The following is the first-place winner in the My Marianas Writing Contest of the Northern Marianas Humanities Council. It is being reprinted here at the request of the council.
I was born on Jan. 15, 2004, and was raised on the island of Tinian until I was about 4 years old. My family relocated to the U.S. in June 2008 to wait out my Dad’s second deployment, this time to Kuwait. My Dad, however, returned from active duty due to injuries he’d incurred on his first deployment to Iraq that ended in January 2006. The shift between sunshine-soaked days spent splashing in the waters of Tachokña to the unforgiving precipitation of the Pacific Northwest was abrupt and confusing to my barely developed brain—but there was one thing that kept my freshly doknos head above the cloud cover: my first love.
Before the dawn of preheated, processed, and packaged school food, my Grandma Andresina was the backbone of the school breakfast and lunch program on Tinian. I like to think that her years of scavenging for food for her family in Yap during World War II as an 11-year-old is what sparked her passion for feeding and caring for others. She eventually went on to love, feed, and care for her own family with my grandpa and their 13 kids. Eventually, her family grew to include all the families on Tinian. Everyday she and the other women working put their skills, experience, and hearts together to feed the children of Tinian, with dishes like beef stir fry, Chamorro-style curry, and fish filet, all complete with heaping servings of rice and fresh vegetables. Aside from her work in the cafeteria, she ran a snack mobile that filled the tummies of not just children, but parents and other familia as well. Homemade donuts, ice cup, and titiyas were just a few of the goodies that kept her customers coming back for more everyday—but she could not do it all on her own. Her right-hand woman happened to be my Tita Jovie, who helped my mom care for my siblings and I while my dad served in Iraq. By the time my dad came back, she was no longer an employee, but a member of our family.
It all began around the time my Dad came back. I woke up one morning alone in my parents’ bed. I rubbed my eyes with my little fingers as I listened to the clucks of our chickens outside and the erratic pitter patter of their feet. I could hear my parents laughing with Tita Jovie as they always did every morning. I crept out of the room and into the kitchen to see my parents sitting at our wooden table and my Tita Jovie pouring coffee into their mugs. I could hear my parents discussing something in Chamorro, but my eyes were now fixated on what was on the table rather than those sitting around it. A yellow serving bowl filled with the remnants of my Dad’s famous fried rice. A plate with sunny side up eggs with crispy, brown edges. A smaller dish with scrambled egg whites with sharp tasting onions and lots of green spinach for my mom. An empty plate that most likely once had freshly cooked Spam, bacon, or sausage on it. Small cups of orange juice and apple juice left behind by my siblings who didn’t have the privilege of sleeping in like I did because of school. As I looked at the bounty on the table, my heart sank.
“What do you want to eat, Princess?” asked Tita Jovie. I turned and faced her, watching her carefully sort through the various glass donne jars gifted to my mom. Then I saw it. In the glow of the refrigerator light was my gateway to flavor heaven: a green plastic bowl used for party food. My 4-year-old mind had determined that this bowl was always used for my favorite dish made by my Grandma. My tita, not needing me to say a word, grabbed a spoon, peeled the saran wrap off the top of the bowl, and lifted up a heaping amount. She guided the spoon to my mouth, cupping her other hand below it to prevent any loss of the precious dish. It was the perfect blend of chopped barbecue chicken, the slight sweetness of grated coconut, the sharpness of minced green onions, the sourness of lemon, and of course, the irreplaceable sprinkles of salt, and just a bit of Tinian hot pepper. After just a bite, I erupted into my first lyrical masterpiece. Chicken kelaguen, I lo-o-ove you! Chicken kelaguen, I ne-e-ed you! Chicken kelaguen, I want you! Chicken kelaguen, I lo-o-o-ve you! At the time, I remember receiving a roaring applause from my parents and Tita, but as this tale has been told to my other relatives, I’ve learned that they actually erupted in laughter—just as those who hear the story do.
As the years went by in the States, my family found solace and joy in making and eating traditional Chamorro dishes like red rice and titiyas, but my Grandma’s chicken kelaguen will always be my first love. It was hard to find the best ingredients for our meals in stores like Walmart or Fred Meyer, but we eventually found havens like Ocean King Market or Uwajimaya hidden throughout Washington and Oregon. We shared our kamyu and grill with my aunties and uncles and rationed our donne as much as we could to ensure that we could enjoy our favorite Chamorro dishes together. After my original performance as a 4-year-old, I was naturally made the executive taste tester of the chicken kelaguen made by my family for parties. I devoured a plate of chicken kelaguen every chance I could get at family gatherings, weddings, and birthday parties. As I entered my teen years, I eventually inherited the role of making it with their help. The soreness in my legs that I feel after crouching on the kamyu and grinding the coconut, the tears in my eyes from the smoke of the chicken barbecued by my Dad, the burning of my nostrils as I handle the hot pepper expertly selected by my Mom—are all tests that I withstand by imagining the immaculate taste of the final product. There is no sound as joyous as the laughter of my siblings and I share as we simultaneously chat, debone, and chop the chicken expertly barbecued by my Dad. There is no feeling more satisfying than successfully grinding the coconut and mincing the green onions. There is no opportunity that I am more grateful for than adding the lemon, hot pepper, and sprinkle of salt as we mix the ingredients together with my Mom by side. As the years have gone by, I’ve realized that there is no dish without having my family members there with me. Whether we’re chilling in the Pacific Northwest, or tanning in the CNMI, when we make and eat chicken kelaguen together, we’re home. Chicken kelaguen, I love you!
Aleia Hofschneider Santos (Special to the Saipan Tribune)