Arsenic and Adobo Page 1


Adobo (uh-doh-boh)—Considered the Philippines’s national dish, it’s any food cooked with soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and black peppercorns (though there are many regional and personal variations) Almondigas (ahl-mohn-dee-gahs)—Filipino soup with meatballs and thin rice noodles Baon (bah-ohn)—Food, snacks or other provisions brought on to work, school, or on a trip; food brought from home; money or allowance brought to school or work; lunch money (definition from Embutido (ehm-puh-tee-doh)—Filipino meatloaf

Ginataang (gih-nih-tahng)—Any dish cooked with coconut milk, sweet or savory Kakanin (kah-kah-nin)—Sweet sticky cakes made from glutinous rice or root crops like cassava (There’s a huge variety, many of them regional) Kesong puti (keh-sohng poo-tih)—A kind of salty white cheese Lengua de gato (lehng-gwah deh gah-toh)—Filipino butter cookies Lumpia (loom-pyah)—Filipino spring rolls (many variations) Lumpiang sariwa (loom-pyahng sah-ree-wah)—Fresh Filipino spring rolls (not fried) Mamón (mah-MOHN)—Filipino sponge/chiffon cake

Matamis na bao (mah-tah-mees nah bah-oh)—Coconut jam

Meryenda (mehr-yehn-dah)—Snack/snack time

Pandesal (pahn deh sahl)—Lightly sweetened Filipino rolls topped with breadcrumbs (also written pan de sal) Patis (pah-tees)—Fish sauce

Salabat (sah-lah-baht)—Filipino ginger tea

Suman (soo-mahn)—Glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed (though there are regional variations) Ube (oo-beh)—Purple yam


Diba (dih-bah)—Isn’t it?; Right?; short for “hindi ba” (also written as “di ba”) Macapagal (Mah-cah-pah-gahl)—A Filipino surname

Mga ninang—In Tagalog, you don’t pluralize words by adding -s at the end. You add “mga” (mahng-ah) in front of the word Oh my gulay—This is Taglish (Tagalog-English) slang, used when people don’t want to say the “God” part of OMG. “Gulay” (goo-lie) literally means vegetable, so this phrase shouldn’t be translated.

Tama na (tah-mah nah)—That’s enough; Stop; Right/Correct (depends on context) Tsinelas (chi-neh-lahs)—Slippers/sandals

Utang na loob (oo-tahng nah loh-ohb)—Debt of gratitude (though it goes much deeper than that)

Chapter One

My name is Lila Macapagal and my life has become a rom-com cliché.

Not many romantic comedies feature an Asian-American lead (or dead bodies, but more on that later), but all the hallmarks are there.

Girl from an improbably named small town in the Midwest moves to the big city to make a name for herself and find love? Check.

Girl achieves these things only for the world to come crashing down when she walks in on her fiancé getting down and dirty with their next-door neighbors (yes, plural)? Double check.

Girl then moves back home in disgrace and finds work reinvigorating her aunt’s failing business? Well now we’re up to a hat trick of clichés.

And to put the cherry on top, in the trope of all tropes, I even reconnected with my high school sweetheart after moving back to town and discovered the true meaning of Christmas.

OK, that last part is a joke, but I really did run into my high school sweetheart. Derek Winter, my first love.

Too bad he’d aged into a ridiculous jerk with a puffed-up sense of importance and weird vendetta against my family. Pretty much tried to shut down my aunt’s restaurant on a weekly basis. Odd behavior from the guy who’d wanted to marry me right after graduating from high school, but what can I say? I had exceptionally bad taste when I was younger. You’re dumb when you’re fifteen and hopped up on hormones.

Heck, I’m twenty-five and still make bad decisions based on those same dumb hormones.

Hence I was working at my Tita Rosie’s restaurant rather than running my own cafe, which is what I’d been going to school for before I found out Sam was a cheating scumbag. That was right around the time my aunt sent me a distress signal, and here we are. So instead of grinding my own coffee beans or brewing the delightful loose-leaf teas I’d sourced for my dream cafe in Chicago, I now spent every morning preparing mugs of Kopiko 3 in 1 in my hometown of Shady Palms, Illinois, over two hours outside the city.

And yes, the town really was named Shady Palms. Rumor has it some rich dude from the Caribbean got homesick after moving to the area and tried transplanting a bunch of palm trees along the main street. Surprise, surprise, they didn’t take, so he replaced them with tacky plastic replicas. Both the fake palms and the name stuck.

Anyway, the morning clientele at my tita’s restaurant always included a bevy of gossiping aunties, none as loud or nosy as the group of fiftysomething-year-old women I privately referred to as “the Calendar Crew.” Their names were April, Mae, and June—they weren’t related, but all three of them were completely interchangeable, down to their bad perms, love of floral patterns, and need to provide running commentary on my life.

It was their due—after all, they were my godmothers (yes, plural). They bore the important title of “Ninang” and were my late mother’s best friends. They loved and cared about me.

In their own infuriating way.

I brought over their morning plate of pandesal and they descended like a pack of locusts upon the dish of lightly sweetened Filipino bread, spreading the warm rolls with butter and dipping them in their coffee or drizzling them with condensed milk. And like locusts, once they were done devouring one thing, they moved as a pack on to their next victim: me.

“Lila, why’s everything you wear always dark? You look like a bruha.”

“And your hair’s always in that ponytail and hat. Not sexy.”

“Ay nako, what is this? You get bigger every time I see you!”

This last statement, accompanied by a firm pinch of my arm fat, was from Ninang April, who always had to have the final say. April always was the cruelest month.

I was used to these digs against my appearance—it was how older Asians showed affection. While I was no beauty queen (well, except for that one time, but that’s a story for another day), my brown skin glowed and my long, black hair was thick and shiny from straightening it every morning. My pride and joy. Too bad I had to keep it under a baseball cap for work.

I could ignore my godmothers’ first two comments—while being told you looked like a witch would bother most people, I considered it a compliment. I loved natural remedies, dark color palettes, and made bewitchingly delicious baked goods, so I’d learned to lean into the bruha image. Everyone needed a personal brand.