A Food Altar for My Mom, Who Taught Me to Love to Eat

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

A woman looking up at the camera and smiling with delight as she tends to a pot on the stove.
The author's mother, Doris T. de Leon, tends to a pot on the stove in this photo taken during the early '90s. She was the one who taught her daughters what it meant to be a "foodie." (Courtesy of Rocky Rivera)

Frisco Foodies is a recurring column in which a San Francisco local shares food memories of growing up in a now rapidly changing city.

W

hen I lost my mom in May of 2020, two months after lockdown, I couldn’t mourn in a normal way. Instead of hugs and in-person condolences, I received pings on my Venmo account from all my cousins telling me to order takeout instead of cooking. Not that I could have. I could barely stand up in the shower. The grief was so heavy amidst the isolation of shelter in place that all I can remember was the silence — and the occasional knock on the door for a flower shop delivery or a Caviar order.

I found a Filipino restaurant in Oakland called Tipunan that delivered beef rib sinigang soup with the perfect amount of tamarind sourness and crispy pork belly karé karé, with its golden, peanut butter-based sauce and side of fermented shrimp paste to cut through the fat. Of all the condolences sent, this one felt the most appropriate. After all, I had learned to taste food through my mother’s hands when she subu’d me as a baby and, later, through the cultural sensibilities I inherited from being born in the Philippines — acquiring a palate for things like ampalaya (bitter melon) and burong mustasa (fermented mustard greens).

I grew up quite literally in the middle of the Bay on Treasure Island Naval Base, but my mother was the true bridge between two cities, two hemispheres and two cultures.

She was also the one who taught me to be a foodie. I remember how my mom would fix plates of Filipino-style spaghetti for the construction workers working on our building, and how she’d take me to Pier 39 to eat Dungeness crab and clam chowder with oyster crackers, a cacophony of sea lions nearby. I remember perusing Japantown with her after her massage appointments, sipping toasted rice tea and eating green tea ice cream at Kintetsu Mall. I remember how she brought home sugarcane from the Alemany farmers market. My sisters and I would crunch down and suck up the sweet juice before spitting out the stalk like some kid version of chewing tobacco.

A young girl with windswept hair dressed in all red; the pier and waterfront at Treasure Island is in the background.
The author as a child at the waterfront on Treasure Island, where she grew up. (Courtesy of Rocky Rivera)

The eldest of ten siblings, my mom always woke up at dawn to cook breakfast, most likely silog-style: vinegar-marinated milkfish or salted dried fish with rice and a side of fresh tomato, mango and onion. She’d go back to sleep while everyone else ate. She taught me my native language, Kapampangan, and told me that our people were the best chefs in the Philippines. She even used to brag about raising me a vegetarian — after all, we had access to canned veg-meat in our hometown years before it hit the American mainstream. (These days it would be more accurate to call us flexitarians. We Filipinos have a hard time parting with meat entirely.)

Sponsored

Throughout my adolescence, my mom expressed the truest love language of an Asian mother, bringing me cut cantaloupes, persimmons and mangoes to my room while I was doing my homework. “Tin … anak … mangan na ka (you eat now),” she’d say to me. It’s no wonder that Filipinos greet each other not with pleasantries, but with inquiries of whether you’ve eaten yet.

For me, being a foodie always meant that I enjoyed everyone else’s cooking — my mom’s, my sister’s, my grandma’s, my Tita Lita’s — but never dared to learn or replicate. Why would I when I could just enjoy the fruits of their labor? But now that my daughter is the same age I was when my family immigrated to San Francisco, I’ve learned to cook a few signature dishes: garlic noodles, made with copious amounts of butter, and my Lolo Pepé’s catfish adobo recipe, which my mother passed down to me — with no measurements, of course. It would depend on what was in Mom’s fridge that day. It always required a tomato soft enough to thicken the sauce undetected. But sometimes it would have pepperoncini or jalapeños in it. Sometimes lemongrass. My mother cooked it whenever my partner was in town because he was pescatarian and it was his favorite dish she made.

A home altar for honoring the ancestors, covered with framed photos, decorative skulls and food offerings.
The author's home altar for honoring her ancestors. At the very top are framed photos of her mother and her father-in-law Danny. (Fernando Godinez)

Mom, my Lola Luz and my Tita Lita — who passed away in January — are all gone now. It’s up to my sisters, cousins and I to keep those food memories going, if only to thread our past with our future. These days, I try to continue the Kapampangan traditions with my kids while also incorporating our Americanized palates. I inherited a white-cheddar-and-thyme corn pudding recipe from Tita Lita, who cooked like a Filipina Ina Garten on steroids. Every year, she would roast a separate display turkey to serve alongside the cut pieces of the one she’d already carved — mainly for aesthetics but also to feed our huge family.

At her memorial this past January, I made the corn pudding for the family and silently noted the differences in taste due to my use of extra large eggs and the fact that I hadn’t let the batter come to room temperature before baking. Even in death, mine couldn’t compare. I plan on perfecting it this year, and every year after, for Turkey Day.

An older woman in a red apron sets up a huge spread of food for an outdoor family gathering.
Tita Lita was like a Filipino Ina Garten, known for cooking up an enormous spread of food for family gatherings. (Courtesy of Rocky Rivera)

A few months after my mom passed, during that brief moment in the pandemic when things opened up and closed just as fast, I was able to secure a tattoo appointment. In honor of my departed mom, I chose a young picture of her, along with a young San Francisco skyline — no Salesforce Tower in sight — with the Bay Bridge as a backdrop. At the bottom, in curlicued script, are the words “Frisco Queen.” The image represents a time when my mom came here to build a new life as a nurse, a choice to immigrate to this very place and make it our new home. Through every hardship, she was always there for her kids: She was the one who pulled me out of school on my birthday and took me shopping at the downtown FAO Schwartz (RIP), or at the dress shops on Mission after visits to the dentist. She was the one who handled things the first time I got stung by a bee, on the 14 Mission, slamming her thick nursing book once with a heavy thud.

As the artist — another Frisco native, as we call ourselves — buzzed away at my right thigh, I meditated on the physical pain that felt like a conduit to what I was going through emotionally. It was cathartic. It was heartbreaking. But it was an emblem of survival for me, an homage to my mother and to the place she brought me that I now call home.

For much of my life, I wished I was “Born and Raised” like my friends who were delivered at St. Luke’s (RIP) or General Hospital in the city. But it was because of my mom that I am proud to be a first-generation immigrant daughter — that my identity, though split, could pledge no true allegiance to either side, but took only the best of both worlds: the Philippines and Frisco.

A thigh tattoo shows a young woman standing in front of the San Francisco skyline, with the words "Frisco Queen" written underneath in cursive.
A tattoo to honor a true "Frisco Queen." (Rocky Rivera)

When I moved out on my own after college in the early aughts, I created an altar in my home to honor my ancestors. It was a way for me to stay spiritually connected while rejecting colonizer-imposed Catholicism. At first, it only contained my pictures of my grandfather and my Aunt Agnes, who had passed away at 33. When we moved the altar to the outside balcony, the sugar skulls were soon invaded by pests, the ceremonial chocolate from Colombia eaten and the altar toppled by roof rats. After that, I moved it back inside. Now, it’s crowded with loved ones who passed within the last five years, the most impactful being my father-in-law, my Tita Lita and, of course, my mother.

I was too broken to make a food altar for my mother on Araw ng mga Patay (All Saints Day), the Filipino version of Día de los Muertos, the year she passed. I was too sad to even feed myself and instead ordered Tipunan again to comfort myself, the takeout cartons taking the place of the traditional catfish adobo she had taught me to make.

The last time she visited us in Oakland, my mother soared over the zoo in the gondola, laughing as she pointed out all the animals below she could prepare adobo-style. Toward the end of her life, as her health deteriorated, she began to only speak to me in Kapampangan. It was a gift that I was still able to understand her. Meanwhile, my Tita Lita, who famously never cooked Filipino food during the holidays, began to request it from us as she recovered from her first stroke, and again a decade later while succumbing to her next. And my father-in-law, Danny, used to order sisig for every family party after I requested it just one time, even though half of his biological children are now vegan.

Close-up of a section of a home altar, with a plate of Filipino sisig on display as an offering to the dead.
The plate of sisig is an offering to the author's father-in-law, who insisted on ordering it for family parties even after many of his children became vegan. (Fernando Godinez)

The comfort of familiarity is too strong in the end, especially as we are close to death. And as immigrants and children of immigrants, our relationship to food is the strongest relationship we have to culture and lineage, because food is made and prepared with love when it is made at home.

This Día de los Muertos, I am returning to that food altar with my recently passed loved ones in mind. Persimmons for Mom and Tita Lita, their favorite winter fruit. A mango for my motherland (and the name of the enchi ball python we bought to celebrate the release of my book — and to keep future roof rats away). A plate of sisig for my father-in-law. A joint for my boy Dex, who just passed from cancer. And a plate of garlic noodles for the Frisco that only exists in my memories now, made with love by Yours Truly.

As we eat and savor each bite with our ancestors, remembering places and names that no longer exist on this earthly plane, we say thank you for the sustenance. And the memories. This will be our first holiday without many of them, and I can only hope to be half the foodie they were.

A framed photo of an older Filipino woman in a polka dotted blouse.

Sponsored

Rocky Rivera is a journalist, emcee, author and activist from San Francisco. She has four musical projects out, three of those with her label Beatrock Music. She released her first book last year, entitled Snakeskin: Essays by Rocky Rivera.