Savoring Stories: How Annabelle Tometich Crafts Tales of Food and Family

Encountering Annabelle Tometich: Tracing the Delicate Weave of Identity Through the Palate of Memory

Annabelle Tometich crafts narratives that resonate with the universal search for identity and belonging. With a keen eye for the subtleties defining our connections to place, culture, and family, she invites readers to experience the world through a Filipino-American lens that reckons with poignant personal and collective history.

Her memoir, "The Mango Tree," is not merely a recounting of events but a journey through the sensory landscapes of her life. It’s a story of resilience, transformation, and the intricate beauty of interwoven identities.

Tometich crafts narratives that invite us to see the world anew.

Photo by Kinfay Moroti

Jeremy: Annabelle, with how busy you are promoting your new book, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Your memoir "The Mango Tree" opens with a surprising incident involving your mother using a BB gun to protect the beloved mango tree in her yard. How did this powerful opening event encapsulate the larger themes you wanted to explore?

Annabelle: Yes, so in 2015 my Filipina mother used her BB rifle — the one she usually used to snipe pesky squirrels — to shoot at a white man she claimed was stealing mangoes from the beloved tree in her South Florida yard. Thankfully she missed and no one, at least physically, was injured. At the time, I hoped we could keep the incident quiet. The news cycle (including the newspaper where I worked as a restaurant critic) did not share this hope! My mom’s arrest went viral. It was picked up by media outlets across the country. 

For years, I wanted nothing to do with this story. It was one more stupid thing my mom had done in a fit of rage. At some point, though, I realized she did this for a reason (beyond her very real mental health issues). That tree meant everything to my mother. It tethered her to the Philippine homeland she left in order to create a life for herself and her offspring. She planted it a year before my white father died. It fruited when I became a teenager/second mom to my two younger siblings. The mango tree and the BB-gun shooting became a powerful symbol for this mixed-up, multiracial, Florida childhood of mine. And honestly, as soon as I figured that out, this book came pouring out of me. 

Jeremy: Growing up as a mixed-race Filipina in suburban Florida, how did your experiences shape your sense of identity and belonging - threads that are so central to your writing?

Annabelle: I think my upbringing is forever intertwined with who I was, who I am, and who I hope to be. In hindsight, it’s incredibly isolating to grow up in a place (Robert E. Lee County, Florida, to be specific) where NO ONE looks like you. But as a kid, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just trying to fit in. I write a lot about “normality” in the book, which was all I wanted as a child. I didn’t realize back then that, what I thought of as “normal,” was really just whiteness. I wanted to blend in with the majority-white students in my majority-white classes and majority-white schools. 

The funny thing is, my mom could have moved to San Francisco or New York, diverse places with strong Fil-Am communities. But she chose South Florida solely because she did not want to be cold. Heat was her normal, and she was willing to forego belonging to have that one constant. But despite being culturally isolated, my mom has always had a strong sense of identity. I’m only now, at 43, starting to understand who I am, and wow does it feel good. 

Jeremy: Food plays such an integral role in your life's journey and creative work. How has your Filipino-American heritage influenced your perspective and approach as a food critic and writer?

Annabelle: Food is so integral to Filipino life, something I honestly didn’t learn until I visited my family in Manila as a kid. I think when a country is colonized for so long, as the Philippines was for almost 400 years, you hold tight to whatever traditions you can — especially food. You may have to bend those traditions to include Spam or hot dogs or spaghetti noodles, but you make them work, and then you gather everyone around to enjoy them. My happiest memories are of sitting at our family’s tables in San Andres Bukid and Binan, slathering steamy pandesal in the Jif peanut butter we brought in the balikbayan box, or fighting over the crackliest bit of crispy pata. As a restaurant critic and food writer, these are the memories I was chasing. It wasn’t, for me, about fancy presentations and $1,000 ingredients, it was about that sense of joy that a truly good meal elicits. If a restaurant can feed you well and make you feel welcome and like you belong, that’s it. All the stars!

Jeremy: You made the transition from aspiring to be a doctor to ultimately pursuing a career in culinary arts and journalism. What inspired this shift, and how has this background influenced your approach to food and writing?

Annabelle: I think for a lot of first-gen Asian and immigrant kids, the options are med school or law school. Period. And honestly, I thought I was fine with that. Doctors seemed “normal” to me as a child. At some point, though, I realized I had no passion for medicine. I saw my mom work a job she wasn’t passionate about for 30+ years, and I saw it destroy her. I wanted to find something that at least sparked curiosity in me. For a long time, that was food and cooking. Then I fell in love with writing, and I’ve not looked back. That said, I’ve always had a very methodical and scientific mind, and that bleeds into everything I do (for better and worse!). I am constantly testing things, seeing which headlines get more clicks, which story lede drives more engagement. Even in my personal life, I’m always trying to optimize food prep and workout styles and school-dropoff arrangements for my kids. Basically, my mind is a whirlwind mess! 

Jeremy: Your memoir pays homage to your mother, Josefina. Can you share how her strength, challenges, and culinary heritage have influenced your personal and professional life?

Annabelle: My mother, again for better and worse, is there in every aspect of my life. She was such a towering and immense force in my childhood. So much of what I do and the choices I make are because of, or in reaction to, my mom. Her fingerprints are all over my life, and learning to accept this — and to accept that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — has helped me in immeasurable ways. 

Jeremy: Memoir writing often involves revisiting personal memories, some painful. What was the process like for you in writing "The Mango Tree," and what challenges did you face?

Annabelle: Honestly, as I mentioned earlier, once I figured out what the story was — this mango tree and the pivotal role it played in my life — this book came flooding out of me. It was the summer of 2020, and most everything had shut down (even here in the wilds of Florida). I would stay up until 2, 3, 4 in the morning just writing. I think I wrote 130,000-some words from June to September of 2020. The challenge was revising those words and turning them into a story with themes and a plot and nuanced characters — while also parenting two kids. I wrote a lot of this book on my couch. I revised a lot of it in my minivan at soccer/swim practices, while waiting at parent pickup, wherever pockets of time could be carved out. 

Jeremy: For years, you wrote food reviews under the pen name Jean Le Boeuf. What did this anonymity provide you, and what ultimately led you to reveal your true identity?

Annabelle: For a half-Filipina with a serious case of imposter syndrome, the JLB pen name was everything. Pretending to be a Frenchman, in a very odd way, gave me the confidence to write honestly in my reviews. And, honestly, it’s that strive for honesty that eventually made me give it up. It was very comfortable being a French dude. It’s far more powerful being yourself. 

Jeremy: What advice would you give to aspiring writers, particularly those seeking to share stories deeply rooted in their cultural or personal experiences?


Annabelle: Write. Write. Write. And then write more! The beauty of journalism is that you are constantly writing. The news cycle does not stop. Yes, that’s stressful, but it also gives journalists endless opportunities to write, and then write better, and then write better. For non-journalists, write as much as you can as often as you can — and then share your writing! I know it’s terrifying, but it is the only way to see where you’re struggling and learn how to improve. 

Jeremy: After the success of "The Mango Tree" and your distinguished career as a critic, what new themes or creative projects are you most excited to explore going forward?

Annabelle: So many! I loved writing restaurant reviews and food stories during my 18 years in journalism. And I think, with “The Mango Tree,” I got to push myself to be more vulnerable and honest about my family, my life, and myself. I hope to continue exploring  themes of identity, and how we define ourselves, and who gets to define themselves. I think “who we are” is forever changing. The beauty of being in my 40s is the perspective this stage of life has given me. So much has come into focus, while so much else is still out there waiting to be explored and contextualized.

Tometich's candid reflections remind us that the quest for self-discovery is an ever-evolving journey, shaped by the intricacies of our cultural backgrounds, personal experiences, and the nourishing power of food and memory. As she looks ahead, her desire to continue exploring themes of identity and self-definition promises to yield further profound insights, inviting readers to embark on a shared odyssey of growth, understanding, and the celebration of our multifaceted narratives. Through her writing, Tometich has etched a vibrant tapestry that interweaves the flavors of her life with the universal human yearning for connection and a sense of place.

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