Episode 66: Memories of Baguio – Of Food, Writing, and Nostalgia Trips

It took me a long time before I could put my thoughts on print. I only meant to write about the three-day food writing workshop I attended in Baguio City weeks ago. However, as I reviewed my notes, looked at my pictures, and looked back at those three days, the task became more difficult, all because I began to remember more than what I was supposed to write about.

The northeast monsoon that greeted me as I stepped off the bus that Friday morning was cold, welcoming, and unforgiving. The moment I inhaled the city’s fresh air, my lungs gave way, sending me into a fit of coughing. Is it because I have been too acclimated with Metro Manila’s air?

I waited for the sunrise over a six-inch plate of Pizza Hanna and a cup of brewed coffee, which quickly cooled down. Nothing much has changed in Pizza Volante, I thought, and the scene that greeted me by the window was the same that I would behold years ago: a cold, quiet, and nearly empty Session Road.

As the sun rose, I took off to the Baguio Cathedral, where, as with my previous trips, I offered my prayers and my worries. A set of lyrics comes to mind:

God don’t make me lose my mind
Up in there, up in there
God don’t make me go all out
Up in there, up in there
God don’t make me act the fool
Up in there, up in there
God don’t make me lose my cool
Up in there, up in there

It was my prayer back in college to keep my sanity intact, and I have recited it again.

UP Baguio was nearly empty when I visited the campus; classes were about to end that week. That didn’t stop me from walking around, taking pictures as I go. So much has changed – it barely looked like the campus I grew up in.

I took the time to visit the office of a lawyer-friend who’s about to get married this year. I promised her that I’d send her a book that she liked; I wanted to give it to her over a year ago, but she wouldn’t meet up with me. She couldn’t either now.

I left the book to her staff, hoping she’d pick it up later. I forgot what book it was; it has never left the wrapper it was enclosed in since then.

Café Luisa’s brewed coffee tasted the same as it did years ago, when I worked in the company of the city’s journalists and poets. The liquid left that familiar bittersweet aftertaste in my mouth, as bittersweet as the memories I have of my life there.

It was almost noon time when I reached Iggy’s Inn, the place where I would stay for the next few days, and the venue of our workshop. After unpacking my bags and resting a bit, I joined the rest of the participants for the first part of our workshop.

Our first exercise was about our most memorable meal. Thinking of which of my meals I should write about is supposedly easy, except all I could think of was the ones I had in Baguio. Not the ones in Manila, not the ones in my travels, but the ones in Baguio.

Over snacks of vegetable lumpia and pancit, I threw a quick SOS in cyberspace: From which of my memories shall I draw out my best meal? Family? Love? Pain? Adventure?

I ended up writing about my first girlfriend, about how I prepared a picnic meal of egg sandwiches and mashed potatoes on our first date at Luneta Hill, and the special chicken tinola I made for her on the day I was about to introduce her to my family. It came out fine, but deep inside I was emotionally exhausted. I had hoped never to evoke those memories again.

I spent the rest of the night watching shows fro Discovery TLC and drinking beer in my room, all the while trying to focus my thoughts. With only Anthony Bourdain’s boastings and the alcohol in my system, I found momentary peace and rest.

I greeted Saturday morning with a slight hangover and a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and coffee. It was cooking day; we were supposed to go to the Baguio Market to shop for food, after which we would cook our own lunch and dinner.

While everyone was learning how to pick fresh ingredients, my mind was wandering. The familiar scents of the market came back to me – the chopped slabs of beef and pork, the salty scent of the fishes, and the vegetables cooled by Cordilleran soil. They were the same as I smelled them years ago.

By the time we reached the hangar section, I was in another world – that of my past. I remember the hangar section by another name: the Black Market. The place barely changed after all these years. I can still remember the dark alleys, the crowd, and the scent of soil and vegetables in the air. It felt familiar, homely, and sad.

 Our next cooking lesson was dumpling making. They say cooking is like meditation, where you pour in your heart and soul in preparing your meal.

I for one believed it was like learning a martial art, still a form of meditation, but the type that would make you yell “WA-CHAA!” at every ingredient you get your hands on.

Seriously, making dumpling wrappers and stuffing them with meat is hard work!

Lunch came in the form of Afritada Ilocana with kamote fries, dumplings, salad, shallot pancakes, roasted bangus, and chilled strawberries, blueberries, and cream for dessert .It was the collective effort of the group that led us to have such a sumptuous meal.

For dinner, we prepared chicken in orange sauce and a version of coquille St. Pierre, a dish made famous by prolific food writer Julia Child.

We spent the afternoon coating chickens in flour and spices, slicing oranges, mixing their juices in gin and orange concentrate, chopping fish, grating cheese, and deveining shrimps, among others. Too bad we didn’t have scallop shells to serve the coquilles on.

I even got the chance to help make Bechamel sauce for the coquille. My wrist hurt after mixing the sauce, but it was a delicious (pardon the pun) kind of pain.

While everyone was resting, I ran off to the city proper to enjoy the Saturday night life. After a few bottles of beer at 18BC along Legarda Road, I trudged to Session Road and found two of my old comrades at Rumours, our old watering hole.

Rumours had grown more spacious from the last time I passed by it. They now sell shawarma at night, and if I remembered correctly, they sold ice cream in the morning. The usual patrons were there – tourists, businessmen, and some of Baguio’s well-known faces. For me though, it was a place where Baguio’s mediamen spent time drinking , conversing, and thinking. For a change, it was nice to be back in your former territory with familiar faces to welcome you.

I returned to the inn thoroughly buzzed, having drunk seven bottles of beer in total throughout the night. It was the first time I spent the night recklessly. Feels like old times.

Our last morning at the workshop started with an exercise on the kitchens of our childhood. It felt good remembering the kitchens I’ve been to, though they weigh heavily on me.

Unlike the rest of the participants who had elaborate kitchens, or experiences working in them, I only have one prevalent memory – the person who’s a frequent occupant of our kitchen, my mother. I had difficulty writing about those memories, even in this post; there were so many of them that I thought I would break.

In any case, if there’s one thing I learned fully well, it’s the ability to spontaneously speak out what’s on my mind; my mom’s memories, along with the hundreds of ideas born in my head throughout the exercises, were among them.

We ended our workshop by cooking paella. This is the first time I participated in the preparation and cooking of paella. I saw how the rice was cooked in the griddle, how the spices were added, and how the chorizo, shrimps, garlic, and other ingredients were left to steam. I watched as the paella was left to cook on its own for an hour, and how it changed into a golden, fragrant mash of rice, meat, and spices.

The paella haunts me to this day. The meat was tender, and the rice was fluffy and flavorful. The distinct flavors swam in the palate in every bite, changing into one unified taste. Is this the essence of “umami”? Or is it the fact that we made home-cooked paella with such speed and grace that made it special? It didn’t matter then; we were enjoying a full, filling and satisfying dish, and that’s all that mattered.

We departed from the inn, with the promise to meet again in perhaps another workshop in the future. We will surely have our chance again someday, to sit down and talk about food, share our experiences and insight, and perhaps, learn from each other’s memories.

My writing career was born in Baguio, but food writing was not part of the skill set I gained there. I trained myself since childhood to be a journalist, and food writing wasn’t the craze back then, after all.

It would take a long while before I explored the idea of writing about food. My idea of food writing was trying out different dishes, visiting restaurants, learning other cuisines, and exploring flavors. That’s how other writers did, or so I observed.

Things took a different turn when I returned to Baguio a few years later. All I wanted was to revisit the places I’ve dined in from college to my professional years. I only had to pick and review a few, and the ones that meant the most to me, at that. But that’s not what happened.

The moment I started writing, the memories started to kick in. I slowly remembered my first canteen meal, my first hole-in-the-wall restaurant, my first liquor buzz, my first Cordilleran dish, even my first caffeine overdose. But it wasn’t just the memories of the food that came crashing through.  I remembered everything – my first day-out with friends, my first market trip, my first drunken walk around the city, my first lonely coffee shop moment, my first date, my first love…

By the time I finished writing, it became clear to me that it wasn’t Baguio’s cuisine that I wasn’t supposed to write about, but the memories associated with them. That means every single one of those memories, from the happy to the sad, from the ecstatic to the painful.

Joining this food workshop awakened something in me. I hoped to learn how to be a creative, insightful food writer, far from what I am now, who reviews restaurants and talks about the nitty-gritty details of cuisine. However, it seems everything I need to become the writer I hope to be is already right here. I just had to use them.

I prepared to leave Baguio, physically refreshed but burdened with the memories of this city. I have much to remember, much to relive, and much to write about the place I once called the “Arcadia of my stomach.” How much of those I could write down, I don’t know for sure. But I will do it… somehow.

As I waited for my bus, I stopped by a coffee shop and did one more thing.

My main reason to visit Baguio, apart from attending the workshop, was to finish my light novel.  It took me a few hours, but I was able to polish it and start posting on Wattpad. Maybe I could say my novel-writing career officially started in Baguio.

The novel I made is about a writer who revisited his alma mater as it held its local version of the Japanese Tanabata Festival. However, he ends up reuniting with a girl from his past, whom he loves and looks up to fondly as his “North Star.”

The setting is UP Baguio…

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