It's a memory that slowly unreels, edged with a sense of doubt of it's veracity.
Beginning with a simple need - wheatfree lumpia.
The filling isn't troublesome, since we discovered wheatfree tamari, but the commercial wrappers all read "flour" meaning likely "wheat."
Springroll wrappers could work but I am suspicious of their glossy sheerness and wonder if they would hold up in the hot oil.
The white edge of a wrapper curls away from the curve of a black bottom pan.
I search my cookbooks and my mother's memory for recipes to make lumpia wrappers. She is certain, as are the cookbooks, that the only wrappers that exist are the premade, wheatbased frozen ones in the red and white box "available at most Asian groceries."
The pan is heavy, hot and the wrapper takes only seconds to dry. Nearby on a piece of wax paper, a small stack of lacy edged wrappers. Cloud filtered sunlight fills the picture window above the table.
Consulting with the local lumpia-pin@y who meticulously rolls and sells the delights to other Filipinos at my church is at a loss. She's willing to try the springroll wrappers but she too is suspicious.
"There must be a way to make them," I say to her. "My lola made them. I remember." She shrugs saying she had always bought the wrappers, even when she lived in the Philippines. How far do time saving products go back in the process? Me, inept with wrapping look to her for the making of lumpia, and she relying on manufactured wrappers when gathering her ingredients.
A low table. A two burner stove. A stool. A white smock. Brown wrinkled hands. A paintbrush and bowl of batter. The rise and fall of a dialect I never learned, was never taught.
Finally a link on Google:
Recipe for Lumpia Wrappers
1 cup rice flour
1 cup water
Mix the flour and water together and blend well to form a smooth batter. Grease a clean griddle or frying pan very lightly. (The best way to do this is to use a piece of clean cloth or paper lightly moistened with oil and wipe the surface of the pan). Using a paint brush, paint batter thinly over the griddle or pan, working quickly. Remove the wrapper with a pan cake turner as batter dries.
I find another recipe requiring duck eggs and cornstarch which would likely make sturdier wrappers, but I'm convinced that the first recipe is the 'original.' Two simple ingredients, likely very cheap, perfect for the wife of a retired Sergeant living on pensions from the Army and the laundry she worked at briefly.
The memory becomes more solid with each step. I can see her bent over the stove now, one hand holding the bowl of batter, the other deftly brushing the batter over the surface of the crepe pan. I know it is a crepe pan because those are the only English words she speaks as she talks to her daughter about it. It's an expensive purchase, the first Teflon pan offered at the PX, but the wrappers cook without sticking. She sets the bowl and brush aside, grasps the edge of the wrapper with her thumb and finger and with a flick of her wrist, lifts the wrapper off the pan and flicks it deftly onto the stack of other wrappers on the dining table.
The process is long and tedious, and my memory slips into imagination - perhaps she got tired of making the wrappers by hand, perhaps her daughters, wishing to save their mother the work, bring her the boxed and frozen wrappers one day and she never goes back to the hot pan on the two burner stove. Perhaps it's a matter of pride that she could buy the wrappers premade, a sign that she has arrived in the US and that she can provide the food she loves to the people she loves quicker, easier.
But here I am, 17 years after her death, combing my memory for her early recipe, the one that will spare the one I love from a severe celiac reaction. Hoping that it is enough of a memory to make a comfort food for him in a way she took for granted. The crispness, the sizzling heat, the saltiness, and homey-ness. All those things, plus the sunlight through her kitchen window and the memory of monsoon rain, wrapped tightly in a starcy embrace.