top of page

Swing Shift

(by Maria Fe Picar)

I never knew why my mother left the Philippines for the United States; it was never mentioned or discussed. All I know is, after World War II, she was studying to be a nurse when she decided to come to America with her sisters. She settled in Santa Barbara, California, where she worked as a nanny for a wealthy family. She was often asked to cook for them. She was from a region in the Philippines called Pangasinan, close to Manila on the big island of Luzon, where the women were rumored to be great cooks. A few of her specialties were the traditional egg rolls called lumpia, a Filipino-type of chow mein called pancit, and adobo, a Spanish-influenced meat or chicken dish.

She met and married my dad a while after arriving, and they moved to San Francisco. She never finished her degree in Registered Nursing, so she was classified as a Licensed Vocational Nurse. She was afraid to apply for her California nursing license because she said it was much tougher in the States; she thought she would surely fail without further studies, and she didn’t have the time or the money.

When my sister and I were born, in 1956 and 1958, we were a handful to a mother in her early forties and a father in his early fifties. I was always climbing on furniture and jumping off ledges, so my mom decided to put me into dance and gymnastics where I could burn off energy and tire myself out. I discovered that I loved to perform, and later pursued a degree in dance from San Francisco State University because of those early lessons.

Mom worked the swing shift, from 3 to 11 p.m., at St. Luke’s Hospital. She would take the bus home, and my dad would pick her up at the bus stop with my sister and me asleep in the car. If she hadn’t prepared a meal for us, my dad would open up a can of salmon and pour it over rice with tomatoes and onions. But when she was home at regular mealtimes, she still cooked for everyone. I thought something called “chocolate meat” was the best until I found out that it was made of pig’s blood and intestines, I never ate that again. She had tons of recipes but never passed them on to me, although I wanted her to. It would take me years to find out why.

As a teenager, I was always at odds with my mom. I don’t think she ever really understood what it was like to grow up as a Filipino-American in California. I didn’t look like everyone else, some people thought I was Chinese, and some didn’t even know what a Filipino was. Mom never taught us her language, and she had a thick accent that was sometimes difficult to understand: another disconnect in culture. Food was one of the few things that brought us together, when we actually sat down as a family over a homemade meal.

(Mom and me with her cake, in the center)

Our relatives always asked Mom to make their birthday cakes—usually a lemon cake with vanilla icing. I was determined to learn how to bake like her and started experimenting with a recipe for plain vanilla cookies from one of her cookbooks, served at the weekly poker game that my dad had with my uncles. To my surprise, they came out really good; the men ate the whole three dozen.

When I started dating my boyfriend, who would become my husband, I learned to cook more dishes from his mother. My mom was kind of upset that I was making my mother-in-law’s recipe for lumpia, which was better than hers (she didn’t use bean sprouts, which would make them soggy). I think the two of them were secretly in competition with each other, but Mom finally admitted that my mother-in-law made something better than she did. My mom was a proud woman, so this admission didn’t come easy.

When my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, not being able to cook for herself or for others was the hardest thing for her to accept. Giving up making Thanksgiving dinner was especially hard because it was an American tradition that made her proud. She almost set the house on fire once trying to cook something on a small burner that was on the top of our washing machine in the basement. It must have been humiliating for her, and after that, I told her that I would cook for her. But it felt like an odd role reversal.

I kept my mother’s handwritten recipe book after she died, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at it until years later, and I was surprised to see that she never really wrote down instructions. It dawned on me that her recipes were mostly in her head. It was all done by taste and memory. I was saddened that I couldn’t copy some of her most delicious dishes like carioca (coconut balls rolled in brown sugar) or bibingka (rice cake with brown sugar).

But I do think I inherited some of my mom’s “cooking spirit.” Perhaps by osmosis, she instilled in me the love of cooking that has always brought our family together and continues to do so. I feel that she is watching over my stove and saying “masarap” in Tagalog. It means “That’s good.”


Maria Fe Picar is an actress, choreographer, director, producer, and writer who lives in the Portland Metro area of Oregon. She is the co-founder of the film production company, Asian Mainstream Productions.

Tofu Chicken

4 T. canola oil, divided

2 dozen chicken wings

1-in. knob of ginger, grated

1/2 c. soy sauce

1/2 c. chicken broth

6 T. dry sherry or white wine

6 T. brown sugar

4 T. cornstarch dissolved in 1/2 c. cold water

1/2 c. green onions, chopped

1 lb. extra firm tofu, cut into cubes

In a wok or large frying pan, heat 2 T. oil and brown chicken wings but do not cook completely.

Drain on paper towels and set aside.

In the same work or pan, heat about 2 T. oil.

Add ginger and sauté for a few minutes.

Return chicken to the pan, and stir to coat.

Combine soy sauce, chicken broth, sherry or white wine, and brown sugar.

Pour down the side of the pan, and mix with chicken.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes.

Remove the cover and add cornstarch mixture, stirring as it thickens.

Turn heat up to medium.

Add green onions and tofu.


bottom of page