Our grandmother grew up in the Philippines before marrying and moving to the United States with our mother. She always told us stories about the mango trees outside her bedroom window and the big family dinners that consisted of her parents and 13 siblings. The most cherished dish was pancit and lumpia (Filipino versions of rice noodles and spring rolls). Without fail, she would make this dish for every church pot luck, school event, or friendly gathering. Others would try it and always mention how lucky we were to have such a good cook for a “mother,” not knowing that the food was always warmer than the affection we received.
Our grandmother felt it best not to tell us about our mother for years, nor clarify that she was in fact our grandmother. It wasn’t until we were pre-teens that we overheard a conversation she was having with a friend. Obviously we were upset. So we approached her and inquired about the whereabouts of our mother. To make matters worse, she lied—again. “Your mother is dead,” she explained, “and she was incapable of taking care of you girls, so I chose to be your mother.”
We found some comfort in this partial truth, but we began to wonder more about where we came from. Rather than settle our concerns, our grandmother sought solace in a wine bottle, making her violent at the thought of our mother. It was clear that they had an estranged relationship, but the question remained as to how our grandmother became our guardian. Our mother was very much alive, and we could never meet. The more we knew, the harder it was to forgive the lying and secrecy, and our meals together became few and far between. As we shared our first attempt at making pancit and lumpia, we vowed to always take care of one another.
At the ages of 12 and 13, we ended up in the foster care system. We were fortunate enough to be placed with childhood friends and their grandparents, who later became our adoptive parents. Our foster family owns a produce and seafood market in the town where we grew up. Having fresh fruits and vegetables for every meal was something we did not take for granted. For special occasions, our mother often made a dish called Party Chicken—that is, until she asked us to make a dish from our childhood. One bite of the pancit and lumpia, and everyone was hooked. Whenever we meet for family dinners now, there is a toss-up between the two dishes.
(Aleya and Malaya)
We learned that the absence of a mother can be as powerful as having one. It taught us about who we did not want to become. As the mother and aunt to a beautiful growing girl, we continue to relay the importance of breaking the mold. When we teach her how to make pancit and lumpia, we hope that our stories will inspire her.
Bri Howington (@theellaxosiobhan) works at a law firm in Washington, D.C. Aleya Howington (@aleya_ann) is an agent for Joe Lamb Realty in Outer Banks, N.C., and mother of Malaya.
Pancit and Lumpia
1 lb. chicken thighs
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb. ground beef
onion powder to taste
garlic salt to taste
2 c. combined chopped celery, carrots, and onions
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 packages spring roll wrappers
8 oz. package rice noodles
8 oz. package pancit noodles
1 chicken bouillon cube
canola or vegetable oil
Bring 2 quarts of water to boil with salt and pepper, lower heat, and cook chicken about 10 - 15 minutes (it will not be fully cooked).
Chop and set aside chicken in refrigerator, reserving broth.
Season ground beef with onion powder and garlic salt.
Add half of the vegetable mixture and half of the minced garlic.
Fill each spring roll wrapper with about 1 1/2 T. meat mixture, and roll up, tucking in sides.
Heat reserved broth and bouillon cube in a wok.
Cook noodles and chopped chicken until noodles are tender and chicken is cooked through.
Add remaining vegetables and garlic, and place on simmer.
Heat a large frying pan with 1/2 to 1 inch oil, and fry the lumpia until golden brown.
Place on a plate with paper towels to drain.
Serve everything over white rice.
Serves 4 – 6.