Photo: The Eyeopener Staff

The Life of Pie

In Arts & Life /

By Carl Solis 

It’s the hot scent of sizzling barbecue, heat rising up from the grill and the smell of meats cooking around the room. The clanging of pots and pans creates a symphony of kitchen utensils as the chef nimbly works to keep every dish under control, moving through the maze beyond the displays and cash register. 

Those are the first things you notice when you come into my parents’ restaurant.

The next thing you notice is the laughter, the deafening roar of my dad’s voice when he’s cracking a joke with a regular. The silent focus of my mother as she whisks away at a creamy coconut concoction to create a new batch of pies. My four siblings and I all play some role in keeping the kitchen afloat. We have conversations between the fryers, filling the few minutes we can afford with stories about when we were younger. Despite the hard labour, time goes by quickly when you’re with the people you love.

This is a typical day in my parents’ restaurant. Lately, it’s hard to unite all seven of us in one room, with our lives having taken us all in wildly different directions. Today, we are working together to create something real and authentic. We need to have at least two hundred pies ready for the first morning delivery, but we know this ample supply won’t last once they hit the supermarkets. Today is that special day. My mom’s dream finally comes true. 

Just be patient, do hard work and it will come true. Pray for it, and it will happen

Since she was a little girl, she always wanted to own a bakery. A new set of employees will arrive tomorrow for training, to learn everything that needs to be done to keep my mom’s new operation going. For my mom and dad, it means that they can finally breathe.

My mother is Marylenn Ocampo Solis. She married my dad, Glenn, at 21 and came to Canada in 2001. When we were growing up, my mom would wake up at 5 a.m. to watch the morning news, get her kids ready for school, drop them off and immediately go to the family restaurant. 

Her story begins in the plains north of Manila, in a small rural town in the province of Bulacan—the rice granary of the Philippines. My mom was the daughter of farmers, along with her five other siblings. Some weeks they couldn’t afford meat. But even at the age of 10, she learned to make due. From the market, she picked young tamarinds, a fruit popular for its sweet and sour flavour to make sinigang, a Filipino stew. It was the first thing she learned to make.

“It was experimenting with ingredients and how they can taste better; being able to explore something new,” she says to me, recalling that the hardest part was trying to make something out of nothing. 

It was my mom’s favourite dish growing up, and when we all came to Canada as a family in 2001, it quickly became ours too. This time, she made sure to include meat.

After my mom finished high school in 1980, she decided to find a way to get to Manila, the nation’s capital. Like most teenagers, she wanted to find a way to escape the farm life. 

She worked two different jobs while trying to get through school. During the day, she worked at her aunt and uncle’s meat shop. She soon took a second job working for a travel agency to help pay her way through her evening classes in college. She met my dad in school, bonding over their mutual love for the kitchen. They both spoke of dreams for a better life–moving far away from the blistering heat and noise of Manila. They wanted to open a restaurant, something to call their own. A year later, they got married and had my oldest sister, Frances, and I was born almost a decade later.

When my family moved to Canada, my parents opened a restaurant in a small suburban part of Mississauga. Our whole livelihood was centred around it. It was the place I would go right after school, waiting for my parents to finish a long shift so they could take me home. I memorized the number of grey and white tiles, the smell of hot rice cakes as they left the oven and the way my parents organized soft drinks in the display (rows of five by seven).

My dad crafted everything on the menu, but it was baking where my mom excelled. When I turned five—it was my first birthday in Canada—she made my favourite, leche flan. She sold it en masse to clamouring customers, but made it just for me on special occasions. It was my favourite part of birthdays growing up.

For the first few years, my parents wouldn’t come home until late at night. My sisters took the role of babysitters to help them out. Sometimes I would wait by the doorway until my parents walked through, and then barrel towards them for a hug. I often fell asleep before they got home. The business was hard, fluctuating immensely and often shattering the confidence of both my parents whenever the ship seemed to be tilting into the dangerous waters of debt. 

And yet, they still managed to find the time to cook for every birthday party.

“Sometimes it’s hard working in a kitchen all day. But cooking for family, it’s different because it makes me happy no matter what,” my mom tells me.

I knew there were days when she felt on the verge of tears from the stress and pain

The thing about growing up is that your parents grow older too. Suddenly, the girl from the countryside with dreams of owning a restaurant is 58 years old and managing her own business in a big city, not just because it was her dream, but because it was built on the hope that her children could do better.

The pies are fresh out the oven and my sister is busy packaging them for shipping. My other siblings, Florence and Tim, are visiting from Toronto for the weekend. My sister is an architect, and my brother works for a financial firm. But today, we’re all cooks for our mom and dad. My other brother, Mark, takes the pies and gets ready to deliver them to the biggest Filipino supermarket chain nearby. My dad has taken a step back, giving up his side of the kitchen to let my mom’s dream expand and grow.

I asked her how she felt the day she found out her products would be sold in a supermarket. I expected her to brush it off. 

Instead, she closed her eyes, the wrinkles in her cheeks curling as she smiled, and said, “If you dream, don’t give up. Just be patient, do hard work and it will come true. Pray for it, and it will happen.”

As I grew older and more aware of the obstacles that my mom had to go through to get us to where we are now, I dreamed of my mom getting the rest she deserved. Spending so much of her life as a provider, I knew there were days when she felt on the verge of tears from the stress and pain. But she never outwardly shared it—she only kept it to herself so that her children wouldn’t experience the same burdens that she went through growing up.

The day I told my mom that I wanted to move to Toronto and live with my sister while going to Ryerson is the first time she ever told me the story how at my age, she wanted to move to Manila and escape the hard life of the provinces.

“Respect your sister,” she says, less as a quip but more as a reference to the days that my sisters took care of me when she was away at the restaurant. For a moment, there’s a pause, and I realize that tomorrow morning, I won’t expect to see her up before I am. She grins immediately after, and for a second I could see the love that stretches across her face. She’s watching her last child go to pursue his own dreams.

That little agreement we made in that moment put into perspective how much she sacrificed so that all of us could have a better life, something I never appreciated as thoroughly growing up. Days spent working in a kitchen, bonding with my brother during delivery runs, helping my dad shop for new ingredients, the quiet love in my mother’s eyes as she cooks a whole pot of sinigang for us on a cold winter evening—all of that meant something greater than we could ever put into words. As best as I could, I tried to help my mom in achieving her dream, and in turn, she did what moms do best. She helped me achieve mine. 

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