coming home after school and finding this on the table ready for merienda meant all-out war between siblings; many arguments started over who got the crispy, burnt edges bubbling with cheese. Liver is polarizing, and for kids it might be downright subversive. It’s the stuff grownups loved that we could never understand—paté always had the grainiest of textures, and when we ever got pieces in adobo that were undercooked, the blood and sinew was enough to make any 9 year old gag and think of that open wound we got once when trying to balance on bikes. So if friends came over and shoved away their plates and forks without touching the stuff, we were secretly pleased that their portions went straight back to us.
It’s not only this lasagna that was my mother’s prized and slightly-off-kilter possession. She used to make a beef stroganoff that removed any trace of its Russian origins, and was an even more blasphemous version than the American one: she emptied tins of cream of mushroom soup over all the beef, onions and squidgy, past-al-dente strands of noodles. Her macaroni salad, the pride and joy she and my tita used to make, required jars of mayonnaise so processed you could no longer distinguish the taste of egg yolk and fat, and fistfuls of raisins and shredded chicken so dry I still believe it was from a can. Do not get me started on the dish which for years on end was her favorite to bring to parties—whole boiled salmon with the skin still on, flaccid and scaly and the opposite of crisp, drenched in a thick white sauce and pine nuts. Looking back on it now, I seriously suspect she had some crazy obsession with cream. Thank you for my naturally Rubenesque figure then, mother.
Somehow though, I gobbled it all up without ever thinking then that any of it was weird, or never….not delicious. I sometimes wish I had a grand story of how my mom and I used to cook together, making sinigang with real tamarind from a recipe my lola once taught her. Or maybe a story of picking fresh guavas from a giant tree in a garden in the middle of a grassy hacienda. But instead, I have a story of my own, of pseudo-American oleaginous, creamy grub, and a mother who loved opening cans as much as she loved going to the palengke. I still have plenty of time to find that sophisticated palate now anyway.
When it comes to gatherings at home, my mother lords over the stove and never leaves the fire unattended, stirring sauces in large quantities in deep, giant woks with bottoms blackened by years on top of flames. But over the years, she’s slowly relinquished her job to a cook or to her children, and on regular nights, she’s at the dining table and never behind the stove. While I’ve grown up and am no longer ecstatic to see that macaroni regularly stowed in the fridge, or have to pick the silvery scales of that salmon between my teeth, sometimes all I want is for her to take up that mantle again, and whip up something I wished I didn’t love so much. Seriously mom, your lasagna was delicious.