The Power of Accountability

I am not what you might call a disciplined person.

I love to plan, I love to schedule, I love to have things pre-arranged. HOWEVER.

I am terrible at follow-through. If I had to rely on my own self-discipline and perseverance to make it to the finish line, nothing would ever get done. I need outside motivation to push me.

Which is why I love having an accountability buddy for various aspects of my life. Most of us in the writing community are familiar with critique partners (CPs) or critique groups, where you and a fellow writer (or writers) exchange a certain number of pages for feedback on your manuscript. 

These critiques are so important for two main reasons:

  1. As a writer, it’s very easy to be so caught up in your story that you don’t realize the story in your head isn’t quite translating the way you thought on paper. This was really hammered home by my mentor Kellye Garrett when she poked holes in my first manuscript by asking ALL THE QUESTIONS. And when I answered them, she’d then ask, “OK, it’s good that you know that. But did you write that down? ‘Cause I didn’t read any of that in your story.” And guess what? She was right. I knew the story so well everything seemed so obvious to me, but of course your readers don’t see/know the same things you do. You need outside, objective eyes on your pages.
  2. You have to produce a certain amount of pages by a certain time. Your partner is waiting on you. You had a mutual agreement that you’d be done by a certain time, and heaven help you, those pages won’t be perfect but they WILL be done because you are NOT going to be the person who didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Accountability is why I like entering writing contests and doing NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo challenges. Not only is it time-based and measurable (love those SMART goals), but there’s also outside pressure and support from the people in your Nano cabin to see you through to the end. I did great with my WIP during April’s Camp Nano but have made very little progress since then. I plan on joining a cabin for July’s Camp Nano with the hopes of coming out with a complete first draft. Fingers crossed.

I also have a reading accountability buddy (accountabili-buddy? Nah, too cutesy). Kellye Garrett and I were chatting about how we have a million books on our Kindles, but we never seem to read any of them. Our TBR piles are out of control yet we keep purchasing new books. 

So we agreed to have our own crime fiction book club, not only to power our way through our TBR piles, but also to dissect the craft within each book. We started a little over a month ago and so far have read:

  1. Under a Dark Sky by Lori Rader-Day
  2. #FashionVictim by Amina Akhtar
  3. Last Woman Standing by Amy Gentry
  4. Summer of the Big Bachi by Naomi Hirahara
  5. Borrowed Time by Tracy Clark (currently reading)

I love having her push me because it forces me to read books I’ve been wanting to read but have been putting off since I gravitate towards cozies and other quick reads. We do plan on adding lighter fare to our lists (we write cozies, so discussing the craft of those who do it well is great), but it’s nice to break out of my usual rut.

So my reading and writing buddies keep me in check in those areas, but you know what I need above all? A gym buddy. 

I don’t actually like working out with people (headphones on, music blasting, need to focus, no time for chit chat) but I need someone who comes by and forces me to go work out. Surprisingly, I don’t mind exercise. Putting on pants and leaving the house? Now that’s a different story.

How about you, dear Readers? Do you also have accountability buddies in your life? What area in your life do you really wish you had that extra push? Looking forward to your comments!

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Bess Carnan and the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers

Hello, gentle readers!

The other Mysteristas and I always rave about our experience at Malice Domestic, a wonderful convention dedicated to fans of traditional mysteries, and this time I wanted to spotlight not only a great writer, but a fantastic opportunity for mystery writers who are just starting out.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you to this year’s winner, Bess Carnan, an up-and-coming mystery writer who shares my love of cozies and geek-tastic hobbies.

  • Congratulations on your win! For our readers who are unfamiliar with the grant, can you explain what it is and what made you decide to apply for the grant?

Thank you so much! The William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers is an award given out by Malice Domestic, a convention for traditional and cozy mystery writers. Unpublished writers submit three consecutive chapters of their work in progress and a plot synopsis, a committee reads through every single one, and one incredibly lucky aspiring author is awarded a comprehensive registration for the upcoming Malice—including a hotel room—and $2,500 you can use to attend another conference or workshop.

And I’m really glad you asked why, because it’s actually because of you! After we met at Bouchercon 2018, I really admired you and was inspired to be more proactive about my writing career. In addition to getting more active in the Sisters In Crime online chapter the Guppies, I applied to a few awards and contests. I didn’t expect to win, but the William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers creates such a huge boost for a writer—at least one of the Agatha Award winners this year was a past recipient—that I felt like I ought to at least try. Every time you make an effort it makes the next step easier, right?

  • Tell us about your winning entry.

Hawaiian Homicide is the first—hopefully—in a series about a travel blogger, Jax Alston. It’s set in the town where I lived on the Big Island of Hawaii, Kailua-Kona, with a few excursions to some of my favorite places on the island. Jax and her photographer friend Michael are on the Big Island for a work trip when Michael is accused of murdering another guest at the bed-and-breakfast where they are staying. Since his husband is joining him in two weeks for their fifth anniversary cruise, Michael really needs to get the police off his back. Jax just really doesn’t want his husband blaming her for getting Michael into trouble, so she jumps in to try to clear his name. It’s basically a love letter to the Big Island wrapped in a cozy murder mystery.

  • When did you find out you won and what was your reaction?

Holy cheesenips! The head of the committee, Harriette Sackler, called me in February. We talked about our shared love of animal rescue, she congratulated me, and then she said I couldn’t tell anyone except my spouse and my agent until they made the big announcement at Malice Domestic’s Agatha Award Banquet in May. I’m the world’s worst secret keeper, so after we hung up I immediately told my husband Kevin, my agent, our foster kittens, and my therapist. Then I had to stew for about three months. Harriette called about an hour before Kevin and I were leaving for a trip to Disney World, so Kevin had the front desk at our hotel make me an “I’m celebrating!” button that said I was celebrating a “Top Secret Award!” At least one person asked if I was a Nobel Prize winner.

All that to say I did a lot of bouncing. Writing is a very solitary activity and the validation of this Very Important Award committee thinking that I was the best of the best was like a shot of adrenaline. I couldn’t make myself accept it all at once; it was kind of like building a Lego castle. Every couple minutes it would hit me again and I could add another brick of understanding and acceptance until, a few days later, it finally all added up and settled into my core that I really had won, they really did think I was good, and maybe I actually was pretty okay at this writing thing.

  • How did you feel accepting the award during the Agatha Awards Banquet?

Terrified.

No, it actually doesn’t rank as quite terrifying, thanks in large part to my anti-anxiety medication and my seatmate, Cynthia Tolbert, who helped distract me in the run up. I’m not the best at people-ing, and I’d literally never given a speech with a microphone and an audience all waiting to hear what I had to say. That kind of platform and attention was super scary. Luckily, Malice Domestic is filled with the most supportive, wonderful people, so even though I was shaking and more nervous than I’ve been in years, I was pretty sure everyone would be nice, no matter how badly I flubbed it. And sure enough, my friends all cheered and the whole room applauded and no one threw a tomato.
(As an aside to anyone who gets nominated for an Agatha Award: prep your speech just in case, but also practice posing. There were three professional photographers in two places after I got off-stage, all of whom needed to get pictures. I was not ready for that and, embarrassingly, it shows in the photos. Oh well.)

  • From what I understand, you write mainly cozies. What drew you to this genre?

You know, I wish I had a good answer to that. I can’t say what started my journey with cozies, but I think I know why I stick with it.

Ages ago I saw a quote that said something like “cozies start with the premise that the world is fundamentally good and if it ever gets out of balance, someone will always be there to step up and right it again.” The real world is pretty stressful, especially if you read the news. I like that cozies soften the edges and make sure to tie everything up with a happy ending.

Cozies are also almost always themed, which I really enjoy. Some series give you recipes (Leslie Karst) or organizational tips (Mary Feliz), or you get a series-long peek into a different life, like that of a wedding planner (Laura Durham) or L.A. insider (Kellye Garrett). It’s like playing pretend, but not having to make up any of the information yourself.

  • How long have you been writing and what has your journey been like?

I dictated my first-ever book to a babysitter at three or four. She wrote it up and bound it with tape. “The Secret of the Unicorn” never took off, but I never stopped writing, mostly in the edges of my school notebooks. I did try to grow up and went to grad school with the intent of becoming a psychologist and having a Responsible, Bill-Paying-type career, but grad school kicked my butt. I quit and, as I regrouped, Kevin suggested that I dedicate some time to focusing on what I actually enjoy. We got married, moved to Hawaii, and I completed a full manuscript. It was garbage, but the next one was pretty okay and I hope I’ve only gotten better from there. It took half a decade, but now I have an agent who likes my stories and the encouraging weight of Malice Domestic behind me in addition to a supportive spouse.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the Mysteristas, Bess! And best of luck with your series, it sounds fantastic.

Fun fact: Fellow Mysterista Keenan Powell (2015), former Mysterista Cynthia Kuhn (2015), and I (2017) have all won this grant.

Bio

Bess had to be pushed out the door to go away to college, but immediately developed wanderlust. These days she and her spouse live in Orlando, Florida with their rescued garbage cat, Squeaker, and an endless stream of foster kittens. In between feedings, flea baths, and snuggles she writes cozy mysteries that are really love letters to all the places she’s lived. She can be found all over the internet as @BessCarnanBooks, and her home base is BessCarnanBooks.com

Mary Anne Mohanraj and A Feast of Serendib: Food, Culture, and Writing

This month, I’d like to do something a little different and share an interview with a writer who’s worked in almost every genre BUT crime fiction: SFF (science fiction/fantasy, mainstream fiction, poetry, nonfiction, memoir, cookbooks, and erotica.

However, a lot of her work has to do with food and culture (particularly with the South Asian diaspora), two topics which I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about, both in my mysteries and on this blog.

Today, she’s going to share what it’s like to wear so many different hats, as well as a recipe from her newest cookbook, which is currently up on Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/feastofserendib/a-feast-of-serendib

Without further ado, welcome Mary Anne Mohanraj!

> What has your road to publishing been like?

At first, very straightforward and typical, I think — I wrote stories, got a copy of Writer’s Market, sent them off, collected my share of rejections along with a few acceptances.  I went on to grad school, picking up both an MFA and a Ph.D. in creative writing, which helped me hone my craft, and by now, I’ve published with both big presses (HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin) and small (Circlet, Aqueduct, Lethe).  I’ve even indie-published a bit.

But the main challenge, career-wise, is that I write in many different genres, and every time I switch from one to the other, I lose a segment of readers.  That makes it hard to build up a consistent large audience.

> You write in many different genres, most notably SFF (science fiction and fantasy), but also mainstream fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and erotica. What’s it like to work in so many different genres? How do you know which medium/genre is best for which story?

Writing in different genres is pretty straightforward, actually — I bring many of the same skills to each, and usually the piece clearly wants to be one thing or the other.  It’s marketing that makes it tricky!

> What does it mean to you to be a diaspora writer? How do you try to incorporate this concept in your work?

It makes me cautious, I think.  I have a deep love for Sri Lanka, in some ways, beyond all reason, given that I moved to America when I was two years old.  I’m drawn to write about it, in fiction and nonfiction and poetry and food writing. But I’m always wondering if I’m being accurate enough, authentic enough. In grad school, I spent an entire semester on an independent study in Sri Lankan history, just so I felt more confident writing short stories set in the 1940s there.  And even now, when I want to write about the war, I find myself turning to science fictional versions of it, Sri Lankans in space, as a means of maintaining a clear boundary around the material, so readers don’t think that I, necessarily, can convey to them anything concrete and accurate about the specifics of the conflict that happened there.  Instead, what I want to do is reflect it, hopefully in interesting ways, offer a different angle of view, a lens that might be useful.

> You’re incredibly open on social media about the various aspects of your life: writing, teaching, parenting, community activism, sexuality, etc. In a time where “Personal Brands” are such a big thing, there seems to be no separation between “Mary Anne, the Writer” and “Mary Anne, the person.” Was this a conscious choice?

You know, my blog is the 3rd oldest on the internet, according to the Online Diary History Project.  So I think it’s more of an evolution? When I started, in December 1995, no one knew what blogging would become; we called it online journalling back then, before the word ‘blog’ was even coined.  

For me, I’ve come to think of it as a vast extended memoir project.  It’s an ongoing challenge to be as open and honest as I can — whether it’s about being queer and poly, or about the difficulties of parenting, or about medical issues like my bout of breast cancer or my recent ADHD diagnosis.  

There are occasional difficulties — people can, in fact, be horrible at times.  But in my experience, over almost 25 years, the vast majority of people I’ve interacted with online have been positive, kind, and incredibly generous with their knowledge and resources.  My readers carried me through cancer; I would have had a much harder time without them, and I’ll always be grateful.

> What gave you the idea to write a cookbook?

Well, my first cookbook, A Taste of Serendib, I wrote as a Christmas present for my mother — I tried to write down as many of her recipes as I knew.  I was as careful as I could be, and still, when I gave it to her, she pointed out the things I’d gotten wrong — I offered to do a second edition, with ‘Amma’s corrections’ in red.  She didn’t go for that, though!

> Why do you think food and culture are so intrinsically tied together? Is this a topic you explore in your writing?

Can I point you to something else, instead of answering this directly?  I run DesiLit, an organization that supports South Asian and diaspora literature, and we publish Jaggery, a South Asian lit. mag — here’s a little piece I wrote that talks about jaggery, dark palm sugar, and why we chose that name for our magazine:  http://jaggerylit.com/about/

> Which recipe are you proudest of and why? Which recipe was the most challenging to get right? Would you mind sharing a simple recipe with our readers?

You know, I spent a lot of time researching more esoteric recipes, ancient dishes that were served at King Kasyapa’s sky palace in 5th century Sigiriya.  But my favorite is still the first dish I learned how to cook, my mother’s beef and potato curry. If I were trapped on a desert island with only one thing to eat, this is what I would pick.

Beef and Potato Curry / Mas Kizhangu Kari

(1 hour, serves 6)

This was my favorite dish growing up, the one my mother always makes for me when I come home, and the first Sri Lankan dish I learned to cook, when I called home desperate from the dorms, begging her to teach me how to make it over the phone. It’s also the first Sri Lankan dish my husband, Kevin, learned to cook — I came home once from a long plane flight, walked into the house, smelled the scent of this curry, that I hadn’t even known he had learned how to make, and promptly burst into tears. Enjoy.

3-5 medium onions, chopped fine

2 TBL ginger, chopped fine

4-5 garlic cloves, sliced

3 TBL vegetable oil

1 tsp black mustard seed

1 tsp cumin seed

1-2 TBL cayenne

3 lbs chuck steak, cubed, about 1 inch pieces

1/3 cup ketchup

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

1 TBL Sri Lankan curry powder

1 heaping tsp salt

3 pieces cinnamon stick

3 cloves

3 cardamom pods

1 dozen curry leaves

1/2 cup milk

3 medium russet potatoes, cut into large chunks

2-3 TBL lime juice

1. In a large pot, sauté onions, ginger, and garlic in oil on medium-high with mustard seed and cumin seeds until onions are golden/translucent (not brown), stirring as needed. Add cayenne and cook 1 minute, stirring. Immediately stir in ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, curry powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and curry leaves.

2. Add beef and stir on high for a minute or two, browning the meat. Add milk, stirring. Cover, turn down to medium, and let cook half an hour, stirring occasionally.

3. Add potatoes, stir well, and cover again. Cook until potatoes are cooked through, adding water if needed to maintain a nice thick sauce (and to keep food from burning), stirring occasionally. Add lime juice; stir until well blended. Serve hot with rice or bread.

*****

Bio:

Mary Anne Mohanraj is author of Bodies in Motion (HarperCollins), The Stars Change (Circlet Press) and thirteen other titles. Bodies in Motion was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, a USA Today Notable Book, and has been translated into six languages.  The Stars Change is a science fiction novella, and finalist for the Lambda, Rainbow, and Bisexual Book Awards. Previous titles include Aqua Erotica, Without a Map, and A Taste of Serendib (a Sri Lankan cookbook). Mohanraj founded the Hugo-nominated magazine, Strange Horizons, and was Guest of Honor at WisCon 2010.  She serves as Executive Director of the Speculative Literature Foundation (speclit.org), has taught at the Clarion SF/F workshop, and is Clinical Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mohanraj’s recent publications include stories for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, chapters for Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine at Serial Box,and stories at Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed.  2018 titles include Survivor (a SF/F anthology, stories of trauma and survival), Perennial (a breast cancer memoir / romance), and two Sri Lankan cookbooks: The Marshmallows of Serendib and Vegan Serendib. 2019 will see the publication of A Feast of Serendib. www.maryannemohanraj.com

Kickstarter link:  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/feastofserendib/a-feast-of-serendib

Serendib Kitchen shop:  http://serendibkitchen.com/shop/

What Part Does Luck Play in Success?

This past weekend, I attended the third annual Murder and Mayhem in Chicago. It’s a fun, one-day convention with a one-track panel schedule that is always varied and interesting. This year, one of the keynote speakers was Sophie Hannah, the British author who was chosen to continue Agatha Christie’s world-renowned Hercule Poirot series.

Photo by John Thomas Bychowski

In her interview with Susanna Calkins, she explained how she was chosen to continue Agatha Christie’s legacy. I wish I could recount the story exactly as Sophie Hannah told it, because it was hilarious and charming and ridiculous. This is a woman who knows how to spin a good tale (clearly). But the one thing she kept coming back to was how her getting the role was sheer luck. Her agent just happened to pitch it to a HarperCollins editor at exactly the same time the Christie family (who were notorious for NOT wanting anyone to write more novels, and are very choosy about what adaptations they’ll allow) was talking to the publisher about finally bringing in a writer to start producing Agatha Christie novels again. Long story short, Sophie got the dream job she didn’t even know she wanted and hadn’t actually applied for. Her agent was just at the right place, at the right time.

Obviously, Sophie Hannah had an enormous amount of talent to begin with; it’s not like the Christie family chose her simply because her agent asked for the opportunity. But how many people are out there, clearly talented, toiling away, but never quite getting their big break? How many stories have you heard where one’s success seemed due to kismet? And does attributing one’s success (however you choose to define that word) to luck downplay the effort it took to get there?

Personally, I don’t think it does. I’ve been lucky enough to win awards, scholarships, and grants with my writing. And when I say “lucky,” I don’t mean that the judges just happened to pull my entry out of a pile of manuscripts like it was a Powerball drawing. That would be insulting to the various judges’ taste and sense of professionalism, as well as my writing skills. When I say that, I’m acknowledging the privilege I have and all the factors that conspired to bring me to this point in my (very young) writing career.

Almost every single writing opportunity I’ve had was something I hadn’t even known existed until some kind writer friend I made along the way pointed me in its direction. I earned it, yes. But would merit even matter if I hadn’t been lucky enough to meet the people that I have?

What do you think, Dear Readers? Do you need a bit of luck to make it in this crazy world of ours? Do you have a story where a bit of luck (or on the flip side, a ton of grit) had great returns? Let me know in the comments!

Procrastibaking and Kitchen Mistakes (plus a recipe!)

The Filipino culinary cozy that I’m working on is both extremely fun and extremely distracting. When I’m stuck at a particular section and need a break, but want to keep my brain connected to the material, I start looking up recipes that I can tweak to use for the book. After all, what’s a culinary cozy without a few recipes? This leads to a rabbit hole of food blog after food blog, with me sometimes abandoning my WIP to go procrastibake.

In fact, I have a Google doc dedicated just to brainstorming food for this series (the doc is currently 40 items long!). But recipe testing also means occasional recipe failures. What do you do when you try a recipe or buy a particular ingredient that looks great but turns out to be meh?

This happened to me recently. With the subzero temperatures that have hit Chicago, I’ve been making pots of salabat, or Filipino ginger tea, to keep the chill away. Delicious, healthy, warming, and easy to make. But while shopping at my local grocery store, I was delighted to see they had instant salabat. A powdered mix with ginger, sugar, calamansi (a citrus fruit native to the Philippines) and cayenne pepper—you just had to add hot water.  Even though I make it from scratch all the time, I’m always so excited to see Filipino products at American chain grocery stores that I just had to try it.

The instant salabat I bought. Good for people who prefer a sweeter drink

It was…OK. Not bad if you’ve never had it before, but much too sweet. I prefer my ginger tea to have more of a bite. So here I was left with a jar of instant ginger tea that I didn’t want, but refused to throw away (no food waste in the Manansala household!).

And then it hit me: That list of ingredients was perfect for a Filipino take on one of my favorite cookies ever, the snickerdoodle.

Dear Reader, it was DELICIOUS. I did one batch with the dough rolled in just the instant salabat mix and another batch with cinnamon added to the instant mix. They were both tasty, but I still need to tweak the recipe a bit before I feel it’s really mine.

Since I can’t share the cookie recipe with you just yet, I’m sharing the recipe for salabat below.

So Readers, what are your favorite cold weather remedies? And what do you do with your kitchen flubs? Let me know in the comments!

Salabat (Filipino Ginger Tea) Recipe

About 2-4 servings; I usually double this and keep it in the fridge

4-6 cups water (depending on how strong you like it)

1 cinnamon stick

1 thick thumb-sized (~4 inches) piece of ginger, sliced (I usually don’t peel it, but you can if you want)

Honey to taste

Lemon to taste

Whiskey (optional, but recommended)

Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional, but adds an excellent bite)

Bring water, cinnamon, ginger, and cayenne (if using) to a boil, reduce & simmer for about 15 minutes. The salabat will be a rich amber color when done.

Strain if desired, pour into mug, and add honey and lemon juice (and whiskey!). You can store the excess in the fridge and serve either hot or cold, adding honey and lemon to each individual serving.

NOTE:  Personally, I like it really strong, so will simmer it for 20 minutes or more. I know people who only simmer it for 10. Keep in mind that if it’s stronger than you like, you can always dilute it to your desired strength, but there’s not much you can do with a weak brew.

Pantser vs. Plotter: The Vacation Edition

You’ve probably heard writers drone on and on about whether they were plotters (people who outline and plot their book before they draft it) or pantsers (people who figure things out as they go along AKA “writing by the seat of their pants”) and all the pros and cons that come with their method.

While I find both methods fascinating (Pantsers—what do you mean you pantsed your way through a multi-POV and multi-timeline story? How could possibly keep everything straight? Plotters—a 30-page outline? Before you even started drafting the story? What the what?), I always considered myself a hybrid or “plantser”: I know the general story beats before I start writing and have even started writing a short synopsis before I draft. However, my “outline” is basically like, ten scenes I know I want in the story and then after that it’s me figuring out how the heck to get to them.

What really intrigues me though is what being a plotter, pantser, or plantser says about your personality in general. I can’t help it, I was a sucker for all those personality quizzes in Teen Beat and Cosmopolitan (and now occasionally on Buzzfeed). While I don’t sort all my characters into Hogwarts houses, I know that I’m a Ravenclaw, the MC of my ComiKon story is a Gryffindor (weird), and my cozy MC is a Slytherin who thinks she’s a Hufflepuff. What does that even mean? Well, it makes sense to me.

That being said, I’ve learned there is no situation more telling of one’s personality than…traveling. Are you the kind of person who checks and double checks your itinerary (and important documents, like passports) a million times? Has a checklist of the items you’ve packed? Has already researched and made a schedule of places to go and things to eat? Or do you prefer to go with the flow? Explore the location and go wherever your whimsy leads?

Surprise surprise, I’m a bit of both. I believe in being prepared, having a general list of places to eat (especially if it’s a different country and you know they have several must-try dishes; food is the most important part of any journey) and visit, and then working in free time around those places I know I want to check out.

I’ve been on vacation with people who want everything planned to the last detail (suffocating) and people for whom plans and punctuality mean little to nothing (frustrating). You want a real test of your relationship (romantic or otherwise)? Go on vacation together for more than three days, preferably abroad. People will show you who they are.

Las vegas sign and strip street background taken on public street

That being said, I’m currently plantsing my trip to Las Vegas next month. It’s a delayed anniversary trip for me and my husband (such a pantser) and my first time visiting Vegas as an adult. Would love to hear your recommendations, Dear Readers, and make sure to let me know in the comments: When it comes to vacation, are you a plotter, pantser, or both?

Honoring My Father with a Simple Recipe

My dad passed away exactly one week ago. He was only 60 years old.

I don’t think I have it in me just yet to write about what he meant to me, how his death has affected me, all the sadness and regret I feel about someone so important to me being taken so soon.

So I’m going to talk about food.

My dad was a quiet, stoic man, and not very demonstrative when it came to showing affection. But in typical Asian fashion, his love for his family was abundantly clear in his food. When I was growing up, he worked long, hard hours all week at a printing factory to help provide for the nine-person household. And every weekend, he would set out early with my maternal grandmother to hit up various markets to find the best, freshest, and cheapest ingredients for the weekend feasts he would prepare for us.

One regret I’m willing to admit is never getting his Filipino recipes. My dad was one of the best cooks I knew. He cooked in that old-school way, without any real recipes. He just sensed, felt, and tasted his way through and, more often than not, his meals were absolutely delicious.

He was in the hospital twice before he passed: the week before Thanksgiving and then the week after. The first time he was hospitalized, I tried to get his recipe for lumpiang shanghai (Filipino pork egg rolls) and his verbal recitation of ingredients and steps involved no measurements, temperatures, or times. I was just expected to feel my way through.

Sometimes I wonder if my tendency to mess with baking recipes and pants my way through my stories comes from my father’s approach to cooking.

I thought about sharing that recipe with you, but decided on something else: his last request to me. That same hospital visit, we were talking about the dishes I had planned for Thanksgiving since I host every year. Near the end of his life, food was one of his few pleasures, though we did try to temper it due to his dietary restrictions.

So when I asked him what dessert he wanted, he requested something sweet and simple and very Filipino: Pinoy Fruit Salad.

Cast of characters: Table cream, condensed milk, fruit cocktail, macapuno, and nata de coco

Just about every ingredient is from a can or jar, and I’m pretty sure it came into popularity during the American colonial period when the U.S. military presence brought an influx of canned goods to the Philippines. Some of the ingredients may be unfamiliar or seem rather strange (cheddar cheese?!), but trust me, it’s all delicious.

He didn’t come to Thanksgiving at my house since he was still weak from his hospital visit, so I didn’t make the fruit salad then. I thought I would make it for him for Christmas, but I guess I won’t get that chance. Instead, I made it last weekend for his memorial.

In honor of my father, I’m going to give you the recipe that he dictated to me. It’s not word for word since I didn’t think to write it down, but definitely in his spirit.

Miss you, daddy.

Pinoy (Filipino-style) Fruit Salad

  • 1 or 2 cans of fruit cocktail
  • Macapuno OR buko
  • Nata de coco
  • Can or two of Nestle table cream (my dad said it HAS to be Nestle)
  • Condensed milk
  • Shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

Drain the first three ingredients very well. Put them in a big bowl and add the table cream, condensed milk, and cheese (if you’re using it). Mix well and refrigerate overnight. Enjoy!