When I agreed to help plan an after-the-show potluck dinner party, little did I know that I was about to step into a controversy that involved issues about racial stereotyping and the propriety of changing a classic American opera into a more accessible musical. The plan was for a group of friends to see the new production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess“ opening at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., as it heads for New York. We planned to meet for dinner afterward, each of us bringing along a dish.
As I thought about the menu I had been asked to propose, I ran into the question of how to suggest African-American foods without resorting to stereotypes, and the answer came when I remembered that the opera is set in Charleston, S.C., where rice pilau and dishes made with sesame seed are part of a regional and unique African-American culture. Then I thought that since the Gershwins were Jewish, some traditional foods from that culture would be in order, and so I went to town jotting down menu items that I hoped would be appealing and appropriate for the occasion.
I soon realized that I was dealing with issues inherent in the show itself. Charges have been made that the opera projects unacceptable racial stereotypes in portraying blacks as poor, druggies, gamblers and murderers. Then, the title, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” omits the importance of DuBose Heyward who wrote the original book the show is based on as well as the libretto and — along with Ira Gershwin — the lyrics. But not everyone realizes that the title is trademarked in this exact way and cannot be changed.
Still, I began to feel a little guilty about creating a menu that did not acknowledge Heyward in the slightest. This only goes to show the profound significance of food in that it truly reflects the zeitgeist. I was agonizing over a menu just as theater people have been wrestling with how best to craft a new production of “Porgy and Bess.”
Some of my menu suggestions included pimento cheese and chopped chicken liver to be served with sesame seed crackers; corn pudding and noodle kugel; rice pilau and sweet potato tsimmes; and blackberry jam cake and rugulach. For nibbles, I suggested pecan pralines and halvah. And Southern-fried chicken would offset the preponderance of an otherwise carbohydrate-laden meal. As for Heyward, once I learned that he hailed from South Carolina I was able to correct my oversight by dedicating the pimento cheese to him.
Dinner and discussion
About 15 to 20 people attended the pre-dinner performance before coming together for the meal. We were excited to be seeing what turned out to be a deeply moving production that in no way distorts the original intention of the opera. But my deepest impression of the show and the meal that followed is how effectively the food led to thoughtful discussions about the theatrical piece we had just seen. We certainly understood that the portrayal of African-Americans was dated, but at the same time recognized the timelessness and beauty of the love story at the heart of all productions of “Porgy and Bess.” Our conversations continued long after the meal, and I am still thinking about all of my experiences of the evening.
As for the food, it was interesting and varied and stuck to the theme. We had a great savory rice dish along with a noodle kugel, and a Southern-style and peppy coleslaw next to a tsimmes, an Eastern Europe Jewish stew of carrots, sweet potatoes and dried fruit. The chicken, which the cook said he usually prepares with lard, was cooked this time with corn oil, in deference to the Gershwin side of our theme because lard is not used in traditional Jewish cooking. And the dish that was the most surprising was brought by a Jewish man who was born in Libya. He had prepared a delicious stew of white beans, spinach and potatoes (Tabikha B‘salk), an unexpected Sephardic Jewish contribution to this totally enjoyable meal.
Food as a vehicle
My own contributions were heavy on the sesame seed since I believed strongly that they should be part of a meal with a Charleston theme. I made sesame crackers to go with the pimento cheese prepared by our host, and sesame cookies that made a sweet contrast to the crackers. And, for balance, I also brought along a large batch of rugulach. To my utter surprise, the crackers were the biggest hit with everyone, which became clear to me when I saw one of the guests gobbling them down by the handful.
What the experience proved to me and what drives my work is how effective food can be as a vehicle that leads to issues of great importance in history as well as in contemporary culture. My friend who hosted the party is now determined to repeat our experience by doing more such theme parties in the future as we all go together to more theatrical productions at the American Repertory Theater and feast afterward while we ponder what we saw.
Sesame seed crackers
Makes about three dozen
- Heat oven to 350 F.
- Toast sesame seeds in a baking sheet for 10 minutes
- Using a food processor, sift together and stir flour, baking powder and salt.
- Cut butter into small pieces and add to flour and whirl until mixture looks like cornmeal.
- Add milk gradually and whirl until dough comes together.
- Take out the dough and knead in the sesame seeds. Roll out the dough as thinly as you can, cut into 2-inch rounds and place on sheets lined with parchment paper.
- Brush with beaten egg.
- Bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the crackers.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photos, from top:
Sesame crackers, rugulach and sesame cookies.
Pimento cheese and sesame crackers.
Credits: Barbara Haber