My mother had a soda fountain once. That was before I started writing about food. And when I did write, somehow my curiosity wasn’t stoked enough for me to ask her about the soda fountain. I regretted that oversight, especially after my mother suffered a stroke and she found it difficult to talk.
In the old days, a soda fountain was a small eating place usually in a pharmacy. It served colas, sandwiches and ice cream. According to my sister, the ice cream in my mom’s soda fountain was delicious and imported, though she couldn’t remember the brand name.
My mother’s soda fountain was within the Merced Drug in the Free Press building along Avenida Rizal (Rizal Avenue) in Manila.
Thankfully, my ninang (godmother) who owns Merced Drug and Bakeshop, Dr. Milagros Sevilla, is, at past 90, still hale and hearty and can recount those days.
There’s a Merced Bakeshop on Edsa near the corner of Quezon Avenue in Quezon City and I have been there many times. I would stop by more often then when my boys were at nearby JASMS, their school. I would buy the excellent cake, like pan de bonete, the Spanish bread and a soft loaf with toasted crunchy bread on top. My ninang and I would make small talk; she invariably asked me about my parents.
But last week she asked me to sit down with her, ordered the newly cooked egg pan de sal that is enriched with egg yolks sandwiching kesong puti for me to taste and to wash down with great icy buko juice. She said she, with her husband, lawyer Leandro Sevilla, went out regularly with my parents scouring different restaurants in Manila, particularly in Chinatown. Sevilla regularly gave my father his injections though she can’t recall what for and guessed it must have been liver extract. The closeness made my parents choose her as my godmother. When my father had to go to the United States for his medical problems, my mother left her soda fountain to my aunt. By the time my parents came back from the US, the soda fountain had closed.
I remember my mother saying she learned how to make hamburger from her uncle, who was a short order cook in the US having gone there by stowing away on an ocean liner. Always put a little vinegar for the wonderful aroma, he advised. Sevilla smiled and said she remembered how that lured many to the soda fountain. And like my mother, she remembered the constant customers like Nick Joaquin and Leon O. Ty, who worked at Free Press, both enjoying the ice-cold beer.
Both my godmothers, Nora V. Daza and Milagros Sevilla, are into food. Is there a connection? I hope so. But while I know about Nora Daza having worked with her on two books, that snack at Merced made me think that I must have gotten my urge to know about regional cuisine and specialties from Sevilla. She goes to each and every source of all those specialties behind the glass counter like the pastillas from Bulacan, uraro from Lucena and kamote chips from Pangasinan. She goes to the provinces herself every other day in the week and can tell you where to get the best “shing-a-ling,” the crisp fried noodles with the danceable name. She said she has to see as well where those are made in order to be reassured that the place is sanitary. With excitement in her eyes she asked if I would like to go with her the next day to Lucban, Quezon, just to eat. I wish I had that same energy if ever I get to reach 90 years of age.
I like it that we are on the same page—that of preserving traditional specialties. I document it, she searches it out and sells from the best sources at her Merced Bakeshop. She has pickled dampalit, a weed that grows on the fishpond walkway (pilapil), kesong puti (our white cheese made from carabao’s milk), bagoong isda and alamang (fish and shrimp pastes).
Merced Bakeshop is named after her mother, Mercedes Daez. Sevilla opened Merced Drug Store on Sept. 24, 1952, on her mother’s birthday. The drugstore has since closed because she said pilferage couldn’t be controlled. Merced Bakeshop was inaugurated on Sept. 24, 1972. When I reminded her that it was so near the declaration of martial law, she said, yes. It seems that didn’t deter her from honoring her mother and starting this bakeshop that this year celebrates its 40th year.