All Souls’ Day meant arroz valenciana for me growing up. The sticky yellow rice with green peas, chicken liver and bell peppers was always the centerpiece of our table. We also only got to eat it on that day.
My maternal grandmother’s valenciana was always wonderful. She made tiny little cones, the size of Kornets chips, out of banana leaves. She would fill them with salt. Then she would stick them in her valenciana. The cones were not for us.
“What are those for, lola?” I would ask her every year because I was curious. Was it for garnishing? Or was it because the dead can’t taste anything in the afterlife? I never really got an answer, but I remember that even when the food was piled high in front of me, we couldn’t eat immediately.
We had to light candles by the windows, door and on the table. We would turn off the light and my lola would do an orasyon (whispered prayer) in what I assumed to be Hiligaynon. She would pray for what seemed like an eternity over the food.
My cousins and I would stay quiet or we’d risk her ire. When she was done, I remember that she would stand up and call the names of our dead relatives. She would wave her hands in the air as if beckoning them to come and eat.
When she felt that they were done eating, she would get a spoonful of each dish and place it on tiny dishes before offering them on our altar. She said it was for the dead who were not yet done eating.
This is how we honor our dead even today, because all of them are buried in Iloilo. We offer Mass intentions for all of them before All Souls’ Day, and we remember their lives by eating together as a family.
In the ’80s, my parents couldn’t afford plane tickets to their hometown for every holiday. We saved it for summers because it was the longest we could stay there. Part of our vacation was a visit to cemeteries, lighting candles and praying for our dead.
I find it fascinating that people go to cemeteries on All Souls’ Day because I’ve never done it on the day itself.
I love this holiday because my usually loud extended family would quiet down. My grandmother would talk about World War II and the hunger they experienced. The grown-ups would also talk about the people they missed. And the atmosphere would always be warm.
I miss my grandmother’s valenciana. My biggest regret was that she passed away before I got interested in cooking. How I wish I had her recipe to follow. But my mom and I carry on the tradition. Mass intentions are offered a week early. We light candles, cook plenty of food, including valenciana. Then we call our dead to share the feast.