|Pennsylvania finery— gravy smothered ham, roast chicken and potatoes, stuffing, corn, green beans and a buttered roll|
Here lies Anges Gellis, laid to rest at the age of 92 surrounded by family and friends; it was a sad occasion colored with great stories of this feisty matriarch. We drove out to Danielsville PA for the service, after which the reception hall filled with great stories and laughter. The banquet table overflowed with chafing dishes of baked ham, roast chicken and potatoes, stuffing, corn, green beans, salad with bacon dressing and buttered rolls along side a separate island of kiffel, cheese cake, rice pudding and other sweets. Agnes had a pet rooster named Pete; she played guitar and loved to polka; Pennsylvania Dutch was her first language; she always had a choke to make you laugh. Her daughters and grandchildren eulogized how she was a frugal disciplinarian yet she was generous to all, especially with her baked goods. This loving granny was the queen of the rhubarb pie.
I often ponder the association of death and food. People on Guam are renown for epic funerals with devout prayer vigils that run the course of seven days. But despite the tone of sadness, funerals also bring about celebration and a tribute to a person’s life— or as my parents would say funerals are reunions of a certain age. As with all sad occasions on the island, grieving comes with a generous banquet. And with that banquet comes the balutan, the to-go plate that you pack on your way out. Balutan is co-opted in Chamorro from the Filipino word which means “package.” But on Guam it’s used more as a verb that pertains to taking food with you.
“Fan'balutan hu na talo'ani pot agupa.” “Pack my balutan for dinner tomorrow.” you can hear people yell from the parking lot to the person carrying the roll of tin foil. On Guam balutan is a well honed skill and everyone has their own technique of assemblage. In general you build a base with a paper plate and place the more solid foods first (ribs, BBQ, chicken, Spam, sausage) followed by a halo of softer foods (red rice, kelaguen, kimchee, corn, pasta) finish with savory pastries (tortillas, potu, lumpia, empanadas) then finally sealed in foil with an air-tight crimp. The goal is pack it in such a way that you can eat your way from top to bottom, so the order of food is most important. Sweets and delicate pastries are packed separately. Island folks build massive foil towers but you can spot the real pros, they bring their own plastic containers.
At my fathers funeral his friends told me how much they missed him and how much I look like him when he was younger— many asked who did the catering and who made the flan. These are hardly insincere questions, the complement on the fresh soft rolls and BBQ note the host’s attention to detail. It is more of an insult if no one takes food home with them. My aunt who lead the rosary vigils brought her legendary Tupperware set that stacked and fit perfectly into the cooler in her pickup truck. Portable Infant of Prague with carrying case, vigil candles, gold rosary beads and Tupperware— Auntie Fe is balutan-ready and always prepared.
As I stood in a freshly plowed field in Danielsville, PA, I reflected on all the changes that this woman had lived through. Rural roads that wound through farmland became suburban track homes and highways over time. Seeing her children have children. Truth be said, I’ve only met Agnes Gellis once before, but I got the sense of her being. She will be remembered and missed by all. Life and death are celebrations and we must must all take part in this sweet and savory feast.