UNHAPPY CHRISTMAS PAST
Up until Christmas 2002, before my “brilliant” uncle Brother Andrew [ Brother Andrew Benjamin Gonzalez, F.S.C. of De La Salle University / Macario Diosdado Arnedo Gonzalez, 29 February 1940 - 29 January 2006, youngest brother of my father Augusto Beda Arnedo Gonzalez ] sold off Lola Charing’s elegant old house and donated the entire proceeds to charity, we gathered there for the family’s main Christmas dinner on the evening of the 25th. Since Brother Andrew had to be with the Christian Brothers’ community at the De La Salle College along Taft avenue during Christmas Eve, Lola Charing moved the family gathering from the evening of the 24th to the 25th. And it became a family tradition after he was finally assigned back to the De La Salle College Manila in 1969 after years teaching in De La Salle-run universities and colleges in the USA and then De La Salle Bacolod, Negros Occidental. Thus, we grandchildren grew up observing the family’s main Christmas dinner on 25 December instead of the 24 December “Noche Buena” observed by everybody else. Until now in 2008, we are still disoriented when we celebrate our main Christmas dinner on the evening of 24 December like all normal Christians and Catholics.
Fearful of his [ imagined ] impending demise after my mother’s unexpected passing from cerebral aneurysm on 05 September 2002, Brother Andrew’s impulsive decision to sell off Lola Charing’s house was the worst thing that happened to the family, probably as tragic as when Lolo Augusto [ his father ] was assassinated at the PASUDECO Pampanga Sugar Development Company offices on 12 July 1939 [ along with Jose Leoncio de Leon, the richest man in Pampanga at that time, and Captain Julian Olivas ]. It was exactly like the nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki: like nuclear fission, it just led from bad to worse to worst to nil. Cataclysmic. It was like an Egyptian curse: Everything bad just engulfed every facet of our family life. There were emotional, physical, financial disasters all over the place. The wide swathe of destruction it caused in our family relations was akin to a world war and nothing was ever the same again. And it was NEVER about the money, it was all about principle and sentiment. In the first place, Lola Charing’s house was not supposed to be sold; she had wanted it to go down the generations as the family’s gathering place; she had left it to Brother Andrew for his stewardship to eventually pass on to the grandchildren. So let it be a cautionary tale…
Expectedly, all the anger, resentment, angst, and divisiveness in the family took its toll on Brother Andrew, the “genius” perpetrator of it all. Several members of the family — some of his favorites in fact — refused to see him permanently. De facto, he became “persona non grata” and nonexistent and it depressed him to no end. Very few members of the family came to his Sunday lunches at his new townhouse, if at all. He belatedly realized that he would not be forgiven in any way. In the form of severe diabetic complications, it all finally killed him on 29 January 2006. Not one member of the family was by his side at the ICU as he breathed his last that 5:00 p.m.. To the Filipino academe and to Manila society, his passing was a great loss. But to his immediate family, he was a failure, the “weakest link” who, with his impulsive and misinformed, badly-advised decisions concerning Gonzalez matters, caused the losses of so much of the family’s ancestral legacies.
The Christmases of 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 passed and the divided family members spent the holidays in their own quiet ways. Lola Charing’s house was gone, the Christmas dinner of 25 December was gone, even the family was gone. Everything happy, joyous, and wonderful in the family became a distant, irrelevant, and useless memory.
HAPPY CHRISTMAS REPAST
The Gonzalez-Arnedo Christmas table was a collection of family favorites from the Spanish era, American period, Commonwealth, postwar, and even modern times:
According to my brother Adolfo, the egg nog was from the Gonzalez table of the American period: my father Augusto Beda had recalled that my Lolo Bosto was the one who used to make it in his lifetime [ 1887 - 1939 ]. I mistakenly thought that the egg nog was only brought in by Brother Andrew after his studies at UC Berkeley in the early 1960s.
Brother Andrew introduced the big broiled lobsters with lemon butter sauce in 1970. There would also be broiled king prawns to supplement the big lobsters.
The classical “pastel de pichon” was from the Arnedo and the Gonzalez tables of the Spanish era. The baked turkey with traditional stuffing and giblet gravy was from the Gonzalez table of the American period; the Arnedo and the Gonzalez of the Spanish era instead had “capon” — big chickens of an imported variety — fried in large cauldrons “cauas.” There was also the “pato al caparas” from the Arnedo and the Gonzalez tables of the Spanish era. Sometimes, there was panfried French “foie gras,” courtesy of my eldest brother. The “galantina de pollo” was a feature of many Pampanga and Manila families’ Christmas tables but it was deemed everyday by the Arnedo and the Gonzalez; their versions were distinguished by blood cubes, lots of olives, and Spanish “chorizo.”
Sometimes, Tita Raquel Valdes Gonzalez-de Leon, one of Brother Andrew’s favorite first cousins, sent her fastidiously prepared “caldereta de cabrito” from the Gonzalez-Valdes table of the Spanish era.
Broiled tenderloin medallions with a demiglace sauce traced themselves to the “solomillo” of the Gonzalez table of the American period. Sometimes, there was the melt-in-the-mouth “lengua en salsa blanca” from the Arnedo and the Gonzalez tables of the Spanish era but Brother Andrew considered it ordinary for Christmas and only added it upon demand of the raving guests.
While Brother Andrew deemed it hopelessly pedestrian, young ”lechon” with grilled liver sauce and a “milagrosa” rice and pandan stuffing was always a feature of the Arnedo and the Gonzalez holiday tables in old Sulipan. Brother Andrew brought in the legs of Spanish “jamon Jabugo” and American Virginia “Smithfield” ham in the 1970s. The legs of Chinese “Hoc Shiu” ham and the “jamon de funda” slathered, indeed swimming, in distinctly spiced syrups were from the Arnedo and the Gonzalez tables of the Spanish era.
Occasionally, Tita Erlinda “Erly” Valdes Gonzalez-Rodriguez [ elder sister of Tita Raquel ], also one of Brother Andrew’s favorite first cousins, sent her exquisite ”canelones” [ "cannelloni" ] from the Gonzalez-Valdes table of the American period.
For the granddaughters Shoda, Minnie, Claudette, and Rocelle, there was no Christmas without the traditional fruit salad from the Arnedo and the Gonzalez tables of the American period. It was never sweet. For the last 30 years, the homemade mayonnaise that served as its base was made with slowly-beaten egg yolks and Greek virgin olive oil, but a recent look at the old recipe of Lola Charing from the 1920s revealed that it was actually made with American “Wesson” oil.
For the grandsons Gene, Eliboy, Toto, Ompong, and Pipo, there could be no Christmas without the cloyingly rich “tocino del cielo,” a traditional egg yolk and sugar only custard [ no milk! ] peculiar to the Arnedo family of old Sulipan, the original recipe of which came from the Spanish era [ 1870s ]. As they were not yet aware of the dangers of cholesterol, the boys consumed 6, 8, 10, even 12 of the confections at a time!
After 1989, my mother brought in several traditional Spanish desserts: “tarta Madrid,” “milhojas,” “crocombuche [ French "croquembouche" / cream puff tree ],” ”yemas,” “naranjas,” etc..
The dessert table also featured many confections from Spain and France, most notably from “Fauchon.”
Unlike many Filipino families, there were no “ensaimadas,” however expensive the interpretation, on the Gonzalez-Arnedo “Noche Buena” table even if the fastidiously made Gonzalez and Arnedo versions of the traditional bread were among the best in the country. It was so everyday for Brother Andrew, regarded as breakfast and “merienda” fare, and consequently unsuitable for the Christmas dinner.
During the last Christmas of 2007, I decided that I had had enough of sad Christmases… I informed the family — those who were still talking — that there would be a Christmas gathering at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve and that they were invited but I made it clear that I didn’t give a f*cking damn if they would attend or not. I reconstructed the family’s Christmas menu from memory, had the place cleaned up and down and left and right, the silver polished, the china and crystal washed, the linens pressed, blooming orchid plants, cut flowers, and fresh fruits purchased, and did everything else that I used to do at Lola Charing’s house back in those happy days. Surprisingly, all of the family — those who were still talking — did come eagerly, enjoyed themselves immensely, and it was all a great success. Of course, the unwanted members who had caused the terrible divisions could not come out of stubborn pride and it was just as well, for it was fully-deserved. We had all finally moved on…
This Christmas season of 2008, it would have been easy enough to have called any of the top caterers or to have reserved tables for Christmas Eve dinner at the Manila Peninsula or at the Makati Shangri-La hotels, but it wouldn’t have meant anything at all to us siblings. So we decided [ we siblings who are still talking ], putting all inconveniences aside [ and there were many! ],that we would still gather in our parents’ house, serve the Christmas food we always knew, serve it on the same silver, china, crystal, and linens, and invite our closest surviving aunts and uncles, and cousins to our little gathering.
My younger lawyer brother, a connoisseur with the most discriminating palate, took charge of the egg nog because he was the one who often saw its preparation by the majordomo Benito as he grew up in Lola Charing’s house under Brother Andrew’s watchful eyes. My brother never liked the taste of rhum, finding it “rough,” and instead poured bottles of Remy Martin cognac into the milk and egg mixture. The resulting exquisite egg nog was the best we ever had.
Expertise, fastidiousness, and a penchant for the freshest seafood, meats, vegetables, fruits, and other ingredients was brought by my lawyer brother’s Korean wife to the family table. It was from her that I learned that freshness and superior varieties were paramount concerns in food purchases and preparation. She was a stickler for high quality with a capital HQ.
My eldest brother, a famous authority on cuisine, presided over the preparation of every dish: tasting, adjusting, and correcting at every turn. It was because of his direction that the food took on the traditional, exquisite flavors of family memory.
Despite all the inconveniences, as well as the global financial crisis which was gradually affecting everything in our lives, it was nonetheless a wonderful “Noche Buena” Christmas celebration this 2008. Our family was TOGETHER AND HAPPY, and that was what mattered the most!!!
I WISH YOU ALL A MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!