Plates filled with grace

Thanksgiving brings out the best and the worst in me. While it heightens my appreciation of the vast amount of food I can now afford, it also transforms me into this dish-licking, leftover-food-looting maniac set to wage a war against waste.

As it is, my table demeanor has raised eyebrows. A frequent eating companion once remarked that my plate reminded her of a dog dish licked clean. During a buffet brunch, another friend leaned across the table to whisper: "You know, at buffets, they expect plates to at least have crumbs. You don't want the bus boys to lose their jobs, do you?"

But come Thanksgiving - the holiday that inspires us to count our blessings while tempting us to entertain excess - I become even more relentless, like a food processor turned to its highest speed.

When invitations to Thanksgiving feasts started dwindling over the past few years, I confronted this compulsion to clean my plate. It took me on a journey back to my childhood in the Philippines, where I grew up on repeat leftovers and desperation meals such as rice with soy sauce or hard-boiled eggs stewed in ketchup broth.

Despite such meager repasts, my family always tried to share each supper as though it were our last. But sometimes my brother, two sisters, and I couldn't help glaring at our food as if to say, "We know who you are. You're last week's boiled potatoes mashed to disguise yourself." Or, "You're yesterday's fish, boned and torn into tiny little pieces beyond recognition."

This is when my mother, a public school teacher, would say grace: "Lord, thank you for seeing us through another day without skipping a meal. We're grateful for the food on our table that some people do not have. We promise to eat to the last grain in appreciation of your blessings....."

My father, a construction worker, also had his way of making us feel less deprived. Once every three months, he planned a restaurant outing for the family. He would order a full-course steak dinner for two with extra dishes and utensils for the children.

As soon as the food arrived, Mother would roll up her sleeves and get to work: She would slice the steak into equal portions and divide up everything else - from soup to rice and side dishes.

Father explained that the outing was meant to give us a taste of good food so that when other children talked about eating steak in school we could join in the conversation.

We all looked forward to those outings, and I didn't want them to end. The scent and taste of steak would linger in my mind for weeks. That was when I must have adopted the concept of savoring the taste of food.

As a child who wanted to prolong the experience of eating steak at a fancy restaurant, I learned the habit of saving my favorite part of the meal for last. This way, the flavor stayed in my mouth until my bedtime tooth brushing removed all the remnants. The habit almost always led to an empty plate after meals.

Many years later, I found myself setting foot on American soil. I was a grown woman with a big appetite and not a lot of sophistication.

One October day, shortly after my arrival in New Jersey, an American-born cousin took me apple picking for the first time. I wept at the sight of hundreds of big red and green apples carpeting the orchard floor.

While in America it costs next to nothing to pick as many apples as one can carry, back in the Philippines when I was growing up, apples were rare and expensive. They were so rare, in fact, that my parents found them only in December at import-export stores, and they were so expensive that they could afford only two small apples for the whole family to share on Christmas Eve.

On the drive back to my cousin's home, I lay sprawled on a bed of apples in the back of his pickup. The stars in the fall sky seemed to glimmer at me each time I bit into a crunchy, juicy Red Delicious. I couldn't "clean" the truck bed. For the first time, I had so much more than I could possibly eat.

Since then, my mother's grace has been mine on Thanksgiving.

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