There are only three dishes that my mom has mastered in her 60 years, and one of them is her own version of pork and beans.
I say this now, not with disappointment. Prior to an early retirement prompted by her dimming vision, my mom had been a schoolteacher and spent eight hours teaching grade school and tutored Chinese scions after work, so she rarely had time to cook. Lucky for her, she had a patient husband who didn’t mind doing the cooking.
Because a meal cooked by my mom was a rare treat, we always looked forward to the special occasions when she would whip up her special dishes: chopsuey, which she perfected during our years in Baguio City; and pork and beans and mongo, two one-pot meals she prepared with the patience of Job, as they required all-morning cooking over charcoal.
Sundays were Mom’s turn in the kitchen. I remember her getting up at 6 a.m., and my dad would drive her to the nearest market to get fresh produce and meat for a special Sunday lunch.
Mom’s secret ingredient in her pork and beans was pata or pork leg. I would wake up salivating to the aroma of pork leg simmering over charcoal. Mom wasn’t one to rush her specialty, which made it all the more delicious.
We’d leave for church and come home hurriedly, looking forward to Sunday’s piece de resistance: a pot of cooked pork and beans, waiting to be seasoned with salt and tomato sauce. The meat–simmering over charcoal for four hours–was soft, cooked just right, its fiber flaking off, its fatty part chewy. If that wasn’t heaven on earth, I don’t know what is.
House guests who have been treated to Mom’s pork and beans leave with a lot more respect for this one-pot wonder, their prior acquaintance of which was limited to the canned Hunt’s kind. (Even today, you can never make me eat a can of pork and beans, having grown up with my mom’s homecooked version.)
One American missionary we invited over for dinner once said my mom’s pork and beans tasted the same way his grandmother’s version did. He had been away from home for quite too long and was missing his favorite Western-style pork and beans.
In college, when I lived away from home for the first time, it was Mom’s pork and beans that I missed the most. During the rare times that I came home, wherever my nomadic family happened to be, Mom never failed to prepare her pork and beans. I’ve tasted my maternal aunt’s version of the pork and beans, but always, what remains my biggest favorite is my mom’s, maybe because hers is cooked with a lot of love and patience for a child who, though grown up, will forever be her baby at heart.