Grocery Shopping with Lola

One of my favorite times of the year is harvest time, and thankfully in our region of the world we harvest from early summer to late fall – strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, tomatoes, peas, corn, beans, sunflowers, lavender flowers, tulips and dahlias, herbs of all sorts, all the way to bright orange pumpkins, green zucchini, and apples – oh the apples.

Eating local is eating abundance, not just of fruits and vegetables, but salmon, crab, trout, and squid, and seasoning everything in rosemary and sage.

In the summertime, my family would stroll through the Public Market in Seattle between isles of every kind of fruit and vegetable that could be trucked in overnight. The colors were vivacious and the vendors as colorful as their wares. We always stopped to talk with the flower vendors from Black Diamond who wound statice and daisies into quick bouquets. Sometimes my grandmother, my Lola would come with us, bargaining for the best price for garlic and ginger.

“Kumusta Ka?” she’d say. “How are you? Mabute, mabute. Fine fine. Makano ng…How much is…”

Sometimes she’d turn to me…

Ayah see this? This garlic too small. (sniff) Not fresh.

She’d eye the seller who would protest that it was the best garlic in the valley.

My Lola would frown and look at the seller suspiciously, then a twinkle would touch her eyes as she asked for twice as much for half as much money. The seller would laugh and say:

“Ay Naku! Not enough. But look, look at these beans. Just picked yesterday.”

My grandmother would peer close. “Yesterday? Not very fresh then.” She’d look up at the seller and ask “Where are you from?”

Filipinos, you see, always ask that question. “Where are you from?” (gesture to the crowd) “Where are you from?” Me, I’m from Seattle, but my Lola would say “Pangasinan.”

And maybe the seller would say. “I am from Zamabales.” Or “Manila ako.” And my grandmother would purse her lips and nod. The seller might go on to say “But I have a cousin in law who is from La Union.”

“Ay! La Union!” my Lola would exclaim. “I am from La Union.” And she would chatter quickly in her dialect so fast I wouldn’t be able to follow them. They would laugh and tease. The seller would offer new foods, and my Lola would bargain, until finally, my grandmother would get her discount, but come away with more vegetables and fruits than she had intended.

“Ay naku,” she would say to me. “My child, things are easier now than before, when I first came to America. You have so many different kinds of foods! But back then…You know, your grandpa was in the Army and he wanted us all to be here with him, so we came; your mom and five sisters. Six girls! All girls! No boys! (wave dismissively). And we lived in the housing projects down near Beacon Hill cause your grandpa, your Lolo, he didn’t want to stay on base any more. So there we were in the housing, so small, not like back home. And I didn’t have as much help here, ne? All the girls were in school so I did it all. But it was hard see, because the food was different here.

“The BX, you know, the base exchange where we buy groceries, they had nothing! Walang pancit. Walang calamansit. Not even guava. How can I make good food without those things? Rice. I could find rice. And garlic. And ginger. And a little fish, but not the same fish as back home. And chicken. That was good. I could make a little tinola, you know, chicken soup? But no sitaw, no long beans! But then I find there is this other bean here, Italian Bean. Its thick and flat, and I think oh let’s try it, so I chop it up and put it with the rest. Your Lolo tastes it. Ah he is happy. He’s not eating at the Mess Hall! He says it tastes like home.

“So I look some more. We have little calamansit back home, little limes, sweet and tart, neh? But not here in America – only lemons, yellow lemons, but they’re not too bad. So I use them. No guava, though, to make the soup thick. And still, I can’t find pancit at the BX! So I ask my comadre, my friend Auntie Dora where she gets her noodles, her pancit and she tells me Chinatown. So I take the bus to Jackson street and I find all these people! Chinese, Japanese, Filipino! All there! And restaurants too. It’s the same now, but before you know, less cars…still crowded and I find this store run by a Chinese Filipino family and they have pancit! The wheat kind, all yellow and dry, and the clear kind to put in soups. And they have eggplant and okra and dried shrimp and ampalaya, you know, bitter melon and patis, yung a Fish Sauce for pinakbet, you know vegetables all together? And even bagoong in tubes like tooth paste. I don’t have to make it myself. What? What’s that face you have? You don’t like fermented fish? All pink and soft? But it’s so good! So salty! What else would you put on your vegetables? Ay naku you are so spoiled you don’t know good food.

So I go back there every week so I can have the right foods for your mom and aunties when they’re done with school. The older ones come down from the Universities and the younger ones help me in the kitchen. And we make the food together. Sometimes Auntie Dora would come over or Auntie Fe and we would make lumpia. You like lumpia right? First I make the wrappers, you know a little rice flour and water and I brush it on a hot pan and then (flick) it’s done. Next one. Over and over. And maybe your mom is at the stove cooking the hamburger and the beans and the onions all together with the carrots and maybe potatoes. Then we let that cool and talk, always talk about who we saw down at the BX or in Chinatown, and who’s getting married and who’s having babies and who’s crying to be back home. And we all sigh a bit, thinking about that, but then it’s time to wrap the lumpia. You put a little filling on the wrapper and fold it up.

You know I met a Mexican lady once at church who told me lumpia was like a…a burrito. Yah, all rolled up tight around meat and fried. Always make a lot of lumpia because it tastes so good, all hot from the pan. And make your suka, mmm? Sauce? You know, some garlic and soy sauce and maybe patis. What, you don’t like fish sauce either? Ay naku. You know, they have good fish here. Salmon. Halibut. Trout. Smelt. Good fish. Different than home, but still, I make a sinigang, you know a good fish soup with bok choy and tomatoes and onion, and the salmon tastes so good. But you know, these American’s are so funny, they chop off the heads! The best part! So when we first came here and we were so poor, we would get those fish heads free at the market – they were just going to throw them away! And we would cook them up in a soup. You know those fish cheeks are so good, so tender.

You have to be careful, you know, not to waste food. Not to buy too much that you can’t eat it all, but make sure you have enough for your friends too who come to visit. Use everything you can find and if you can’t find what you want (shrug) then change the recipe a bit. My brother came from the Philippines to visit after we’d been here awhile and I made him his favorite dish with halibut instead of milkfish. He was so suspicious! He didn’t know what to think! Then he tried it. He said it tasted better than back home. So you see, it’s good to be here, even if it’s all different. Cause when you cook from your heart, your family will thrive no matter where you live.


Word Count: 1,300
Time: 50 minutes (stopped early because I reached the end of the story)

I wrote this one offline as an experiment. I find that the area Blogger gives for text creation a little narrow and I was making paragraphs shorter based on this.

This piece was also the first time I tried to include a little stage direction into the draft as reminders of when to gesture or pause during a performance. I need to go back in an extend some of the sections to build up more a sense of my grandmother's cosmology, of how she thought the world worked and how that changed/stayed the same.

Writing in a way that tries to emulate a dialect is tricky and I do worry about portraying her as a boondocks hick. More humor and more emphasis on where her heart space was will help aleviate this I think.

Next time I'll try to use the remaining time to add more details rather than stopping.

Not a bad session though, considering that I'm pretty tired and really wanted to play more on my new game. I used to play an earlier version on my old Mac Plus (state of the art at the time!) and I loved it, so I bought a copy with my birthday money.

So, goal met for the day...I'm off to plunder some English merchantmen!


Ivy said...

Rebecca, what a very evocative story. I spent my vacations in Pangasinan... I used to be able to speak the dialect when I was very young but now the knowledge is lost, unfortunately. I loved singkamas, which you'd get wrapped in a little bag, partially floating in salt and vinegar -- yum!

csperez said...

hi rebecca, linked here from gladys and am really enjoying your posts!

would you like to link blogs?

you can check mine out at:


come on by and say hello


Rob said...

Hi, Rebecca,

I like all the stories. Right now they are very literary. That's not a bad thing, but they will change in the telling which is not a bad thing either. I have only one criticism which is that I don't know what YOUR people (Lola, Aunt Dora, etc.) look like. When I'm reading the Grocery Shopping story, I plug my Babci into Lola's place. They are two not so different grandmothers. The story flows because everyone will put in their own grandmother. But I would like to "see" as you saw her, Lola (or any of the others), her looks her figure, her dress, the expression on her face when she talks to you rather than to the vendors.

It's not a big criticism, and it's natural oversight since these are people you can see in your memory down to their pores. It's easy to forget that your audience hasn't seen them ever.

Excellent work!