Sometimes all it takes is a call from a total stranger to bring change to one’s life. And that’s exactly what happened to author, chef and journalist Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino when one late evening many years ago she picked up the phone and the voice on the other end of the line said, “You don’t know me, but your mother saved my life.”
That conversation with an American World War II veteran and POW revealed to Elizabeth Ann the stories about her mother’s remarkable wartime heroism in the Philippines. It also sparked the beginning of a 20-year journey of learning more about her mother’s acts of daring and compassion. The author would eventually pour all of her discoveries into a book called, “Every Ounce of Courage: A Daughter's Reflections On Her Mother's Bravery,” a story of fearlessness, family, and life in the Philippines through the prism of generational recipes.
Elizabeth Ann delved into a trove of old letters, photographs and recipes in search of the source of her mother’s courageous spirit. Lourdes “Lulu” Reyes Besa channeled the heartbreak of a childhood tragedy into a profound sense of service. She helped raise three brothers while still a child herself in the early years of the 20th century. Then, as a young socialite in 1930s Manila, she focused on philanthropy and charity work.
During the Japanese occupation, Lulu embarked on humanitarian missions, bringing aid and comfort to Filipino and American prisoners of war even as it meant putting her life in danger. In 1947, President Harry Truman awarded Lulu two Medals of Freedom, making her the first Filipina civilian to be so honored for her valiant efforts.
“I found while researching about my mother Lulu's part in WWII history -- that as a humanitarian aid worker with the Red Cross and the Chaplains' Aid Association, (she) was one of the first Filipina civilians who bravely and courageously entered the most dangerous incarceration camps to bring food, aid, and medicines to American and Filipino POWs - with total disregard for her personal safety,” Elizabeth Ann tells ANCX. “And as I was writing and doing further research, I discovered that in the prison camps, POWs left hidden handwritten notes in the prison walls, thanking Lulu Reyes for saving their lives, and smuggling in malaria medicine, and aid.”
Betty Ann, who was raised along with her sister Isabel in Tarlac, Tarlac by Lulu and father Gualberto Besa, describes her mother as “a beautiful person inside and out. She was compassionate, kind and generous to a fault…she helped so many people in her lifetime - it didn't matter if they were family, friends or strangers. She always saw the good in other people, even in her enemies or even those who hurt her.”
In “Every Ounce of Courage,” Elizabeth Ann begins each chapter with her cooking a recipe from her mother. “I wrote this book at the start of the pandemic in 2020, during the months of lockdown,” says the chef and journalist. “With time in our hands, I gathered the 20-years worth of historical and family research I had and started writing.”
There were times when the writing would bring her to tears. “So cooking became my coping mechanism…Every classic recipe I cooked was a journey back to my mother's time. I was searching for answers to questions about the past. I wanted to feel how she felt when she was cooking these dishes, some 24 recipes I shared in the book.” These include her mother’s recipes of Pancit Molo Soup, Chicken and Pork Adobo, Beef Morcon, Arroz a la Valenciana, Tibok-Tibok, and Ginataang Bilo-Bilo.
The void left by her mother’s passing (she died in 1981 after a “long, lingering hereditary illness”) Elizabeth Ann tried to fill by cooking what Lulu used to prepare for family celebrations or a regular Sunday meal. “The recipes of mom which I was recreating during those pandemic days connected me to the past and made me feel that she was there in my heart, coaching me how to cook the dish, just like she used to when she was still around. I emphasize this in my book a lot - food and mothers are what heal us in the most difficult times -- and wasn't the pandemic one of the most trying times for us all?”
Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino has several books to her name including two that feature her mother’s recipes—“Instant Filipino Recipes: My Mother’s Traditional Philippine Food In a Multi-Cooker Pot” and “My Mother’s Philippine Recipes”—and “How to Cook Philippine Desserts, Cakes and Snacks: Filipino Cookbook Recipes of Asians in America.” “Every Ounce of Courage” is her latest tribute to her mother. “This book is as warm and comforting as a home-cooked meal at a family table,” said Ben Montgomery, author of New York Times best-selling “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.” “I savored every intimate morsel of these well-told and beautiful stories.”
“Every Ounce of Courage: A Daughter's Reflections On Her Mother's Bravery” is available worldwide on most online bookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.