What I love about cookbooks is that they make me excited to do something. They inspire me to action. They show me delicious, beautiful things — things that I might not even know I want until I see them and realize that I’m craving them. And cookbooks don’t just dangle the beautiful things in front of me; they show me how to make them myself. A well-written recipe gives me a road map for a journey that I never thought I’d go on, a journey I sometimes don’t even realize I’m on until I’m in the middle of following a recipe’s instructions.
As a poet, I struggle constantly with these questions: What can poetry do in the face of so much violence and fear? What can a poem do? What do I want my poems to do? I don’t have an answer for these questions, and maybe I never will. I never imagined, though, that a book of poems would inspire me to cook.
Sarah Gambito’s latest collection, Loves You, combines poetry with cookbook. It’s a book that’s meant to be used, not simply read and set back on the shelf. It’s a poetry collection that’s organized like a cookbook; it’s divided into 5 flavors, like a cookbook might be: “Umami,” “Sour,” “Salt,” “Bitter,” and “Sweet.” Like so many cookbooks, the first piece in Loves You is called, “On How to Use this Book.” In cookbooks, this is the part where the author tells you all their tips, tricks, preferred ingredients and kitchen tools. In Loves You, it’s a poem that begins with the line, “You deserve your beautiful life” and morphs into a recipe for adobo, in which the first step is, “Invite at least 15 people.”
One of my earliest food memories takes place at a Filipino potluck. I was maybe 3 or 4 years old, and I was sitting on the floor in someone’s living room along with my mom and all her Filipina friends. We lived in a tiny town in rural Nevada called Lovelock, which had somehow managed to attract this group of Filipina nurses and my mother. Everyone balanced heaping plates of food on their laps, ate with their hands, talked loudly and laughed even louder.
When I read the first poem of Loves You, “On How to Use this Book,” I thought of this party, and the party where I met my childhood best friend, and the one my mother threw for my 16th birthday, and the one my mother’s friends threw for her birthday when she had just been diagnosed with incurable cancer, and the one my mother threw a year ago for my hometown wedding reception. Each one filled to the brim with so many people and so much food.
I have lived in the Midwest for 10 years, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Filipinos I have met. Before I moved here for grad school, I didn’t realize how lonely it would be to never hear Tagalog or Ilocano or even a Filipino accent. I didn’t realize how lonely it would be to crave the sourness of sinigang, the tangy savor of adobo, or the almost-too-much sweetness of bibingka and not be able to find it anywhere. I’ve realized that when I crave those flavors, what I’m really missing is home.
When I can’t buy these beloved dishes, my next best option is to make them myself.
Bibingka is a sweet rice cake made with coconut milk and sugar. It’s usually wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over hot coals. The last time I tasted it was 13 years ago in the mountains of Abra in northern Luzon in the Philippines. Bibingka has been impossible for me to find in the United States, whether I’m in the Midwest or the west coast. The closest I’ve come is a bibingka boxed mix, which still waits for me at the back of my pantry, daring me to try something that seems both impossible and ill-advised. When I saw Gambito’s recipe for bibingka in Loves You, I gasped out loud at its possibility. The ingredients are simple: coconut milk, coconut cream, glutinous sweet rice (which I had to travel to five different stores to find), salt and brown sugar. No hot coals or banana leaves required.
“Bibingkang Malakit” is a recipe-poem. The piece instructs the reader to boil coconut milk, add the glutinous sweet rice and salt, and then stir the mixture continuously for about 20 minutes. The penultimate line reads, “You’re going to have a very certain regard for the people that you make this for as the rice gets very heavy as it cooks and you cannot stop stirring.”
About halfway through the stirring, I began to sweat and my hand started to cramp. I asked my husband to take over the stirring while I took off my sweatshirt and massaged the cramp out of my hand. When I returned to the stove, I recalled Gambito’s line about a “very certain regard,” and I asked myself: who do I have a very certain regard for? Who am I making bibingka for?
The answer was me. Me, with my memories and my longing for sweetness.
Loves You is full of voices. They are the voices of Filipino immigrants, domestic workers and young first-generation Filipino American girls and women. They are also the voices of white Americans who employ or are raised by domestic workers, have aggressive Asian fetishes and love Chinese food.
The poem “Redeemer” weaves together the voices of the colonizers and the colonized into a tapestry that shapes the silhouette of what it feels like to be a young Filipino American woman, being infantilized while also being objectified and sexualized at any age. Other poems take on the personas of white women of privilege. The voice of “I Like Chinese Food” flattens the nuances of Asian food, asking if “Filipinos eat dogs” and lamenting the “too many spices” of Indian food. Centos, poems that weave together quotations from other works or voices, are sprinkled throughout the collection. The cento that closes the “Umami” section stitches together voices of women who give orders to a Filipina nanny, regulating her into invisibility and silence.
In contrast, the voices in poems like “We, Pacquiao” resist the flattening and silencing thrust upon them by white America by claiming the name and voice of arguably one of the most recognizable Filipinos in the world, the boxer Manny Pacquiao. “We, Pacquiao” begins, “We, Pacquiao, wear rubber masks and clean bathrooms. We cook Salisbury steaks and wipe boogers off the ledges of gyms” and eventually transforms into something resembling a Biblical incantation: “He was one of our flock and we were our shepherd.” The “we” asserts their presence, their value, their power, their self-sufficiency. The “we” becomes ubiquitous and essential, creating and sustaining their own salvation.
I can’t talk about Loves You without talking about transformation, how the poems become incantations, recipes, salves. “Love Song” begins as a spell of protection for someone who is already gone: “A young boy was shot to death so I wrote a poem and arranged it like salt around his vanished body. I said you can’t go past here.” “Thunderdome” transforms the economic necessity and heartbreak of domestic work into a dream of home framed by the luxurious sweetness and lightness of iced tea. The speaker of “When I Hated My Body” wants poems to “breathe prettily, / to be ecstatic and extroverted citizens.” These poems strive to be nourishment and protection and action; they strive to give comfort and they strive to be alive.
These poems strive to be nourishment and protection and action; they strive to give comfort and they strive to be alive.
Surprisingly, I haven’t made the recipe for adobo yet. I wanted to try my hand at Gambito’s “Salmon Sinigang," which comes with the note, “My sister’s favorite.” Sinigang is another dish that I’ve found difficult to make here in the Midwest because so many of the recipes I’ve found call for tamarind paste and kalamansi, which are both difficult to find in southern Indiana. When I tried to explain to someone recently what sinigang was made of and what it tasted like, I realized that it’s a magic dish. Gambito’s sinigang is made from red onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, salmon and green beans simmered in a sauce made from white wine, limes, fish sauce and miso. As I tried (and failed) to describe the flavor of the dish, all I could say was that it is sour and pungent and so delightful.
As I made the sinigang and the smell of fish sauce filled every crevice of my house, I was instantly transported to memories of the Philippines, eating with family members I haven’t seen in decades, and memories of coming home from school to the smell of fish sauce filling every space in the house.
The other great thing about a cookbook is that you spend time with it in a way that feels incredibly intimate. You read through the book multiple times. You flip through and mark the recipes you want to try. You take notes on the author’s tips and tricks. The cookbook either builds your trust or your skepticism based on how well the recipes are written. When you cook, you’re going through the motions that the author has done countless times to make sure the recipe will turn out well for you.
Loves You is a collection that shows you how it wants to make you feel. Each recipe conjures a loved one or a precious memory for the speaker, and that, in turn, helps you conjure your own loved ones and your own precious memories. You bring your loved ones and your memories with you when you venture into the poems, creating a world on the page that is communal. It is the author’s world and it is your world, too. Together, we create something that feels like home. Which, these days, feels like a radical act of resistance in a world that marginalizes Black and brown and immigrant communities, that makes us feel uncared for and unwelcome in this “dread forest / that is not our forest. / And yet, we meet there.”
On How to Use this Book
You deserve your beautiful life.
Its expectant icicles, the dread forest
that is not our forest.
And yet, we meet there.
The streams streaming through us.
The leaves leaving through us.
Once I was black-haired
and I sat in my country's lap.
I was so sure she was asking me
what I wanted.
Invite at least 15 people. It's okay if your apartment is small. Put 7 lb of
cut up chicken in the biggest pot you own with 2 parts soy sauce 2 parts
vinegar and 1 part water. Make sure to completely cover the chicken.
Throw in a handful of black peppercorns, lots of bay leaves and two
fistfuls of garlic cloves. Bring to a rolling boil and simmer until chicken is
almost falling off the bone (around 45 minutes to 1 hour). Place chicken
on a baking sheet and broil for 10 minutes until the skin is crispy and
slightly charred. Boil remaining liquid for 15-20 minutes to reduce and
add 1 can coconut milk to make a sauce. Plate chicken and pour sauce
over. Serve with so much white rice.
From Loves You, by Sarah Gambito, © 2019. Reprinted by arrangement with Persea Books, New York, NY.”