Pacifica Toledo wakes up with the smell of pancit on her skin.
It all began with an informal apprenticeship to her lola, who forbade her children and granddaughters from pursuing things that are ‘too modern’ and ‘immoral.’ That in order for a proper lady to make it to heaven, she must pursue godly and pure vocations – marriage, motherhood, and ultimately, mastering the kitchen. The kitchen was one of the few places where secretly, the women of the Molina-Toledo clan were allowed to be creative and expressive. Of course, the kitchen was a poor substitute for a life well lived, and eventually, the old tale of going to heaven by being a good mother-slash-housekeeper lost its luster. Pacifica’s older sister Benilda just a few years shy of her thirtieth birthday. Many say she died of heartbreak, as her long-term suitor, Guzman, suddenly disappeared one day after three years of wooing, and reemerged with another lass named Amihan, who had been secretly pregnant for several months before she could no longer hide her round belly from her furious parents. Guzman and Amihan were married posthaste, and lived under one roof since then. It was said that on the day they were married, storm clouds formed over the barrio’s kapilya, threatening a huge downpour,before suddenly disappearing. It was as if a celestial entity waved a giant hand across the atmosphere to shoo away the thunder and rain. Amihan’s landed family had been confident that no harm would come to their only daughter on the most important day of her life, as they had been dutifully paying tributes to the guardians of heaven’s gates. The two eventually left Nueva Ecija, to live peacefully and make more children in Guzman’s home town of Naujan in Oriental Mindoro.
Benilda had no words for her suitor, and her aged aunts tried to console her by indicating that she had maintained her virginal purity for years, and she should value herself more because she never fell prey (not even once!) to the temptations of the flesh. Spiritual prescriptions that involved regular novenas and rosaries were given, with further advice to forego all contact with men until she can see the value again of withdrawing from earthly temptations until the Good Lord had sanctified her earthly union with a respectable man.
Benilda’s broken love story irked the younger Pacifica, who had only turned 19 when her favorite sister Benilda was found unconscious, with a bleeding head wound, where she was tending an oversized kawa. The town’s only medico concluded that Benilda, or Beng-beng as she was affectionately called, may have suffered from either a stroke or perhaps she felt dizzy and lost her balance. The older sister had spent the better part of the day preparing a large quantity of ube for guests coming in a few days. She had gone through painstaking lengths to ensure that she had first tibs on the finest ube from Benguet that week. The ube was almost double the length of her arms and she’d cradled them like babies before she peeled and prepared them for the massive kawa. Benilda preferred working alone, because in her opinion, too many ladies in the kitchen will spoil the dessert. The need to be alone intensified when Guzman left. Without her suitor, whom she pretended to ignore and detest with all the huffiness her tiny frame could muster, all she had left was the family kitchen and the endless requests of family and guests.
Pacifica tried to help her sister through the massive heartache. Unfortunately, not even a pot full of the best intentions could help heal a secretive heart that’s been smashed like garlic for dinuguan. Fearing for her future, Benilda’s death drove Pacifica to rebel against tradition, and surely enough, she found herself in Cubao, with only a few pesos to her name, but with a spirit as free as the birds she longingly watched as the city petrified her. Her father forbade her from returning to Muñoz, unless she could vow that she would follow every word that would come from her parents’ mouth – and not a word less!
Pacifica chose the uncertain life, in exchange for freedom.
She didn’t know much, but she did know how to cook. And with cooking, she carved a small nook that could protect her from hunger and direct exposure to the elements. She found a kindred woman, Yolanda, who happened to have a story similar to hers. Together, the two cooked pancit and kakanin, for hungry workers and employees who wanted to spend less and save more – and therefore, could only afford nutrition from the sidewalk banquets. After a year, Pacifica, or Pacing as she is now known to many, decided to open her own panciteria.
She could still remember the almost painful lump that formed in her throat as the two carpenters swung the sign high to hammer the words Aling Pacing’s Panciteriainto Cubao street history. Her hole-in-the-wall joint was by no means the first, nor was it sufficiently unique to be memorable. But it was hers, all hers. While those with enough cash would visit places like A&W on paydays, those who needed an energizing fix of pancit smothered in pork liver and fresh Baguio vegetables would walk past Araneta Center in search for Aling Pacing Panciteria. Nothing quite compared to the smooth, silky goodness of the increasingly popular pancit, which patrons said tasted like liquid gold. At Aling Pacing’s Panciteria, “natutulog sa pansitan” was a virtue, and never a sin. Customers would lose themselves in two or more plates of the earthly treasure, while watching swarms of jaywalkers play patintero with oncoming traffic.
Aling Pacing never found true love – at least none that she could confidently say was truly hers. Perhaps it was her fear of heartache, and ending up like her sister (“Bless her poor, tormented soul!”) The few men who braved waiting for the panciteria to close at 12 PM sharp every night so they could speak to Pacing more intimately all failed to impress her. Even a Sudanese gentleman who claimed he was a prince back in his homeland failed to grab Pacing’s attention. In her youth, Pacing had a probinsiyana charm – almost always bare-faced, with her jet-black hair always tied to a bun. Her heart-shaped cheeks were often the center of attention. She looked like a cherub, and many males said that “Aling Pacing” sounded too old-fashioned, and that she should go by something with a better ring to it. Having little interest in the comings and goings of the day, she was only truly interested in the crooner Victor Wood, who she thought was the epitome of the perfect gentleman. Her suitors all fell short of her secret love. Her heart was as secretive as her sister’s, and no one knew exactly what she liked in a potential husband. As the years passed, so did the number of suitors, until the last one, Rodolfo Pasion, moved on to more willing lasses who didn’t put up as much of resistance to his self-proclaimed “amor.”
Aling Pacing tried to remember everything. Her failing memory wasn’t helpful, but she felt that she’d been self-sufficient through the decades to be able to handle this. A final hurdle. She barely understood what the young medico told her at the Philippine General Hospital. Something about her atay, and how it’s not working as it should because of cancer.
She looked at her slim hands. These two have cooked so much pancit and other specialty dishes for the past 40 years that she could perform every culinary adjustment with the deftness and speed of a young racecar driver. Aling Pacing had danced with oil, water and flames all her life, knowing nothing else.
She sat timidly in front of her panciteria as she’s always done since the beginning – so she can greet hungry patrons who can’t wait to get their hands on a steaming plate. She was always graceful, always grateful, at their continued enjoyment of her humble food. Food from the fields of Nueva Ecija, now prepared by someone who is at the twilight of her life. Even with tremors in her now weaker hands, Aling Pacing still danced with the kawa and fire as she first did so many years ago, as a stranger in this bustling center called Cubao. She had witnesses the construction of so many traffic lights, and the growth of the metropolis, as the Quezon City population swelled to accommodate the uncertain lives of those from places like Nueva Ecija. She smiled as she saw her patron’s children grew into beautiful and handsome teenagers and adults. These children eventually grew and married, bringing their children to Aling Pacing as a part of marking memories. “You have to taste Aling Pacing’s pancit, it’s the best.” Aling Pacing was no longer sure if her pancit was the best, but she was grateful that they still visited sometimes, even during the pandemic.
“Come inside. The pancit is ready,” she said, as hungry customers with masks approached.
Marius D. Carlos, Jr.
Marius D. Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture. Contact him for writing projects. Connect with him on Facebook. Email Marius: firstname.lastname@example.org.