Food has been a major theme in much of my writing, and let’s be honest, my actual life. Growing up in the South surrounded by a farm family, most days were scheduled according to when lunch needed to be ready for everyone who working in the field. As soon as the last farmhand left the table, preparations immediately began for supper that evening. I still make family recipes at home on a regular basis, and when I talk to my mom on the phone, we almost always have a brief exchange about what we’re planning to cook later that day. There’s also that little detail that we all must eat on a daily basis to sustain existence.
As an actor and director, food has been served & consumed during countless projects. Sometimes it’s a Bloody Mary cocktail (An American Daughter), other times it’s a sympathy buffet (Sordid Lives). For Wonder of the World, a quirky comedy by David Lindsay Abaire, my character Kip ate peanut butter mashed together with cheese balls every night on stage, while every other character in the play discussed Kip’s addiction to eating something very different.
Of course, food comes up in every single script I’ve ever written. Once, a light board operator came up to me during tech week, one that I’d worked with several times before. He said “I should have eaten before rehearsal tonight. I forgot that your plays always have something to do with food.” Yep.
Eatables show up in plays for a variety of reasons. People don’t sit around the Thanksgiving table without food being served, so it’s more believable if you have a turkey for the characters to nibble on. The activities of eating and drinking keep individuals in the same room for a certain period of time and positioned around a similar area of focus, so it’s also structurally useful. A character might be written to work in one of the thousands of professions that make up the food service industry, and discussing the loves and hates of one’s workday is a great way to express deep-rooted fears and desires.
Bringing up food can also stimulate our senses of taste and smell, reaching into the audience’s memory in a way that words and set pieces do not. During a production of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, my mouth watered as we watched the plus-sized librarian Helen munch on a bag of Cape Cod brand potato chips (my favorite). I understood the guilty pleasure she was feeling, because of the words, yes, but also because of the emotions anyone who has struggled through a life programmed with poor eating habits.
The Oldest Profession by Paula Vogel
Recently, the script of a play influenced my appetite offstage. I was reading Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession, about a troupe of prostitutes reaching the end of their careers. The character Vera speaks about food with joy and exuberance, much like me. Here’s an example:
VERA: Did you notice that raspberries are back again? God only knows, I love those things … but they’re so expensive. They’re a very delicate fruit. What I’d like most is just a bowl of raspberries, washed ever so carefully, with cream on top. No sugar. Nothing else. My mother used to make babies in a blanket: raspberries wrapped in pastry and then sprinkled with confectionery sugar. I’d make myself ill eating those. But raspberries plain are the best.
A superb example of using the idea of flavor to paint a story, and how specific tastes are intertwined with memory. While reading, the simple recipe she mentions sounded really delicious, too. A couple of weeks later when I was preparing food for a party, I made “babies in a blanket.” Of course, I also shared the origins of the dish with anyone who would listen. They were good, but Vera was correct in that a fresh, plump raspberry is more mouthwatering.
Although she brings up tasty recollections a few times throughout the play, this speech about beans is most representative of her attachment to munching:
VERA: Well, my red beans never come out like Mama’s. And I used to watch her make them, too. You’d ask her, “Mama, how much flour goes in the sauce?” And she’d respond … (Cups her hand) “Oh, about this much, and … (Pinching her fingers together) … and then a tad more.” Her beans were heaven. She’d leave a big pot simmering with a ham bone on the stove in ninety-degree heat, and then go out to the backyard and tackle the laundry. …Thick, red sauce, over rice, with a bay leaf, and mopped off the plate with a thick crust of dilly bread.
Even if you haven’t tried Vera’s mama’s recipe for beans, her description makes us feel like we have, and that’s the significance. Our minds remember the texture of the thick sauce and the tang of dilly bread, giving us a thorough sensory experience. As theatres grow more reliant on selling food and beverages in the lobby to raise revenue, let us remember that engaging the sense of taste has never been a stranger on stage.
Now, for no better reason than that I saw Sunset Boulevard on Broadway earlier this year, here’s a recipe we made years ago published in The Dead Celebrity Cookbook. It tastes just as terrible as it sounds.
Gloria Swanson’s Potassium Broth
- 1 cup string beans, chopped
- 1 cup celery, chopped
- 1 cup zucchini, chopped
- 1 cup Swiss chard, chopped
- 8 cups spring water
Before chopping, wash all vegetables thoroughly. Pour spring water into a soup pot and add the rest of ingredients. Cover and simmer until celery is tender. Allow the broth to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate in glass jars. Serve hot or cold.
Photos by Gabriel Garcia Marengo and Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash