Her recipes will surely not disappear the way the legendary Food for the Gods of a dear departed friend did, never to be tasted again in its unrecorded original
You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold;
Richer than I you can never be;
I had a mother who (read to) cooked for me.
With this stanza—adapted from a poem by Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954)—Tina Roces-Garcia launches herself into an essay deservedly starring her mother, Nisena Ortiz-Roces, in our family cookbook, “Celebrations—A Culinary Feast from the Roces-Reyes Table.”
It may well have introduced the whole book, for it echoes the sentiments of us her cousins who have ourselves written our own tributes to our mothers.
Indeed, our family is happily caught in a generational cycle of cooking mothers that began even before Lola Enchay, where my own limited memory begins. It’s definitely something to be proud of and grateful for, if only for whatever connection it has to our characteristic longevity.
Trademark cream puffs
Growing up, I remember how important food has always been, the desserts especially, which at lola’s table sometimes outshone and outnumbered the main courses. Everybody paced themselves for the desserts, particularly Tita Nising’s pies—fruit pies, Rum and Cappuccino cream pies, and last but not least, her trademark tower of cream puffs—her petit-choux.
(This was before our younger cousins started Sugarhouse, since sold, and before Tita Nising herself left to live in the United States, where she died).
My aunts and my own mom had each their own specialties, and so did two uncles, Jesus (Tuting) and Francisco (Pipo), Tina’s dad. But Tita Nising was our undisputed Queen of Desserts. It was also she who ensured that the Roces-Reyes kitchen legacy lived on in us next-generation moms.
We the three oldest cousins—Sylvia, Ninit and I—started our formal culinary education under her, a conspiracy among our mothers, who plotted our summer activities to ensure we were useful and busy, thus saved from becoming sillier and giddier in our teenage years. Eventually, in a desperate plot, they would send us to Spain for finishing school.
Meanwhile, in Tita Nising, we found a very organized and practical teacher, although only self-taught herself, and an endearing one, too, chiefly for her sense of humor.
From the very basic French toast we progressed to pancakes, producing them from scratch, for this was before the days of convenient premixes. Dad was singularly gratified; he woke up to pancakes for breakfast.
We graduated from basic sauces to party foods and special family recipes, from pies to cakes to our fruitcake. When I got married, I found myself getting even more often in touch with her, and she was always ready to take my 911 kitchen calls.
After the laughter at my panic subsided, she’d proceed to address the problem, “So, what did you do or not do this time?” She’d listen patiently, then rescue me step by step, whether it was a too-egg-y custard, a curdled mayonnaise, or a meringue that had dried beyond its capacity to form peaks.
She was generous in that way. She shared just about every trade trick she possessed, including recipes. That’s why to this day somebody in the family can make her pies, among her other legacies. Oh, and her Canelones!
Her recipes will surely not disappear the way the legendary Food for the Gods of a dear departed friend did, never to be tasted again in its unrecorded original.
Tina and her siblings, doubly blessed with a mother and a father who both cooked for them, have, in fact, promised to come up with a whole volume on their mom’s desserts. I recall Tita Nising herself suggesting “Just Desserts” for a title.
The pies my family and friends remember as my own are actually Tita Nising’s, and so are those of Sylvia’s or Ninit’s or younger cousins’ or my own daughter’s. Indeed, I realize—and do so more now, at Christmastime, than at any other time—that everything I cook well I learned from Tita Nising.
While everything at our Christmas table was cooked by Mom, my own contribution, although a mere pie, got its own rich praise.
Tita Nising could never have imagined how far her lessons would carry in my case—how baking my pies, her pies, would tide me over hard times. Now that times are easier and I’m older and living a simplified life with my husband in a condominium so modest it can’t even take a proper oven, I’m done baking.
My husband, though, hasn’t yet given up hope that one day my pies would reappear at our table. Whenever I order one from a relative to console him, after lapping it up, he tries to coax me into baking again—“Still nothing like yours.”
On the other hand, my brother Danny, another fan, dreams of my rum cake and won’t settle for any other. This season, he asked if I could bake even just one—for him.