Filipino Fruit Salad

by Jen Palmares Meadows

Filipino Fruit Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 30 servings

Ingredients

6 14.5 ounce cans Del Monte fruit cocktail
½ rectangle Philadelphia cream cheese
½ 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 Red Delicious apple
¼ container Cool Whip whipped topping

Directions

Strain fruit cocktail until dry.
In large container, mix softened cream cheese and condensed milk.
Peel and cube apple. Add all fruit to cream cheese mixture.
Combine thoroughly with spoon. Fold in Cool Whip.
Transfer to serving dish, cover, and chill overnight.

The night before a party, we must prepare. We celebrate a baptism, a
birthday, an anniversary, a graduation. We host a funeral reception,
a potluck, a meeting of kasimanwas. Whatever reason we meet, they
are coming and we are making food, so much food.

My father moves around the kitchen, tsinellas slapping against tile
as he gathers the ingredients for Filipino fruit salad onto the counter.
He begins as he always begins.

“It’s so easy to make, Jen. Very easy. So simple.” His preface before
each cooking lesson begins the same, whether he prepares cassava,
pancit, or pinakbet. He says this, I think, because he knows that I will
only try if it is easy.

Growing up, my contributions to our family dinners had been the
simplest—to cook rice and set the table. Born and raised in the United
States, I am takeout restaurants and drive-up menus. I am pancake
cheeseburgers and single-serving ketchup packets. I am a hesitant
cook, easily intimidated by complex directions and unfamiliar
ingredients. But today, the lesson is Filipino fruit salad, our version
of ambrosia. Even I cannot mess up canned fruit cocktail and Cool
Whip.

“Try. Just try. You’ll see how easy it is. How delicious.” He says
this again and again, emptying can after can of fruit cocktail into a
colander, draining juice into the sink. “Try. You will make it, and your
children will like it.”

Beneath his fervent encouragement, I understand a certain urgency,
and make a silent promise to catalogue his ministrations. I survey
his ingredients. Cream cheese. Condensed milk. Cool Whip.

“Dad, where did you learn to make this? Not back home?”

My father grew up in the Philippines, in a modest wooden home
built by his father after the war. Their diet of salted meat, fish, fruits,
vegetables, and rice, included ginger tea, and evaporated milk—rarely
cream.

“Oh, when your mom and I moved to the States and went to parties,
people made this. We saw how much everyone liked it, how simple
it was.” He cuts a softened rectangle of cream cheese in two and
places half into a large Tupperware container where he will combine
everything.

I imagine my young immigrant parents, newly arrived to the land
of milk and honey, attending gatherings and making friends. They
would have wanted to offer a dish both delicious and affordable.

He pops two holes into a can of condensed milk and holds it over
the cream cheese, all patience as the yellowish goop dribbles out.
With the back of a spoon, he mashes the chunks of cream cheese into
the condensed milk, stirring them together.

He murmurs beneath his breath as he stirs, drifting into a singsong.
Those who know my father well are accustomed to the sound
and music that often escapes him, sometimes in the form of a song,
a whistle, a series of clicks, or a repetitive chant. When I was I child,
I would sit on the stairs listening to him read his books aloud at our
dining room table, his slow, deep voice reverberating against the
walls, the words settling inside me like a tonic. To this day, when revising
my own writing, I must read everything aloud, paying careful
attention to pauses and rhythms.

My father likes to host parties, to gather family. He grew up the
youngest of twelve children. I try hard to imagine them sharing one
table, brown legs of various lengths swinging from benches and
chairs. “All the children ate first, then the older ones,” he tells me.
“We ate a lot of stews. A lot of stews.”

With five offspring of his own, his brood is large enough, plus the
addition of their spouses, and children, an intimate gathering of our
immediate family alone can be raucous. Perhaps this is why he is always
surrounded by song—he is unaccustomed to silence.

“Make sure the fruit is dry before you add it—no juice, otherwise
it will be runny.”

The fruit plops into the mix—mushy yellows and reds, diced
peaches, pears, grapes, pineapple chunks, and cherries. The cherries
are so elusive. There’s never enough.

He peels an apple, chops it up, and adds it to the bowl.

“You add the apple so you have something fresh.”

I don’t tell him this, but the apple is my least favorite part. I always
eat the apple chunks first so I can enjoy the rest without their
inclusion. Every family makes the dish differently. Some use mango
or jackfruit. Some add jarred macapuno or nata de coco. We do not.
When eating someone else’s fruit salad at a party, I separate the
worm shaped coconut and cubed jelly to the side of my plate. Filipinos
have interesting dessert combinations that my Americanized
palette still finds peculiar—corn and cheese ice cream, tapioca and
bean iced drinks. Filipino experimentation in dessert is a testament
to our ingenuity, adaptability, our willingness to make the best of
what we are given.

One hand gripping the bowl, his other arm raised, elbow pointing
up, he combines the fruit with the creamy mixture. He is completely
absorbed in his task, his head bowed. Each time he pulls the spoon
free, the cream creates a satisfying suction sound as if the dessert
is trying to swallow the spoon. The sound of wet cream is, I know, a
rich one.

Reaching into the refrigerator, Dad pulls out the Cool Whip. He
adds a heaping spoonful and folds in the whipped topping.

“Just a little bit, Jen. To prevent it from getting yellow. When you
add the whipped cream, it’s like icing on the cake.”

I think I hear satisfaction in his humming when finally, he pours
everything into a crystal ice bucket for presentation, a fancy symbol
of the high regard to which we hold my father’s fruit salad. His hands
make quick work of stretching plastic wrap over the top and sliding it
into the already full refrigerator to allow the cream cheese and condensed
milk to thicken.

***

Because my mother likes to worry, no matter how many dishes we
prepare, or how many dishes guests are likely to bring, she will order
more. She and my dad will leave a few hours before the party
and return with catered lechon and lumpia, and if we expect lots of
guests, with folding tables and stacking chairs that we will set up in
the backyard.

The minutes before the guests arrive are a frenzied putting away of
things. Each time the front door opens, a new myriad of voices joins
the cacophony. Depending on how long life has kept me away from
home, it has been a year, sometimes more since I have heard these
voices. We embrace, pressing our cheeks. They tuck their purses behind
the sofa and under chairs. And by the door, so many shoes, on
shoes, on shoes. And the television, playing the Lakers game or the
boxing match, is on high and gets turned up higher still, because the
voices are so loud, but it is good.

At last, it is time to line up. We circle about the table, shuffling at
first and then moving with more certainty, our brown arms reaching
over steaming platters of rice, mechado and pancit malabon. We exclaim
over the leche flan and lechon. We will need seconds and then
thirds. We circle the table again and again, dancing before the feast,
our bent heads sometimes sending the chandelier swinging.

Later, I won’t bother with a dessert plate, but spoon the chilled
fruit salad onto my already used plate, atop straggling grains of rice
and savory sauces. These leftovers are the final ingredients, a bit of
heart from each dish I have consumed, a gift from every member who
has participated in this feast, every person my mother and father
have gathered to our table. Settled on the couch alongside siblings
and cousins, I attempt to capture every conversation, every flavor,
ever cognizant that time changes all things. My comfort is the spoon
moving through my father’s fruit salad and the familiar texture of
congealed cream cheese and condensed milk.