In 2009, there was an episode of Sixty Minutes that featured an interview with the famous California restauranteur, Alice Waters, by the inimitable Leslie Stahl. Midway through the interview, Ms. Waters invited Stahl into her kitchen where she cracked an egg into a giant, hand-forged iron spoon, added a dash of olive oil, and cooked it over a roaring fire. The astonished CBS host questioned with wide eyes, “Is she kidding?” before she sat at the table and gobbled up what she described as the best egg she’d ever eaten.
Who is this mythical iron-spoon wielding egg chef? Waters, with Julia Child, is credited with altering the face of American cookery. While Child demonstrated on television how the American home chef could create delicious meals in a French tradition (and, when in doubt, by smothering everything in butter), Waters has made it her goal to espouse the ideals of organic and fresh ingredients and the simplicity of wholesome cuisine. Chez Panisse, her restaurant in Berkeley, California, is the founding home of the Slow Food Movement. Dinners there cost silly amounts of money.
And here she was, on national television, cooking an egg in an iron spoon over an open fire, albeit a fire in a kitchen in a home ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest. The moment lasted all of fifteen seconds, but immediately became legendary in cooking circles and, often, for very bad reasons. “So rustic, so elemental,” on one hand. “How utterly elitist and out of touch,” on the other. The populist chef Anthony Bourdain sneered in a 2018 New York Times article reflecting back on the “incident,” “She used six cords of wood to cook one egg for Lesley Stahl.”
And yet, there was something entirely illuminating about the Great Egg-Spoon Incident of 2009. Those fifteen seconds framed a debate that, when broken down, essentialize humanity’s complicated and ever-changing relationship to cookery and dining: the confrontation between the elemental and the hedonistic. Or, as food critic and philosopher Massimo Montanari writes: “The fascination of culinary history is basically this: to discover how mankind, with effort and imagination, has sought to transform the pangs of hunger and the anguish of nutritional privation into potential occasion for pleasure.” Cuisine, and the social psychology that surrounds it, is a field of study as varied and complex as any other.
It is in this way, and so many others, that dining mirrors the art of theatre and the central human need for storytelling. But to get there and to preface our 2019 Theatreworks and UCCS Theatre Company student production of The Art of Dining, we have to back up a bit further than Leslie’s breakfast at Alice’s house: way back, perhaps to the dawn of time. There is a village in southern France that became famous when, on September 12, 1940, a couple of boys and their dog were playing in the hills and quite literally stumbled into a cave. They looked up and found themselves in a diorama of 17,000-year old paintings. Paintings of animals, paintings of a hunt.
The caves in Lascaux, and places like it, are central in an understanding of food and art. Early storytelling can be seen as a byproduct of the need for sustenance. We tell the stories of our culture by telling the story of how we survive. Sometimes through painting, through song, and through drama. Of course, the Lascaux art represents a mindset far afield from how we think of collecting and eating food today. The cave painters had no assurance of a meal and their lives were often guided by the vagaries of the movement of animals. In that light—quite literally around a firelight in a cave—the process of gathering and eating is a spiritual act, filled with performance implication and weighted with existential tension.
Ok, yes, I understand, Leslie and Alice’s breakfast in Berkeley isn’t exactly transcendence. And that was, in fact, the critique—six cords of wood when she could have just turned on the damn stove? But if one can allow oneself to forget for a moment the obvious elitism, the sense of gathering and time is what is central here: the care and devotion to doing something right and the harkening to the elemental nature of cooking. Egg. Wood. Fire.
I thought of Alice Waters when I read The Art of Dining. In the eyes of our hero chef, Ellen, we recognize someone who sees food as a life force, her cooking as a gift and work of art. In her husband, Cal, we have a well-meaning glutton who sees Ellen’s food as their ticket for success and fortune. We will meet the Galts, a sophisticated couple from New York with a passion for eating; a trio of young women celebrating a birthday; and the most quirky writer and publisher you will ever meet. Over the course of the evening, we learn about them, their joys, their passions, their eating patterns, their tragedies, and their heartaches. All the while, behind them, Ellen cooks and creates their dining communion. It is elemental.
I must take a moment to say that when you come, take some time to notice all of the people behind the scenes. Creating a meal on stage is an extraordinary challenge and we have a team of people, led by student stage manager Eric Grossenbach and set designer Roy Ballard, who are furiously prepping, plating, running lights and crafting the perfect sound arrangements for the restaurant. Ellen is on the stage cooking before you and, yes, everything is edible and actually quite good. It has to be! In addition, this production marks our second collaboration with Colorado College, an effort that has brought students and faculty from both universities together to work on theatrical projects.
All of that, it seems to me, returns to the Iron Spoon story and the placement of dining in our society. While at times art and fine dining can slip into elitist territories (we must try to guard against that where possible), at their cores they speak to human nature and values: gathering, conversation, labor, collaboration, social richness, diversity, and, yes, human cultural advancement.
Welcome to the Golden Carousel. Enjoy the meal.