- Contributed by
- People in story:
- my grandfather
- Location of story:
- the Isthmus of Luzon
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 December 2003
It was Christmas Eve of 1941. War had been raging for some weeks now in the Philippines, and the Japanese had landed in several places in Luzon island.
But my grandfather Felix Mendioro had reason to feel happy. He had just evacuated his wife Sofia and their four children out of the small seaside town of Unisan they lived in and to a hut at the edge of the jungle in the interior of the isthmus. There, they would wait out the expected fighting until it was safe to go back down.
But first there was the Christmas pudding to do.
In normal Christmases his family could count on a slab of ham, maybe half a ball of cheese, and loaves of sliced white bread to grace the Christmas midnight table.Tonight it will be a little austere, but at least there will be the pudding to help them mark the Child's birth.
My grandfather certainly knew his pudding. As a child he helped his mother make it everyday, laying it flat over banana leaf-lined woven bamboo trays, which he then peddled in slices across town.
Later, as a Filipino forestry service officer in the colonial government, it was one of the things he will do occasionally in the field as a treat to himself and fellow workers.
Today he carried with him from town two kilos of glutinous rice and a kilo of raw caked sugar.
For the milk there were plenty of coconuts around. He climbed a tree and brought down a bunch. After cracking four nuts and letting the kids drink the water inside, he grated the meat. From the resulting pulp he squeezed with his hands the rich oily milk.
While doing this he would occasionally hear faint booming sounds somewhere beyond the isthmus' central hill range.
He knew it was the sound of war, but not that it was caused fifteen kilometers away, on the other coast of the isthmus, by a Japanese destroyer bombarding Filipino positions. Soon Japanese troops would be landing and out-flanking the ill-equipped defenders. By afternoon the Filipinos would be retreating inland, walking along the railway line that cut through the isthmus.
Grandfather started cooking the pudding late in the evening. He liked it hot off the stove when it was time to eat.
The expressed coconut milk he put into a pot along with the washed rice. Soon the pot was bubbling over a fire of dried coconut fronds.
He had just time to line the bamboo trays with banana leaf when he judged the rice half-done. The pot was taken off the fire and it was replaced with a pan on which Grandfather began melting the sugar cake.
He then emptied the pot of rice steeped in coconut milk into the sugar, put in some fragrant pandan leaves and stirred the lot over the fire until the mixture gelled and at the same time the the rice was truly done.
After patting the pudding into the trays to let it breathe and develop its chewy consistency, Grandfather sat down and watched the stars. he judged from those revealed by the scudding clouds that it was time to wake the family up for the Christmas midnight repast.
But something moved at the edge of the firelight circle. Grandfather strained his eyes and could soon discern four figures crouching in the foliage. Soldiers, some with the flat helmets of the USAFFE. Two still had their rifles with them.
The soldiers got up slowly and just as slowly shuffled close to the fire.
The men were young, certainly much younger than Grandfather's forty years, but they looked aged, their clothes and faces grimy and their hair matted with dirt. They were breathing through their mouths. Grandfather later recounted that he was too petrified at this sight that he was at a loss for words.
Grandfather and the soldiers looked at each other silently, the latter too exhausted to also say anything.
Then they smelled the warm pudding. still without a word they reached for the trays and began soundlessly eating it.
Soon the last of the pudding was gone. They looked at my Grandfather without a word but in their eyes a message of embarrassed gratitude.
Before they melted back into the night, perhaps to resume the journey back to their homes, they even took the banana leaves the pudding had lain on.
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