On Typhoons and Thermidor

In 2006, my piece On Typhoons and Thermidor won a runner-up prize at the Doreen Fernandez Food Writing Awards. As a former student of Ma’am Doreen’s, it was particularly touching to me that I wrote a creative food essay that perhaps she would consider good, especially since she had to sit through a godawful three-act play I wrote under her tutelage in 1998.

Reading this New York Times piece on her brought back so many memories. So I’m putting this up in honour of her.

ON TYPHOONS AND THERMIDOR

It is always with much anticipation that I await the arrival of August, traditionally time for typhoons, when monsoon rains pound the city into submission and paint the metropolis a gloomy gray. Not too many allow themselves to see silver linings in the storm clouds; I, however, have always looked forward to cold gusts of wind and sheets of rain, as typhoons inevitably inspire my mother – soul food cook extraordinaire and possessor of warm arms that wrap oh-so-comfortably around shivering shoulders grown numb with cold – to prepare her family specialty, shrimp thermidor.

My father would joke about how it was raining cats and dogs, and how Mom should run outside and collect a couple of felines for homemade siopao, prompting my brother and me to protest his otherwise cruel trains of thought.

While the wind outside rattled our windows and rain hammered angrily against the windowpanes, Mom would gather her boys – John and me – around the kitchen table, wrap a blanket each around us, and prepare the ingredients for this heart- and body-warming dish. Dad lingered in the next room while he finished his crossword puzzle, and in the background played Sinatra, Astrud Gilberto, or Robert Goulet, the family’s having lost interest in the AM radio after the announcement that classes were suspended. Those days were most precious of all; if our family had to have soul food, this was it: hot and flavorful, with a helpful heap of memories to add that extra zing.

Shrimp thermidor is not a traditional Filipino culinary creation, but Mom always made international cuisine an adventure for our family, as most great cooks are wont to do. One can adapt thermidor to suit a variety of tastes, but the heart of the thermidor beats around seafood, usually lobster, shrimp, or prawn, cooked in a béchamel sauce, and flavored with herbs and spices, the usual selections being tarragon, white wine, shallots, and a hint of mustard. Often, the shells of the seafood are left intact – lobster and prawn shells are best – so that, upon cooking, the thermidor can be scooped back into the shells, and make for a delightfully elegant presentation. To do this, however, the thermidor must be temptingly thick, and the thicker and hotter the thermidor, the more hearty and appealing. Legend has it that the French conqueror Napoleon gave it its unusual name, after he first tasted it sometime between July 19 to August 17, during the French Revolutionary calendar‘s eleventh month, Thermidor, which was incidentally, considered the month of heat. During those cold and rainy nights, truly, my mother’s shrimp thermidor lived up to its heritage.

My mother’s version of shrimp thermidor always began with a stack of unshelled large shrimps, about half a kilo’s worth. Mom would remove them from their shells, slice off their tails, then run a knife gently along their backs so they would open – flower, really – upon cooking. Once the shrimps were ready, she would julienne an onion, then melt three-fourths of a cube of butter in a medium saucepan to gently cook the onion slivers to a very light brown. The distinct aroma of buttered onion – annoying to many, heaven to my brother and I – would fill the kitchen, and many fond memories have I of buttered carrots, corn, peas, and onions prepared on many a cold night while
studying, Mom peering over my shoulder to ensure the correctness of my answers.

As soon as the onions were soft and cooked, my mother would put the shrimps into the saucepan, and cook them until they opened, like soft pink flowers, and smelled wonderful. At that point, she would put in a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, and a canful of water, and bring all of that to a boil. By this time, the kitchen would be filled with laughter, as Dad would come into the room, having finished his puzzle, and run us around the table. Mom would scream, “Tama na, baka mabuhos ang thermidor!” and my father would tickle her incessantly. “Nicholas!” she’d scream.

The piéce de resistance was a whole block of cheese – Eden or Ques-O, my mother didn’t care for Quickmelt – diced and gently added to the mixture. Flavors consisted of light sprinklings of salt, pepper, or tarragon; on certain days, Mom would transform the thermidor into thick and flavorful chowder with the addition of potato cubes. When the shrimp thermidor was ready, my mother would serve it in a large soup bowl, for scooping over hot white rice or steaming pasta, usually colored twists, macaroni, or linguini. The four of us would sit at the dinner table, help ourselves to the piping hot thermidor, and crack jokes about how cats and dogs never really seemed to fall on rainy August days.