Over pasta laden with luscious tomato sauce and exotic cheeses, author Sonia Ner evades our questions on how much of a skirt chaser President Manuel Quezon was, and to what extent Doña Aurora had tolerated his infidelities.
“We don’t indulge in that,” maintains Ner, who is coming out with the biographies of Quezon and his wife this year. “The emphasis is on Quezon’s politics and his being the father of our independence. We don’t need to go where others had treaded.”
After leaving the directorship of the Ayala Museum, Ner has produced, written or edited over 50 books on Filipiniana subjects. Other than her feat in publishing, however, friends admire her for being the inveterate hostess.
Although society magazines have yet to discover her and include her in their “hostesses with the mostest” list, anyone who knows Ner would love to be invited to her cozy home. She serves the best home-cooked meals, prepared with love and served in style.
With her hearty meals, it looks as if her pantry is overflowing. Ner says her sister who lives in the States sends her lots of olive oil, a prime ingredient in her recipes, and anchovies.
The househelp buy fresh gindara, tanguingue, shrimps and crabs. Ner makes a list of the events she’s hosting, the guests, the drinks and juices. The help makes recommendations on the menu.
“We coordinate,” she says.
Ner’s flair for entertainment comes naturally. “I really enjoy friends coming over, and they likewise enjoy it. I want to make them feel this meal is special for them.”
Even if Ner is just having a neighbor for lunch, she will go the extra mile to prepare some greens and fruits arranged artistically in a nice vase as centerpiece.
Decorating a table doesn’t need much effort, she says. The table setting is customized to the guests. Friends in the arts circle are thrilled when they see chargers embossed with “Mother and Child” interpretations by Bencab, Ang Kiukok, Romeo Galicano and Anita Magsaysay Ho.
Flowers and produce are the easiest décor to add life to the table. Lovers of nature appreciate nature’s bounty all culled from Sonia’s garden—orchids in little pots, vines and twigs that trail along the table, casually strewn shells to emphasize a seafood meal.
For vegetarians, she combines vegetables and flowers as the centerpiece. “I use squash because it’s attractive and functional. After the décor, you can cook them,” she says.
Touch of luxury
Displaying fresh vegetables that were used as ingredients in the course also reiterates a decor statement.
“If pinakbet is served, I present the bitter gourd and eggplant, then some flowers. Or I put the veggies on a silver platter to give a touch of luxury so they don’t look as if they came from the market. I also like to use woven baskets or trays for an organic touch. When my son’s friends come over, they don’t care for fancy décor. They just want their steaks. But they will enjoy the candles that come in different sizes and shapes. Their purpose is to ward off mosquitoes.”
On coordinating tables with a guest list, she personalizes them. She acknowledges collectors of Magsaysay-Ho or Bencab by situating them on the spots laden with their favorite painters.
For merienda, she photocopies old prints and scans paintings and uses them as placemats. Book lovers would enjoy a tablecloth made from tarpaulin of “Pearl of the Orient,” whose cover is a painting of an oyster shell from Barcelona.
During Christmas, Ner spruces up the table with holiday plates and linens for a festive air, punctuated by fresh poinsettias and candles.
“They come in different colors now and they’re not as expensive.”
Ner says decorating need not be expensive. She seldom buys flowers since she picks them from her garden. Colorful macopas, fragrant ylang-ylang and sampaguita and dendrobiums are complemented by tropical foliage.
“I’m thrifty. I don’t want to spend on flowers that wilt easily. I can use ordinary greens such as songs of India, songs of Java, bamboo, ferns—I put them in a nice container made of glass, ceramics, silver and wood or float dainty flowers in a bowl. I can combine the arrangements with sculptures by Daniel dela Cruz, Ann Pamintuan or Ramon Orlina,” she says.
Through the years, Ner has been collecting dining sets and cutlery for eight to 12 guests.
“I have a stainless steel set which I bought in Japan while I was studying there in 1964. My helpers keep them well. I haven’t lost a piece. After every party, they count the items. There are special pouches for putting them. There’s a pouch for the knife, the spoon, etc. I have a passion for organizing. Training my helpers has made life easy for me and enabled me to be creative. They’ve been with me for years. I have a Dansk set from Denmark and heirloom sterling silver pieces from my parents. They’ve kept well. Silver is hard to maintain but I’m amazed that Sylvia Montilla uses fine silver for ordinary fare. ”
Ner eschews polyester tablecloths. She favors cotton, linen and ramie because they absorb moisture. She also loves the texture and patterns of local woven fabrics from Ilocos, Baguio and Mindanao.
Ultimately, Ner believes that simple table decorating tips add that extra congeniality and refinement to everyday meals.