Love, a century ago

Published February 13, 2021, 10:00 AM

by Sol Vanzi

How men won women’s trust and hearts in 1909

(Photo by Ernesto Segismundo)

The love story of Lolo Andoy and Lola Tina, typical of their time at the start of the 20th century, could inspire today’s young men and women to be good, honest, brave, and faithful. It is a tale worth retelling.

My grandfather, son of a farmer-tenant, grew up in Imus, Cavite. He helped in the rice field and drove a calesa (horse-drawn cart) for extra income between planting and harvesting seasons. Sakate trips to gather grass for his horse took him to Barrio Salinas in adjacent Bacoor town. The southern edge of Salinas was thick with tall bamboos, which protected the homes and little children from falling into the Binakayan–Bacoor River that snakes through Imus, Bacoor, and Kawit.

The prettiest and most sought-after lass in Salinas was Florentina, a shy 15-year-old orphan with dark, ankle-length hair, ebony eyes, and a very light complexion. She cooked well, made the finest embroidery, and was the top village modista (dressmaker). She planted and harvested palay as well as any man, yet looked every inch the real dalagang Pilipina of every young man’s dream.

With all these attributes, she could have chosen any of the landed, moneyed poblacion suitors who trekked to her village to win her hand. Lolo knew his chances were slim; he was a poor farmer’s son with nothing to his name. But he was the most persistent of the many swains who wooed Lola.

For a year, he helped plow, harrow, plant, and harvest the rice field of Lola’s aunts and uncles. He bathed and fed her family’s carabao daily. He fetched water from a well one kilometer away for Lola’s cooking and washing chores. He carried Lola’s washing to and from the river.

Finally, Lola was convinced he was it. But the family that raised her wanted one last test: he had to gift Lola with “isang palayok ng atay ng biya” (a clay pot of fresh goby liver), to be stewed in fresh tamarind and served for what would be their engagement dinner. It was a very tough challenge; both Lolo and Lola prayed hard for success.

Lolo was told of the test after the rice harvest, and he took it like a man. With quiet dignity, he continued to serve Lola’s family until the first rains of May fell, when he announced that he would soon leave for Laguna to fish. After weeks of preparation, he left with a carabao, a cart, several banga (clay water jars), a salok (small fish net with handle), salakab (hand-held bamboo fish trap), bingwit (hook and line), rice, and a palayok (covered clay cooking pot) to cook rice in.

It rained for many, many days while he was gone. When the rains stopped, Lola began to worry. One starless night, he showed up at the foot of her nipa hut’s three-step bamboo stairs.

In one hand, he held aloft strings of gutted, salted, and kippered daing na biya (salted split goby). The other arm cradled, like a chest of precious jewels, a simple clay pot brimming with tiny morsels the color of Lolo’s burnished skin. He had done it! He passed the test.

So, big deal, you’d say. That’s easy to do these days, with air-conditioned supermarkets selling all kinds of frozen and chilled fish. To accomplish Lolo’s task, all one has to do these days is purchase several kilos of biya and ask the fish vendor or the maid to cut out all the livers. But remember, this all happened in 1909.

There was no refrigeration, there were no modern paved roads, no South Luzon Expressway. There was no electricity, no bags of tube ice from 7-Eleven to keep food fresh for days. Imus was half a day away, on foot or on the back of a carabao, from Laguna de Bay, the closest source of biya.

Salakab fishing

The fish had to be caught by hand, with hook and line, salok or salakab. Each fish he caught had to be pabiyay (kept alive in clay jars) until he had caught enough to fill a clay pot with livers. And then he had to rush home, many hours away, with the fresh livers.

TO CATCH LOVE The wide mouth of salakab, made of weaved bamboo, have pointed ends which are then buried in the mud to trap the fishes (Photo from NCCA, PIO)

As Lola explained during kitchen lessons when I was six, Lolo’s test proved many positive things about his character.

1. Lolo was a good provider. His fishing skill, combined with an already proven farming ability, would serve his family well.

2. He was intelligent. He devised a system of keeping the biya fresh for the duration of the expedition. Nothing could be fresher than live fish.

3. He was patient. Very few men, even in those good old days, would go through the process of catching thousands of biya without using a net, which could damage, kill, or weaken the fish.

4. He was thrifty. Although the test only called for the fish liver, he patiently cleaned and kippered the fish bodies, then salted and dried them so they would be kept during the rainy season. Other men would have simply thrown away the fish bodies after taking the livers.

5. He was a good homemaker. He gutted, scaled, and kippered the fish neatly, and not a single liver had any trace of bile. Had he been sloppy, a single drop of bile would have turned the entire pot of liver into a vile, bitter, and inedible mess.

6. He truly loved her. Why else would anyone go through such a test?

To make the long story short, Alejandro and Florentina got married, had five children and thirty-something grandchildren, and lived happily together for 60 years. They were an ideal couple; he was hardworking, and she was the perfect wife, mother, and grandma.

I grew up looking forward to Sundays when she would serve paksiw na biya (stewed in vinegar), pinangat sa sampalok (simmered in young tamarind fruit), or isinapaw (cooked by the steam of boiling rice). Whatever the recipe, the biya livers were always cooked wrapped in banana leaves and served separately, exclusively, for Lolo Andoy, who never tired retelling how he captured Lota Tina’s heart.