I Will Never Eat Corned Beef Again

The last things we ate — or drank, if we have to be precise — before the world came to an end on the night of March 12 were blended drinks from a milk tea shop beside a gasoline station along EJ Blanco Drive. We always wanted to try it out when it opened — and now there was a strange urgency to do just that. The shop was called Chachago, and it was new and had barely opened, so it must have been a nightmare to the proprietor to know that almost overnight, Dumaguete was going into a lockdown — and everything would be forced to a close. Life as we knew it was about to grind down to a halt — but first, we had to have our Chachago specials.

I ordered an Oreo chocolate iced frappe and Renz ordered the lychee green tea. He wanted something else with pearls — he was a big milk tea drinker — but the shop was running out of supplies, including those beloved pearls, because the shipment they were expecting was suddenly held up by the abrupt changes in the world.

Chachago was also getting ready to close down for the lockdown. The chairs and tables in the milk tea shop were already stacked to one side of the place, looking forlorn in the anticipation of no dine-ins. We had no other choice but to line up in socially-distanced queue, to order out, and later, outside in the wide concrete space of the gasoline station, look up to the stars and wonder what was in store for all of us in the next few weeks.

“Do we like the drinks?” I asked Renz.

“I’m okay with mine. What about you?”

“It’s okay.”

In fact it was a little too sweet for my taste, even though I had placed an order at 50% sugar. But I was not about to ruin my last Oreo chocolate iced frappe before the world ended.

“Look at the stars,” Renz said.

We liked looking at the stars. In the first months of our relationship, seven years ago, we made it a point to check in at a downtown boutique hotel which had a rooftop you could laze in, and we spent an early evening consulting my star map on my old iPad and trying to identify the constellations overhead. Renz was also into astrology — he knew all the predictive tricks for all the star signs, just for the fun of it, but was actually a disbeliever — and so he began to identify this star and that, and began to talk about the star season we were in. This time around, under the sign of the Pisces, he did not offer anything except only a directive to look at the night skies.

The stars blinked, sometimes hidden by clouds. They told me nothing.

It felt very much like a normal evening — and yet we knew there was something else gurgling in the din: an anticipation, a nervousness, an uncertainty. We stayed away from the people milling about as we drank our Chachago drinks, as we adjusted the new facemasks we were wearing.

“Did we forget anything from grocery shopping?”

Earlier that day, a Sunday, we had joined the rest of Dumaguete in the rush to buy groceries and household supplies at Lee Super Plaza. Only a few days ago, on March 12, the World Health Organization — after much unforgivable dilly-dallying, finally declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. (I wrote in my journal: “God bless us all” — because how else to greet that news?) By March 13, following Negros Oriental Provincial Governor Roel Degamo’s announcement of suspensions of much of our everyday lives and responsibilities, my university also canceled classes until the 17th. Now, everything felt like both a slowness and a rush.

I looked at Renz, and tried to remember what I had bought at Lee:

10 cans of assorted sardines
3 bottles of Spanish sardines
5 cans of beefloaf
10 cans of corned beef
3 cans of Vienna sausage
3 packs of bread
Shampoo
Coffee
Creamer
Peanut butter
Lady’s Choice chicken spread
Assorted drinks — including several bottles of Coke and Sprite
Trash bags

This is the grocery list of a confirmed bachelor who can’t cook. (Or in my defense: a bachelor who has no functioning kitchen in his small apartment to cook in.)

At least Renz shared a big house with his mother somewhere in Taclobo, and he had a good kitchen — and he could cook. He’d been cooking meals for himself and his mother since college. The last time I cooked, it was years and years ago, and I had made pasta for a boy I liked during one Christmas noche buena. And while the pasta was good, the boy did not fancy me.

“I think I have enough food for two weeks. This whole thing should blow over soon,” I said. “Plus, didn’t they promise us passes for shopping and seeking medical help?”

“Yes, they did.”

“I’m good then.”

I could live on these grocery goods for the rest of my days. And I already checked: Chop’d, the high-end karinderia in my neighborhood in Tubod, would still be open during the pandemic to take in take-out orders, so that would be the source of my rice for all my meals. And if I felt adventurous enough to go beyond my supplies of sardines, etc., I could always buy what they offered for viands. But they closed on Sundays. (I could eat bread on Sundays, I thought.)

We finished our drinks and got into Renz’s car. It was nearing the newly imposed curfew at 10 PM. We were going home and locking our doors to await the end of the world. We would not be seeing each other for a while, we knew that. For how long? Two weeks? Three? A month? Two months? We had no idea. So our Oreo chocolate iced frappe and lychee green tea would be our last communion before we’d say, “See you.” (Not “Goodbye” — we didn’t like the sound of finality in that word.)

“Did you like your Oreo chocolate iced frappe?” Renz asked.

“I did,” I said. “Did you like your lychee green tea?”

“I did.”

We drove off as the city darkened down, the strange silence bearing down on us like an alien hug.

* * *

That first Monday of Dumaguete in ECQ, March 16, felt like a dawn of a very quiet apocalypse. I woke up early, strangely enough, because the silence of the day had gravity and pulse — no one and nothing stirred. I made myself a cup of coffee.

I booted up my laptop, and got immersed in the thousand voices of people in social media waking up to a world that had ended. There were posts of concerns, posts of indignations, posts of COVID-19 panic and news. On Facebook, I posted: “I think we just realized the folly of our previous status quo: we have more malls than hospitals, and we graduate so many health professionals … in the service of other countries. Extraordinary times test our strengths and magnify our weaknesses, and highlight our capacity for becoming heroes and monsters.”

That felt righteous enough and made me happy.

I bought my rice from Chop’d — sizable enough for both lunch and dinner — and opened my first bottle of Montaño Spanish sardines. I relished at the small feast.

“Yum,” I moaned with pleasure when the spicy taste of the sardines hit my tongue.

* * *

On March 17, I found out Tom Hanks, his wife Rita Wilson, and Idris Elba just got COVID-19.

I felt a small ball of panic in my chest. “Oh, dear God. If these people could get it — anybody could get it.”

I still had three fries of Montaño Spanish sardines left, but had two more bottles to go. I decided I needed to pace myself, or else I’d quickly run out of stock in my little pantry. (I would not even call it a “pantry.” Pantry sounds like serious stocking of foodstuff, all arranged in nicely appointed cabinets in the kitchen. I had two square holes on the wall, 1 x 1 x 1 foot in dimension, somewhere near my sink where I stored what little I had.) I didn’t want to go on an unnecessary grocery run — plus I had no neighborhood pass yet. (We now have a cute name for it: a Q-pass, meaning “quarantine pass.”) I didn’t want to go out, whether I was hungry or not. Because if Tom Hanks could get COVID-19, so could I.

* * *

On March 23, I posted on Facebook: “Because my pad barely has a working kitchen, my daily sustenance comes via Chop’d in Tubod. I’d be the equivalent of the ravenous people in Level 200 in The Platform if it weren’t for them. Tonight I got lucky to have the last of their available fare for the day. I dread the day they will be forced to close.”

A colleague commented: “Food Panda.”

I replied: “I can’t.”

Truth to tell, my iPhone was too ancient and could not download the app.

I’ve been cooking in my dorm room,” my colleague said. “But from time to time, I order from Food Panda.”

I imagined his small dorm room in campus. ”You can cook in your room?” I responded.

“I have an induction stove,” he replied, and posted a photo of the meal he was cooking.

Taymsa, palaway man ni!” I replied.

He gave me a laugh emoji.

Xandro, a dentist and one of my closest friends, also responded: “Let’s go grocery shopping!”

“I have groceries. But I’m saving them for real emergencies.”

“Aww, okay.”

“When is your next food foraging run?”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

* * *

I was becoming paranoid of the outdoors. I was convinced I was becoming a hikikomori, one of those Japanese shut-ins who have foresworn the outside world for the gritty comforts of lives lived exclusively indoors. Nearing the end of March, my food stock was quicky dwindling — although not exactly: I had began to despair over having to eat the same increasingly bland canned food I’d been eating for days. The Spanish sardines were long gone. I loved the corned beef, but after six cans I never wanted to eat corned beef again. The rest of the other sardines proved ultimately revolting. And who invented beef loaf? Beef loaf is the spawn of culinary hell — a chunky meat-ish thing that smelled and tasted like anathema.

“Be thankful you have food,” Renz messaged me. “There are people out there who are getting hungry because they can’t work and they can’t buy food.”

Of course he’s right. He’s always right.

“Let’s go for a grocery run,” he said. “Maybe you can find alternatives to what you’ve been eating.”

“But I don’t have a Q-pass yet.”

“Let’s try anyway.”

I soon heard him honking his car horn outside my apartment — the sound reverberating in the quiet neighborhood, although it was no longer that quiet, not compared to the first few days of lockdown. People were starting to go out, tentatively at most — but they were out in the streets, if subdued and careful. I saw children going about flying kites. Flying kites! I thought then. What a strange thing to witness in a pandemic.

It was the first time I’d see Renz face to face in weeks — although we exchanged missives every single day over Facebook Messenger, our lifeline to human connection. We drove to Lee Super Plaza, opting to park inside its cavernous parking facility — that way we’d avoid the queue of people waiting at the main entrances. The lines we saw were long, and yet also very quiet. It felt very much like in the movies, the quietude of crowds in the face of apocalypse.

The security guard at the parking area entrance checked our bags, checked our facemasks, whipped out his thermometer gun — “36.6°” for Renz, “36.8°” for me — and asked us to log in with our contact details. “For contact tracing,” he said.

This was new.

Inside the grocery store, we saw many face-masked people shopping about in a kind of put-on nonchalance, moving in ways that suggested normalcy but betrayed by a slight nervousness as others invaded their personal spaces. You could see the tiny panic in their eyes. (All there was were eyes, to be honest. No faces, just eyes. In the beginning, it was all so disconcerting.) I felt instantly protective of my personal space as well. When someone got too near, I said with elevated gruffness in my voice: “Excuuuse me.” I glared at them when I needed to. Everyone was on tiptoes.

I bought more Spanish sardines.

And bread.

And chicken sandwich spread.

Grapes!

Tons of drinks.

“Let’s go check out if Chicco’s Deli is open later. I’d like to buy some salami,” I told Renz.

“Salami is good.”

Salami is not corned beef, at least.

Later, back in the comforts of my bed, I felt an odd kind of relief. I realized this was where I felt most safe right now, in bed, in my own apartment. Having to go out for a grocery run felt like an ordeal.

But at least I got to see Renz — although we did make a deal that our level of intimacy will have to be on Pushing Daisies mode for the meantime.

* * *

I was still waiting for someone from the barangay (my neighborhood belongs to Lo-oc) to come and give me my quarantine pass. I’d done all I could for now to obtain one. I’d even posted a note outside my gate — which I found out later was posted upside-down. And I’d gone to the barangay hall to list down my name and phone number on their register. That was it, that was all I could do.

There would be no more grocery runs without a Q-pass.

And people were panicking online, throwing conspiracy theories and ugly accusations and what-not because Q-passes were still not forthcoming from the local government — or at least not yet widely distributed.

“Why do we need to share one Q-pass with families in the same neighborbood?”

“I live in a boarding house. Who gets the Q-pass?”

“I heard they’re selling Q-passes. Why?”

But I got the sense of the panic eventually. What was really happening was not a crisis of lack of Q-passes, but more a gap in communication. (Which always happens. How many times have I posted about events with complete information, with people still DMing, “What time? Pila ang ticket?”) I got that everyone thought you needed a Q-pass even if you were just going to stand on the sidewalk outside your house. That was what I thought as well — and that was why people panicked. But you didn’t have to have a Q-pass for that. You could still go out to buy things from your nearest sari-sari store or karinderia. But you needed a Q-pass if you wanted to go to Lee Plaza, for example, or any place out of your immediate neighborhood or barangay.

Also another source of panic: we never really took note of the barangay as an important component in our lives. Until now. And so we had no idea how to engage. Some of us didn’t even know where our barangay halls were, until only three days ago.

I wished people stayed calm, and stayed at home. If we really wanted it, kaya ni nato.

* * *

But now I was also seeing food stalls sprouting everywhere.

There were small tianggues in surprising spots around many neighborhoods that sold fish and pork and vegetables and fruits. All of them offshoots from the public market downtown, which had become a challenge to enter and navigate. What they sold were tempting to have, but alas I didn’t cook — so they were useless to me.

I saw a stand at the corner of Hibbard Avenue and EJ Blanco Drive selling puto maya and tsokolate for breakfast. When I asked the woman selling them where she came from, I learned that she had a stall at the painitan at the public market — “But doing business there has become so hard,” she said. “I live in this neighborhood anyway, and it’s easier to sell my puto maya and tsokolate here.”

And then there were the pop-ups! There were coffee pop-ups at the Rizal Boulevard, for the early morning joggers. And the tocino pop-ups. And the liempo and lechon manok pop-ups. People were also beginning to barter things for food and what-not. I saw one post on a Facebook barter group trying to exchange lawn grass for two sacks of rice.

What did I have in my apartment to exchange for food?

I had a library full of books.

Would that be enough for two sacks of rice?

If this was a real, honest-to-goodness war, like what my parents went through in World War II, I’d be dead from hunger but I’d be well-read.

* * *

The ensuing days became the hardest on my psyche so far. My insomnia came back in full force, although my depression had not (yet) returned. In the meantime, I’d stubbed my pinky toe twice and I began missing food. Real food.

On March 26, I began compiling and sharing on Facebook posts of local restaurants doing take-outs and deliveries. “Where to Order Food During the ECQ in Dumaguete,” I titled my working album. I listed down the phone numbers and the email addresses, together with the establishments’ preferences for take-out or pickup (sometimes curbside pickup) or delivery. Suddenly there were small nuances between those three options.

I shared them all on social media — and Dumaguete made my posts viral. Here was my list [with belated annotations about how they eventually fared].

2Story
3 Little Pigs
Adamo
Alberto’s Pizza
Alima Café [gone]
Allegre
Ana Maria Bakeshop
Lechon Manok ni Sr. Pedro
Angkol’s Lechon Manok [recently reopened]
Bakugo Ramen [gone]
Biryani Point
Bo’s Coffee
Boho Dreams Grill and Cafe
BTJ Foodhouse
Chia Eatery
Cafe Filomena of Bethel Guest House
Cafe Laguna [still closed]
Cafe Mafioso
Cafe Mamia
Caña of The Bricks Hotel
Casablanca
Charlene and Sweetness [gone]
Chin Loong
Cocina Teria
Cubierto’s
Daddy Don’s
Damguland [gone]
Das Burgery
Don Atilano
Don Roberto’s
Eat Right
Ehem’s Ta Bai [gone]
Esturya
Falling Coconuts [gone]
Finbar
Fish153
Flamin’ Grill [transferred ownership]
Foodnet
Gabby’s Bistro [recently reopened]
Garahe Grillz [gone]
Gerry’s Grill
Golden Roy’s
The Green Chef
Habhaban
Hankki
Harbor City Dimsum House [closed]
Harvey’s Wings
Hashtag
Hayahay and Lab-as
Howyang [closed]
Hukad sa Golden Cowrie
Ichiraku
Jo’s Chicken Inato
Kape Lucio [closed]
Keto Trend
Kimstaurant [closed]
KRI [gone]
La Chocolatine Artisanal Bakery
Lantaw
Limottakna
Lipay Mundo Co.
Lord Byron’s Backribs [gone]
Mamita’s Diner [gone]
Manang Siony’s Original Tocino
Mels Cafe
McNeloy’s and Chantilly Cakehaus
Mifune Japanese Restaurant
Mister Saigon
Mooon Café [opened a new branch]
The Naked Brew
Negrense Microbrewery and Food Lab
Negros Lechon Manok
Neva’s
Nom [gone]
One Bethany Place
Panda Haus
Pardis [gone]
Pasta King [transferred to a new location]
Poppy Coffee and Cupcakes [closed and transferred to a new location]
Qyosko
Rabbiton
Redhouse Restaurant Taiwan
Rice Box Station to Go
The Rollin’ Pin
Roti Boss Curry House [one branch gone]
Royal Suite Inn
Ryu Sushi
Salotto
Salt and Pepper
Sans Rival
Scooby’s and The Bean Connection [recently reopened]
Sebastian Study Hub Cafe
Si, Senor! [recently reopened]
Silliman Cafeteria
Silver Reef
Soban Korean Restaurant
Sta. Teresa Restaurant
Soo Wan Asian Fusion Bistro
Tiffles
Tinto
The Tiny Chef
Tom n Toms Coffee
Tres Bistro
Why Not?
Yakiniku Hakusan
Yellowcab
Yumcha Cuisine

I shared the list to help out people exactly like me — people who could not cook and people who could not do the Food Panda app but had access to phones anyway. The response was ecstatic — my Messenger inbox was full of “Thank you’s,” and it felt like a mission fulfilled.

In lockdown, food became alternative entertainment. “What will I eat today?” became an abiding decision to make every single lockdown day.

(In hindsight, many of the restaurants and cafes above never made it in the rolling months of the pandemic. Many would close down, some for good. Some closed down at the very start of lockdown and never attempted to do take-out or delivery, and had never reopened. The lockdown was changing the food landscape of Dumaguete forever. There was a certain sadness to that. By April 3, Finbar announced on their Facebook page: “And that’s it! We have run out of stocks, our staff can’t get to work, and so we are finally admitting defeat. We still have lots of ready meals and bread, and will post a schedule of when someone will be at Finbar for you to be able to collect these to restock your supplies [once or twice a week]. Thank you so much for your continued support through these times and the lovely messages of support and encouragement. Fear not, we will be back as soon as we can. But for now, stay home and stay safe.”)

But this was also how I discovered three things: [1] the online ordering website of Jollibee was topnotch, [2] the Chowking downtown was within easy reach with just a text message, and [3] the menu at Neva’s tasted like good enough home-cooking, their delivery was fast, and they provided you with suki cards that gave you points towards freebies from their menu. They became my escape from the tyranny of canned food, and my alternative to Chop’d.

I was ordering from all three in rotation for the next three months. Soon their delivery boys knew my address and my face — and didn’t have to inquire anymore over text for landmarks in their delivery rounds. From Jollibee, I had my usual burger steak, something I always loved even before the pandemic. When I got tired of that, I went for the spaghetti and the chickenjoy and the palabok when it was available and sometimes the pancakes when I woke up early enough for breakfast. From Chowking, I timed my orders early enough to get their King’s Special for breakfast, and when I couldn’t, I’d go for their Chinese-style fried chicken or their sweet ‘n sour fish, and always with a side order of wonton soup and buchi.

But there was soon something remarkably off-putting about fast-food when you ate them day in and day out. They soon tasted of “corporate cuisine” incarnated, a certain soullessness which told you this was assembly line cooking, not real food. Soon I had to stop my Jollibee and Chowking streak, my third month into the lockdown. It had become unbearable.

That left Neva’s.

Neva’s never failed me. I rotated between their assortment of pasta and salad and Vietnamese phở and banh mi and soup (always seafood chowder) and vegetarian dishes and their Tuscan series (either the chicken or the porkchop) and their fish a la pobre and their fried chicken wings and their fish in banana leaves and their roast beef and their herbed pork chop and their liempo, and so much more.

I still order from Neva’s now and then.

Now, when friends would invite me to dine out in Neva’s, I’d say no. “That’s my regular food,” I’d tell them. “Take me somewhere else.”

* * *

When you’re hungry in challenging times, you find out soon enough how best to feed yourself given your specific difficulties.

I had my phone — that was good access enough to getting food.

I’d text my order, and 20 minutes later, I’d have my food delivered at my door, hot and ready to eat.

In the pandemic, “take-out” and “delivery” were words that defined best Dumaguete food.

And then I thought of the people who had no Food Panda, and no means to contact restaurants for take-out or delivery, and no work to afford their mealtime necessities from all these pop-ups. How were they faring? I never went fully hungry in pandemic time — but that was a privilege I knew I had and could never be thankful enough for having.

For that alone, I’d never complain about having to eat corned beef ever again.

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Ian Rosales Casocot

Interpreter of hamsters. Author of Beautiful Accidents: Stories and Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror