“Everything starts with love,” Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino’s mother used to say to her. “Love is your first ingredient.” It was a cooking lesson, but it was about so much more. Love was her starting point for everything: her food, her family, her friends, and her enemies. Love, guided by faith, sustained this woman; it was her great love and her great faith that gave her courage to enter the Japanese POW camps in the Philippines during World War II as a humanitarian worker and supporter of the underground guerrilla movement to resist Japanese occupation. It was love that enabled her to save many lives—love that resulted in Lourdes “Lulu” Reyes Besa becoming a civilian recipient not once, but twice, of the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 1947.
As a child learning to cook with her mother, Besa-Quirino did not fully understand the depth of her mother’s love nor the magnitude of her sacrifice, risk, and heroism during the war. She knew her mother had won awards, but did not realize the significance of them. “My parents were not very forthcoming about the war. It was not a subject that was easily discussed,” she said. Only in the cold early months of 1999 did she start to learn more, when a late-night phone call from a Japanese POW camp survivor named Robert Dow changed everything.
Hours after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, they attacked and occupied the Philippines. Many Filipinos, including Besa-Quirino’s uncle (Lulu’s younger brother) Willie, volunteered as soldiers to fight alongside the Americans. Lulu volunteered for the Philippine branch of the American National Red Cross, the Volunteer Social Aid Committee, and the civilian support branch of the Philippine Army’s Chaplaincy Service.
When the city of Bataan fell and thousands of Filipino and American soldiers became Japanese POWs and were marched into camps, Lulu’s efforts as a humanitarian aid worker allowed her to enter the POW camps to search for her brother Willie. She found him, but her work in the POW camps had only begun. Once she saw the extent of the suffering, she could not stop: “This is someone else’s son, someone else’s brother,” she said. At great personal risk, she began smuggling in messages and medicine, including the malaria medication that saved the young life of American soldier Robert Dow. Five decades later, Dow finally made contact with Lulu’s daughter, Besa-Quirino, to offer his thanks to Lulu, who had died in 1981.
Discovering Her Mother’s Journey“I didn’t realize the magnitude of the work she did until I started speaking with Robert Dow,” Besa-Quirino explained. “He gave me a list of books where my mother was mentioned. I found them in second-hand bookshops, I asked friends, I borrowed, I tried to track down as many as I could.” Besa-Quirino knew that the Lulu mentioned in the books was indeed her mother because of the circumstances and familiar names of friends and contexts. “It was mind boggling. I literally felt my skin crawl,” she said. Through books, news clippings, and old photos, layers upon layers of the story emerged.
One day, Robert Dow said to Besa-Quirino in one of their phone conversations, “It would not be a bad idea to write a book about your mother.” It was a good suggestion, given that she had a distinguished background as a cookbook writer, award-winning journalist, food writer, and former professor, but she had no idea where to begin. So she just kept on piecing together Lulu’s story, writing down scraps of conversations she remembered, and going through her mother’s old papers and photos. Along the way, she discovered recipes, some dating back to her grandmother.
“At first I thought, hey, this is the beginning of a cookbook,” said Besa-Quirino. She wanted to modernize the recipes to make them more contemporary. As she began, the pandemic lockdowns meant that she had more time on her hands than expected. “I decided to cook Mom’s recipes and see what I could do,” she said.
Compassion, Courage, and CookingCooking the recipes carefully, one at a time, sparked memories of conversations she’d had with Lulu. “I realized as I was cooking each recipe that it would trigger memories which I connected with news clippings I had found, with authors’ narratives in the books I’d read, and I started to piece things together.” Associating specific recipes with stories gave her the inspiration she needed: instead of writing a cookbook, she decided, “I would like to give a story about compassion and courage in each chapter and frame it with a recipe that the reader can use.” So evolved Besa-Quirino’s beautiful new book, “Every Ounce of Courage: A Daughter’s Reflections On Her Mother’s Bravery” (2023).
Writing her mother’s story as a food memoir makes perfect sense for Besa-Quirino, given her own career as a cookbook and food writer and also given her mother’s deep love for cooking and entertaining. Lulu’s mother was widowed when Lulu was only five years old, and the young girl instantly stepped into the role of helper. She was trained from her earliest years to be an adept cook and hostess. “Food was at the center of everything,” Besa-Quirino explained. “Whether it was a celebration pre-war, or whether it was a secret meeting of the underground resistance guerilla fighters during the war, or celebrating life again post-war.” She passed on that passion for cooking to her daughter, along with her guiding principle: everything starts with love.
“How was she able to charm the Japanese guards?” wondered Besa-Quirino. “I am flabbergasted. But I knew my mother. She had this innate quality to see good in every person, even the enemy.” Besa-Quirino believes that the Japanese saw Lulu’s sincerity and goodness. The priests she worked with were all captured, imprisoned, and tortured; they were questioned about Lulu but not one of them gave her away. “I believe it was a miracle,” said Besa-Quirino. “I believe God meant bigger things for her and the people she helped and saved.”