Shift Four– L’espoir est un plat bien trop vite consommé, À sauter les repas, je suis habitué (Hope is a dish too soon finished, I am accustomed to skipping meals)
“What? But like, what do you mean by that?”
Sam tosses me a quizzical expression- cocked brow, unrefined grimace, and eyes searching for answers. I chuckle under my breath, reaching for my fifth slice of pizza. The AC thunders in the background, a slight reminder of the waning days of summer, although the air is still thick and muggy. I train my sight back on the TV screen, watching a cartoon rat shove a strawberry into its mouth.
“Well, it’s like, stories only exist if something upsets the status quo.”
“Yeah.” Sam leans back, stretching his arms above his head. I almost have to physically restrain myself from poking his sides.
“In Ratatouille, Remy’s, uhm, status quo is his normal rat lifestyle and that’s the paradigm for, like, everyone. Just rats being rats.”
I meet his perplexed squint. “So, when the food critic dude tastes…food, cooked by a rat, his belief set is fundamentally changed. It’s like, wow, maybe anyone can cook! How truly bemusing! How novel!”
“Why are you using a British accent?”
“It’s a paradigm shift!” I grab his shoulders, shaking him vigorously. “One belief set substituted by another! Because of a rat!” Blank eyes peer back at me.
“What are you getting at…”
I sink back into the couch, collapsing with a huff. “I mean, isn’t that kind of cool!? Someone’s set of beliefs can be altered by the tiniest thing, like a rat! It’s almost like a butterfly effect, but better because it’s a rat.”
“How’s that better?”
“It just is!”
“I think you’re reading too much into it.”
“It’s art! I can interpret it however I want to.”
Sam rises, sighing with feigned annoyance. “Besides, couldn’t you apply that to any movie? Or, like, any story? Ever? Why Ratatouille?”
“Because it’s my favorite. And I can’t believe this is the first time you’re watching it,” I glance over my shoulder, finding him preoccupied with searching for a snack. “And you’re missing it!”
He groans. “I had enough of you watching it back home. I heard that stupid little French song enough for it to make my ears bleed. Why do you like it so much, anyway?”
I clutch a cushion to my chest. “It just means a lot. I just like food.”
“So that paradigm thing isn’t the reason?” He plops back down, Coca-Cola in hand.
“No!” I snort with fake haughtiness. “That’s a revelation I just had because of this cinematic masterpiece’s insane rewatchability. In fact, many of my personal philosophies fully rest upon Ratatouille.” Sam rolls his eyes. I laugh.
My answer is immediate. “Food’s always better when it’s shared. You see? Remy’s a chef, chef’s make other people food and therefore share their food with other people. He cooks because he loves to, and he wants to share that with other people- but when his rat people don’t accept him he’s, uh, he runs to share it with people who will accept him. You know?”
Sam cracks open his drink. “Whatever you say, philosophy major.”
I throw the cushion at him. He just barely dodges it. “No jabs at me doing culinary school while you’re here.” It’s his turn to laugh.
“What kind of culinary student stoops to pizza?”
“I’m a culinary student, not a pretentious jerk,” I shoot back. “Unlike some people.”
“Was Ratatouille what inspired you to do it?”
“At least I’m not the family disappointment anymore.”
“Oh my god!” I slap my brother- enough force for it to phase him, but not actually hurt. He returns the favor by pushing me off of the couch.
“Jesus! I’m just kidding,” he grumbles, cracking his neck. “It’s cool that you’re doing what you want or whatever.”
“Wow…are you actually being sincere for once?”
He sneers. “Shut up!”
I chuckle through pizza bites, leaving a stringy mess of cheese behind. It’s oily, so disgustingly rich, but nevertheless delicious. Well, delicious in the fact that I could stay in and rest just for a second and revel in my own laziness. When people cook, they stamp their identity inside their dishes. It’s what I love about food. But this pizza is nobody. it has the identity of a thousand other carbon copies. It’s impersonal… but, oddly enough, that’s what makes it comforting.
I gag slightly in my absentminded stupor and reach for my water. I pound on my chest, forcing myself to cough up the chunk of pizza that got caught in my throat. Sam starts cackling, snorting out his coke, and I start laughing, so much so that I need to gasp for air and my sides hurt afterwards. And all at once it’s as if time stops. There’s a lingering thought that I’ll miss this moment once it’s gone. Really, that sentiment is kind of cheesy; far too cliched for my tastes. But I guess there’s a reason why certain things are said so often, I muse to myself. People like romanticizing things. Even other people. Sometimes I think that it’s our ability to do that that keeps us alive.
“You know what, I’ll cook you something.”
Sam tilts his head. “M’kay?”
I rise, pausing the movie. “Just feeling like it. This movie always makes me want to cook.”
“…Are you gonna poison me?”
I flick on the stove, reminiscing. Food is always better when it’s shared. I decide on a soup. It’s simple enough, and more importantly, delicious enough. I’ve been meaning to try out this new recipe anyways. I settle into a comfortable rhythm, everything done by rote. The rice cooker beeps. I plate the soup and usher Sam over to my rickety table.
He sniffs. “Sinigang?” I nod.
Sam sips at the broth, his eyes widening ever so slightly. I give him a smug grin.
“Mom didn’t make this that much,” he says between slurps, a nasty habit he’s had ever since we were kids.
“Close your mouth dude. Yeah, it’s my own recipe.” I make my way over to the couch, resuming Ratatouille. “Mom’s wasn’t that good.”
Sam laughs and I hear more ungodly slurps. “Yours is good though.”
“Thanks. Can you maybe not…eat so loudly?”
He just laughs again. I focus all my attention on Ratatouille, drowning out everything else.
The soft hum of Le Festin lulls me to sleep, and by the time I wake, my TV screen has gone dark and the glow of summer has faded.
Shift Two– Affaibli par la faim, je suis malheureux (Weakened by hunger, I am unhappy)
“Nanay, what are you making? It smells good.” I let my backpack fall to the floor, removing my shoes.
“Oh, you’re home.”
My mother is quiet at all moments of the day. She rises with silence and sleeps with it. Her footsteps are softer than snow and her voice is always level and calm. She has lived a life of hardship- pain and poverty, a refugee of suffering. And yet, she is always loud when she cooks. When she cooks, the kitchen sings with her. I have never been able to connect with her, to penetrate that wall she puts up when lost in the haze of memory, beyond our meals together. They are all I have left of that homeland she loves so dearly.
I imagine it is bittersweet. How can it not be? The familiar smell of peanuts, shrimp paste, and garlic flood my senses. I know what dinner is immediately, and my mouth waters on cue.
She pauses. “Call your brother,” she muses, just as our rice cooker beeps.
She gives me a sip of her tea. It burns on the way down, it always does, and yet there’s a familiarity to it.
“You don’t want your own?” I never do.
I begin setting the table, the taste of her tea still burning a hole in my mouth.
Sometimes I wish she could leave behind those memories. Start anew with the world I was born into. But we are from two separate lifetimes and neither of us can meet the other halfway. I pick at my food. Kare-kare, a usual favorite. I love how it sits in my stomach so it feels as though the warmth is with me all day long. I glance up at the woman sitting across from me. I suppose there is one instance in which she is able to look at me with clear eyes, but it is always gone in the moment I finish the last grain of rice, slipping through the cracks of my fingers like water. I blink and the divide appears again.
For the first time, I am conscious of a pattern. Our family rhythms consist of gaping holes.
“How was school?You’re doing well in your classes”
“Good. I learned something interesting, actually.”
Steam rises from her cup. I watch the swirling patterns, taking a sharp breath. There’s a slight tremble in my voice. “Yeah, AP Psychology…it’s cool.”
“Well are you gonna tell us?” Sam gripes, chewing while he speaks. I grimace, glaring daggers into his skull.
“Ugh. Well now I don’t want to.”
My mother chuckles. “Oh, come on.”
I sigh, crossing my arms. “Well, we started talking about the basic things, and I remember we talked about these things called paradigms. They’re like a set of basic assumptions that anyone has, but it’s not just that. It’s in science and stuff, too. Basically, it’s what’s the norm, or the status quo. And it can be interrupted, and when that happens it’s called a-”
Sam lets out a loud, mocking snore and glares at me over his bowl. “Boooooring.”
My mother hushes him, taking her own bowl to the sink. As she washes away the residue, I feel her moving further away, retreating into her thoughts.
“Hm. There’s more in the pot if you want. I’m going to bed early tonight.”
She left her tea at the table. It had gone cold, and that evening, I ignored the comfort her meals usually provide me with. That night, all I could think about is the bitterness of the peanut sauce and how it didn’t fade even after I brushed my teeth. All I could feel was the same burning in my throat, tasted countless times, from her tea, how it trickled down forever and ever; a torch passed from one generation to the next.
Shift One– Les rêves des amoureux sont comme le bon vin; Ils donnent de la joie ou bien du chagrin (The dreams of lovers are like good wine; They give joy or even sorrow)
“Anak, it’s late.”
“I’m hungry.” She turns towards me, shutting off the sink. I fiddle with the hem of my nightgown.
“You didn’t eat?” I shake my head as she sighs, flitting about the kitchen. “Okay. Give me a moment.”
I find myself running to sit at the table, my feet barely brushing the ground as they swing back and forth with excitement.
“Can you make ratatouille?” She stifles a laugh.
“I don’t know how to.”
I pout, folding my arms over my chest. “I want ratatouille.”
She dumps vegetable oil into her pan with a flourish; the kitchen suddenly alive with a vibrant crackling.
“You will eat what I have.” She lays three pieces of spam across the pan, leaving it to sizzle on the stove. Her gentle hands search for a plate from the cupboard. Once found, she heaps a pile of reheated rice onto it, then scours the fridge for eggs. I close my eyes for a second, trying to pick apart the swirling scents that fill my nose. It’s a simple dish, but it’s the smell of home. It is everything to me. I remember
My stomach growls. My mother suppresses a chuckle.
“Here.” She sets the fruits of her labor before me and I know I am loved. Spam, leftover rice, and a sunny-side up egg that’s brown around the edges. Just the way I like it. She kisses my forehead, then leaves to retreat into her room.
“Clean up after yourself when you’re done.”
And though she didn’t say it out loud, I felt loved. I peer down at my dish, internally amused and satisfied at the situation. Usually at this house, my mother has hidden beneath the covers of her bed, not quite asleep, not quite awake, wanting nothing more than to be left alone. To find her in a state of relative normalcy elicits the strangest joy in my heart. Scenes from Ratatouille float in the back of my mind. It certainly felt as though this fleeting, midnight moment between me and a plate of spam had stepped from a movie. Mostly because it felt so special, like something worthy of cinematography and orchestral scoring.
Perhaps it didn’t look that way, but movies never look exactly like life. The portrayals of the bustle of a kitchen, wonder at a first taste, and joys of cooking in a silly little Pixar movie about a rat weren’t realistic- they looked the way life felt.
I dive into my food, savoring each bite. I can never quite get my cooking to taste the way my mother’s does. I wonder if it’s just from a lack of experience. I can’t even reach the stove without a stool. A part of me finds comfort in the hope that one day, I will be able to make people feel this deeply. In the dim light of our kitchen, in the dead of night, I vow that I will follow in my mother’s footsteps. Every dish she makes will be echoed to perfection. I cannot promise myself anything less.
Shift Three– Un voleur solitaire est triste à nourrir, À un jeu si amer, je n’peux réussir, Car rien n’est gratuit dans la vie (A thief alone and hungry is sad enough to die, as for us, I am bitter, I want to succeed, because nothing in life is free)
“I know you’ve probably heard this a million times this year,” my college counselor murmurs, adjusting her glasses, refusing to tear her eyes from her computer screen. “But you have to start thinking about your future, yada yada yada.” She clears her throat, hands poised and ready to type the entirety of my future plans into less than three concise sentences. “So, what are your career plans?”
“Um. What if I don’t really know?”
She snaps her head towards me, eyes softening. “It’s fine if you don’t know yet. That’s what I’m here for.”
I hesitate for a second, searching for the right words to say. “I’ve never really known what I’ve wanted to do. Everyone else seems to have everything figured out but I’ve never really been sure.”
“Well, you have good grades and some strong extracurriculars. The thing is,” she muses, tapping a manicured finger against her chin. “I don’t really see many personal interests.”
“What are your hobbies? What are the things you most enjoy doing?”
I lean back in my chair, searching my mind for a solid idea. “I…like cooking?”
She raises her eyebrows. “Cooking?”
“Yes. It’s…a hobby I guess.”
My counselor purses her lips together. “Okay.”
“Well, no. I guess it’s not a hobby,” I quickly add, averting my eyes. “It’s a pretty big part of my life, actually.”
“Okay! Well, it’s something. Have you considered culinary school?”
I give her a skeptical glance. “I don’t really know…it’s not like I have professional experience or anything, and I’m not that good.”
“Nonsense. Schools exist for you to learn,” She smiles. “Besides, wouldn’t you like to make money doing something you love?”
That catches me off guard. “I guess. Yeah.”
“Okay, I’ll send you a list of potential schools.”
My mind is a jumbled mess as I walk home, a million things racing through it at once. Culinary school. Being a chef. Or a cook. Wait what’s the difference? Do I even like that idea?! How expensive would it be? How would mom react? My footsteps falter at that last thought, and I race through the various situations where I end up telling her about it. That is, if I’m even able to sit down and have a normal chat with her. All of the potential conversations I imagine come down to one outcome: sheer and utter disappointment on her front. What would the last four years be four if I didn’t get into some academic college in a metropolitan city far, far away from here? I decided against my better judgement not to tell her, though it wasn’t as if keeping a secret from her would be difficult. I wouldn’t even mention that I was simply considering it. Well, to be fair it did sound pretty appealing. I groan, clutching my head.
“Why is this so hard?!” I sigh, rubbing the bridge of my nose. In an attempt to ease myself, I bring the thought of dinner to the forefront of my mind. My mother’s cooking was getting rarer and rarer with each passing day, so I had been cooking the majority of our meals. It started as an obligation- Mom would slip into her bouts of sadness, retire to her bedroom early, and embrace silence fully and absolutely. But eventually, the space she once filled became my own, like an old pair of shoes, broken in but a size too big. I took comfort in every instance I spent in that kitchen, among our spice rack and busted-up appliances. For a moment, I could escape everything and retreat into solitude. I could drown out the world with the clatter of pots and pans and the scent of basil or garlic. Still, there was always this nagging feeling in the back of my mind as I’d taste-test an evening’s meal: the thought I could never replicate the flavors of my bygone childhood. After all, my mother had left behind some pretty big shoes to fill.
I run over a list of recipes in my head. Arroz caldo, bistek, palabok, pancit…all things my mother taught me indirectly. I can almost hear Sam’s complaints- “We literally had this last week. Can’t you make something else?” There’s a tinge of melancholy deep in the pit of my stomach. I am clinging so tightly to these flavors of yesterday, when dinner was comforting and life was simple. I can’t bear imagining life if I did not cook Filipino food. It would feel as though I had lost part of myself.
“Sorry, Sam,” I mutter, quickening my pace as the sky darkens.
Shift Five- Jamais on ne me dira que la course aux étoiles, ça n’est pas pour moi; Laissez-moi vous émerveiller et prendre mon envol (Never will they tell me that I cannot shoot for the stars; Let me fill you with wonder, let me take flight.)
“How does it feel?”
I shrug. “Cathartic. Weird. Super underwhelming.”
“Huh.” Sam slows down as a traffic light fades from yellow to red. The colors reflect dully off of the wet concrete. Even though it’s late, the streets of my hometown are filled with cars, each a picture into someone else’s life. Oddly enough, the deluge of rain seems wistful, but I’m not fully convinced it isn’t the romantic in me creating unnecessary heartache and sentimentality.
“Well, congrats I guess,” Sam declares nonchalantly.
“Why are you saying it like it’s an obligation?”
“It kind of is?”
I huff. “You could stand to be a little more excited about it.”
Sam rolls his eyes. The light turns green. “Hey, I’m super proud of you for graduating culinary school, what a feat,” his voice takes on a mocking tone. “It’s not like anyone in the world has ever done that! Wow. You’re so amazing. Go you!”
I smirk. “Thank you.”
“Whatever floats your boat.”
We settle into a comfortable silence. I gaze out the window, watching the world go by. Sam clears his throat.
“Mom’ll be happy to see you.”
I can’t stop myself from snorting. “Really?”
“Sure. I mean, you’re employed. That’s all she’s ever really wanted.”
I lean against the car window. “I guess so.”
Sam pauses. “You know, you’re a really good cook.”
“Sous-chef,” I correct. “And thanks. As good as mom?”
“No.” His answer is immediate. “Not like mom.”
I glance at him. He keeps his eyes on the road.
“ When we were little your food always tasted like… imitations of what she made. It got old real fast.” He yawns. “Sure it was good but it wasn’t mom good.”
I shrink into myself. “Thanks,” I say flatly.
“You remember when I first visited you? And you made sinigang?” Sam lets out a deep, long sigh. “I still think of that sinigang. Best damn thing I’ve ever eaten. It was like you found yourself or something.” He lets out a raucous bark of a laugh. “That’s pretty cheesy though.”
I blink hard, trying to get rid of the tears crowding the periphery of my sight. “Yeah, that’s super cheesy.”
Sam makes no comment on how my voice cracks. Which is almost worse than him making fun of it. “You know, mom doesn’t cook at all these days,” he mutters softly. “Which is why…I’m glad you do.”
“You said it yourself though. It’s nothing like hers.”
“It’s better that way. You’re not mom.” The car speeds up slightly.
He’s right. I’m not mom. Suddenly, every hour I’ve spent laboring over a stove, every single paradigm shift I’ve ever experienced, every rewatch of Ratatouille floods into my head and fills my body with the strangest heartache. It feels as though my atoms have rearranged themselves a thousand times and I’m so tired of it; I’m so tired of this endlessly shifting landscape. I just want one thing to be the same, to stay the same forever.
I used to swear to myself it would be my mother’s cooking. Her recipes would be unshakeable and enduring. But, in a tiny beat-up car driving down the highway in a relentless storm, I realize that that constant has been gone long before I ever realized it.
I know that it’s okay. Change is what brings winter to spring. Change is what makes us better. But it hurts. The most bitter pill to swallow is the realization that you’ve wasted so much time on what could never be.
I am more than my culture. I am more than my mother. Still, I can love them just the same. I need to find what loving them means for myself…a process twenty-one years in the making and still going strong.
“Can we watch Ratatouille when we get home?”
– Billy Agustin
Cover Photo Source: https://www.techradar.com/news/ratatouille-is-still-the-best-pixar-movie-on-disney-plus-heres-why