Thursday, December 18, 2008

Of vegan cupcakes and teen prisoners

So yesterday a bunch of coworkers from my real job and I went to visit the kids at CRADLE, or Center for Restorative Activities, Development, and Learning Experiences at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan. CRADLE sounds like a nice warm place you'd want to come home too, right? CRADLE is essentially a prison for teen criminals. I hesitate to use the word "criminals" -- they aren't rapists, or drug lords, or murderers. Actually, I didn't really get to ask them what they did to deserve living in CRADLE. I suppose they snatched purses and cellphones while sniffing glue... Perhaps the occasional Jets vs. Sharks rumble...

This was an official company social responsibility / employee volunteer visit. Ten of us sponsored a Christmas lunch for the 37 "children in conflict with the law". By children I reckon they're 14 to +20 years old. The usual diet of these kids are rice and vegetables, maybe the occasional fish. We (my company) sponsored adobo (definitely not vegan - pork and chicken stewed in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, pepper, and bay leaf), juice, and fruits (apple and orange). ACE International, the NGO that asked us to join them, provided the rice. My baking company / I provided the vegan cupcakes, because what's a Christmas without cupcakes, right? And surely these kids don't get cupcakes in prison...

I didn't really grasp the reality of our visit until we saw prison buses that look a lot like this one parked outside. I pictured the movie Con Air and thanked God that my first visit to a prison was at a kids' prison (well, prison's prison right? It's harder for the kids I'm sure).

Seriously, they were so HAPPY that we visited. No one visits them, not even their family. They were completely normal people who just so happened to live in prison. Some of them helped us carry our things in. A bunch of them were setting up drums and an electric guitar (!! they get crap food everyday but they have an electric guitar?). There was a freaking karaoke machine in the room. How Filipino it is, right? You'll always see a karaoke machine anywhere and everywhere in the Philippines -- even in prison.

This little guy isn't a criminal unless you consider being cute and makulit / playful a crime. His name is Michael Jordan (typical Filipino name) and he's the kid of the prison cook. What kind of prison allows the cook to bring in his kid to hang with the "prisoners"?

Apparently it's illegal to take photos of the kids with their full faces seen (back heads or profile are okay). But they were so smitten that we brought cameras and wanted us to take their pictures. I told one of the administrators there that I'd either delete the pictures after or put black bars on their faces. So disclaimer, now they look like real criminals with the bars on their eyes but seriously, they were like younger brothers you never had.

All my coworkers stayed in the back hanging around during the actual meal. One of the boys (let's call him Boy from now on) asked me to sit with him and his friends and I thought it rude to say no. So while they had their adobo and cupcakes I had my baon of beans and togue or bean sprouts (I know, typical hippie food -- I've been eating a lot of sugar and I needed something healthy) . Of course Boy was curious about my food. I think my exact words were, "Hindi ako kumakain ng karne dahil ayokong may mamamatay para sa pagkain ko," which roughly translates to "I don't eat meat because I don't want anyone to die for my food." Well they immediately got it and didn't ask me anymore questions.

(getting lunch and praying before eating)

Boy looked like he was about 16 or 17 years old. He had a boyish smile and seemed pretty sincere. I had an interesting time conversing with Boy. He told me that they were all grateful for us to bring them food and spend time with them. He admits that no one really visits them regularly; he hails from Antipolo which is at the northern tip of Metro Manila and his family has pretty much forgotten about him (!). He's been in CRADLE for 3 years now, the longest among the boys. He misses normal life and his family. Life in CRADLE is mind-numbingly boring. They don't do anything because there's nothing to live for. Some of them have done their time but are stuck there because of bureaucratic red tape -- arghhh, typical government!

(boy band)
It's hard to see them as criminals because their crimes were founded on poverty. These guys were dirt poor, brought up in an overpopulated country that didn't care about them. Their parents were dirt poor and so were their parents' parents. I'm not trying to excuse their crimes, but how can you call them criminals when the only way they could feed themselves is by stealing? I know, stealing is wrong... But who's to blame for their dire circumstance? Poverty begets criminals, and 1/3 of the Philippines is poor.

While we were packing up to leave, Boy approaches me and asks if I could come visit on December 23. Aw man, my heart broke for him! I told him I wish I could, but I can't. I told him I'd get in touch with CRADLE's / ACE's administrators to see if we can visit again. He shrugged it off, but I'm sure he felt bad. He said it was his birthday on the 23rd (and no one visits). :(

Man, some Christmas they'll be having on the 25th, huh?


Me bringing 10 dozen mini cupcakes to CRADLE wouldn't have been possible without my dear Christmas elves. They loved piping the frosting and sprinkling the sprinkles on the cupcakes while I was busy frantically baking other goods for my clients. Fina, Honey, Emy, and Marivic, thanks so much!

I leave you with this photo of some of the CRADLE boys (with some of my coworkers). How deceivingly content they look, no?

One more thing -- we couldn't give these guys straws for their juice. Could be used as a stabbing device, you think? So they can have drums but not juice straws?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas hysterics + Lazy French Onion Chickpeas

Christmas is fast approaching and the orders keep on coming in. I'm up to my ears in baking and while I sincerely enjoy hand-mixing cake batter and piping frosting on cupcakes, the work's starting to take a toll on me. Frankly I haven't really cooked a meal since World Vegan Day lunch and dinner as baking takes up a lot of my time. I have been known to spend Friday nights baking until Saturday morning, and sleeping throughout my Saturday out of sheer exhaustion. But hey! I'm not complaining. I'm getting vegan baked goods into the hands of the masses. And while I spent 10 hours yesterday baking I'm still pumped to bake some more this week. Sigh, I really must love this night and weekend job...

In case you were curious... this is what I baked yesterday and what I'll be baking tonight, Tuesday night, and Wednesday night (!):
  • 4 coffee cakes
  • 2 2-layer cakes
  • 3 brownies
  • 6 dozen cookies
  • 20 dozen cupcakes
To be fair, one of the brownies was a Christmas gift and so was 1 dozen cookies. The cupcakes are minis but I swear, they're more difficult to make than regular ones! And, 10 dozen of the cupcakes are for an outreach I'm participating in on Wednesday. A bunch of my co-workers (from my real job) and I are hosting a Christmas lunch at CRADLE, this prison / rehab center for juvenile delinquents (a more PC term is "children in conflict with the law"). The lunch itself is not vegan, hence my contribution of vegan cupcakes. I'm excited for this activity and I hope the kids will take a liking to my cupcakes.

Good Lord, sometimes I wish I had magic elves to do my bidding. It's a good thing I did my Christmas shopping in Hong Kong when Cebu Pacific decided to torture travelers, because I seriously have NO time to do anything except bake and go to my real job.

So where was I? Oh yeah, the cooking. Last night I found myself in a kitchen full of baked goods (for sale) with NOTHING to eat for dinner. I was too lazy to chop up som
e tomatoes and peel some garlic. Cooking a simple dinner was a nice break from the crazy baking. Since I was pooped out I decided to make a super easy, super fast, big-on-flavor dish that I christened Lazy French Onion Chickpeas.

Hah. Remove "lazy" from the title and the dish sounds so classy, no? The dish could probably be served in a posh restaurant as appetizer with bruchetta and a glass of white wine. I call it "French onion" because I took inspiration from the ubiquitous French onion soup. With the chickpea-onion ratio at practically 1:1, this dish is for the onion lover who is not afraid of the aftermath of potent onion-y goodness.

This recipe (finally! an actual recipe with actual proportions!) is enough for 4 people, or for 2 dinners and 2 lunches for the next day (some of us still pack lunch for work...).

Lazy French Onion Chickpeas
1 glug of olive oil (fine, if you want to get technical, about 2 tbsp.)
4 onions, chopped into half moons

a palm-ful of dried thyme (1-2 tsp.)
3 cans of chickpeas (454 grams or 15 oz), drained and rinsed well
salt and black pepper to taste
a splash of water (2-4 tbsp.)

Heat a saucepan on the stove. Add in the olive oil. When hot, throw in the onions and stir until caramelized, about 5-10 minutes. Add in the thyme and the chickpeas, and stir until the chickpeas are heated through, about 2-3 minutes. Add salt and pepper -- I am a black pepper fan and am known to sprinkle generous amounts on my food. When the pan looks pretty dry, add in the water to help scrape up the good bits stuck on the pan, and to help the chickpeas absorb the onion's awesomeness. You should be done in about 5 minutes (after adding the water).

You know how French onion soup always has cheese on top? Well, if you want that cheesy flavor but don't want to torture the cows (or the carabaos, goats, sheep, or whatever
animal was abused for its reproductive secretion), may I suggest a copious sprinkling of nutritional yeast. I didn't take a photograph of the dish with the nooch because, well, it wasn't pretty.

Enjoy! Serve this dish with a side of vegetables, or on top of a salad, or with pasta, and/or with crusty bread. You can blitz this in your food processor to make a nice sandwich filling / spread -- leave it chunky. My co-vegan-brother-in-arms ate this with rice, I hope he enjoyed it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dealing with airline stupidity: Cebu Pacific likes to screw over their travelers and PAL serves crap vegan food

Before I babble about food, can I just rant, again? If you recall my last post I was whining about how traveling can be so complicated. Well, Cebu Pacific will never cease to complicate the lives of travelers. This airline looks as us travelers as commodities, mere objects that can be easily replaced or easily maltreated. Their cheap promos never fail to get us to be repeat customers, never mind how horrifyingly disrespectful and condescending they are. And, they can get away with it! Because we Filipinos are too shy for confrontation! We think we're inferior to The Man! Cebu Pacific's bribe of a free round trip ticket to whatever country they fly to, usable within a year, doesn't help either. A lot of Filipinos who travel are OFWs and would kill for a free ticket.

Why the rant? I was set to come back to Manila last Monday, flight at 11am. I arrive at the airport and line up for check-in at 9:30. As usual the check-in lines to the Cebu Pacific desks are the only ones that are crowded with people. Probably too cheap to buy those barricade things for orderly lines. A Cebu Pacific guy asks some of the customers if they're willing to shift their flight to the 7:30pm one as there were "too many passengers". Almost all said no. We had our schedules to follow. I was set to go boxing in the afternoon followed by hours of baking.

For 30 minutes I didn't move my position in the line. By 10:20am I was second in line, but then we (me with 15-20 other people) were told that we couldn't board the plane, because the plane was already full, because they were overbooked. Yes folks. Cebu Pacific books flights by 10% over maximum seating, then at the last minute screws over the customers who just so happen to be last in line. "I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do. It's not our fault," says one of the clerks. Apparently it's the "booking agent"'s fault. And, "it's the first time it has happened." Bullshit talaga. I've heard stories of Cebu Pac's cruelty (Marketman rants splendidly here and here). They'll screw you over then bribe you with free tickets.

Oh yeah, so I was forced to take the 7:30pm flight. But they didn't accept early check-ins so I had to leave my luggage at their storage area and shell out HK$55. And HK$200 for 2 train tickets, to and from the city. The only good thing that came out of this was I finished my Christmas shopping and got my hands on New Moon. I think I spent more on shopping (for other people!) than on how much those free tickets are worth...


This wasn't the first time an airline pissed me off. Back in May I flew PAL (Philippine Airlines) to and from Singapore. I made it a point to contact PAL beforehand and let them know that I needed vegan food (by the way, apparently you can't make a food request on their customer service email, you have to call their hotline, which is busy 98% of the time. Best to go through a travel agent). On my flight to Singapore the 3 other people in my group were bumped up to business class for free because economy was overbooked. I got stuck in economy because of my special food request. Which turned out to not be very special.

PAL, why oh why do you choose to torture people who don't want to torture animals? Why can't you offer better veg options? Ladies and gentlemen, I was served overboiled tasteless vegetables (the green beans were practically the same shade as the pumpkin) with rice. They weren't even salted. Seriously, that's all I had. And a dish of fruit. They gave me a "salad" of leaves and tomatoes, WITH NO DRESSING. And, they gave me margarine that had milk products. THE ONLY FLAVORING I HAD WAS SALT, and I had to add this on my own. It was not a good meal. My return trip was a lot better though -- I had pasta with tomato sauce and black eyed peas (meal was better probably because the food came from Singapore).

Traveling vegans, I highly encourage that you make your food requests as detailed as possible. Tell them what you can and can't have. And, if they screw you over, complain! We don't want these things to happen to others. Complain, but be respectful :)

After my bad experience with PAL, I sent them an email:

Hi, I'd like to give you some feedback on the vegetarian food I was served for my flight with your airlines on PR 505 and PR 504.

I have to say, I was very disappointed with the food during my PR 505 flight last Friday night. I had vegetables with rice, a dish of fruit, a side salad with a slice of lemon, and a dinner roll with margarine. The vegetables were overcooked and had no taste -- they were merely boiled / steamed to the point that the colors of the broccoli and string bean were almost the same as that of the kalabasa. These had no flavor whatsoever and had to be dressed with salt and pepper. The salad's only dressing was a slice of lemon. The roll was okay, and the fruits were nice, but the margarine had dairy in it. I reported this to the stewardess / purser and she was very gracious and apologetic. She handled the situation well and even gave me some more fruit.

The food on PR504 on Monday afternoon was a lot better, I'm happy to say. The spaghetti with tomato sauce and black eyed peas was delicious. The margarine was a different brand that didn't have an ingredients list so I could not make sure if this contained milk.

I hope that your future non-dairy, non-vegetarian meals will be similar to that of PR504 and never of PR505. As an airline that caters to an international consumer base, this is an important feature to work on as not everyone eats meat, seafood, dairy, and egg. I hope PAL improves on this. Thank you."

And their reply:

Dear Ms. Gonzales,

We acknowledge receipt of your email and attachment below.

Please allow us to convey, at the outset, our sincere regrets and apologies, on behalf of Philippine Airlines, for whatever inconveniences you may have felt as a result of your reported experience.

A request for feedback from the offices concerned is now underway to look into the circumstances surrounding your complaint. We will correspond with you as soon as we have the results of our investigation. We would appreciate your patience in awaiting our reply.

Thank you,
Customer Relations"

2 months later, they email me back:

Dear Ms. Gonzalez,

This is further to our acknowledgment email regarding flight PR505/23MAY08, from Manila to Singapore. Thank you for your patience in awaiting our reply. On behalf of Philippine Airlines, please allow us to convey our sincerest regrets for the disappointment caused you.

We took note of your feedback regarding the overcooked and tasteless vegetarian meal that was served to you. You will appreciate to know that we had since brought your concerns to the attention of our Assistant Vice President for Inflight Planning and Standards for the appropriate corrective action. You can be assured of the preferential attention.

Ms. Gonzalez
, we, at Philippine Airlines, recognize the importance of your feedback for a more effective delivery of service. We have always believed that passenger feedback serves as an important tool for us to gauge what our customers expect from us. Please be assured, therefore, of our unwavering efforts to always try to meet these expectations. We hope to be of service to you again on board one of our flights, soon."

And I replied:

Thanks so much for sending an update on the food, I really appreciate it. I'm very patriotic and I want PAL to be world class and friendly to all people with different tastes (food and non-food alike). I think it's important that an airline adapt to current trends, especially since this reflects its ability to be hospitable to everyone. One customer's bad experience with your service can discourage a lot of people from trying your service out! I think the statistic is that one person will share with people his or her bad experience with a product / service +90% of the time.

I sincerely hope that the quality of non-dairy, non-egg vegetarian food (aka "vegan" food) improves because I would really like to continue to patronize PAL. If you need suggestions on how to improve your menu or what have you, please don't hesitate to ask me. Not only am I vegan, I love to cook and bake vegan food.

Thank you."
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