Tag Archives: Theatre

It Doesn’t Take Much

A friend of mine used to work in the food business–by which I mean he was an owner of some restaurants in Philadelphia, and had helped Julia Child publish one of her cookbooks. On matters of food I trust his views. When we were working on a dinner theatre project once, and I was trying to wrap my head around the per-customer price of napkins, and getting schooled in why green beans made more economic sense than tossed salad, he said something I’d never thought of: “If dessert is satisfying, they’ll forgive anything.”

Obviously we were hoping never to serve a bad meal, but I took that advice to heart. Something luscious can save the day. And if the day doesn’t need saving–if things are already going well–it’s the metaphorical cherry on top of the seven-layer cake.

But it doesn’t take seven layers, or a gigantic bowl of ice cream, to make a good last impression. When the ingredients are good, a spoon will do.

An inch-square piece of brownie, cut into two triangles. A strawberry, hulled and thinly sliced. Two dabs of vanilla ice cream. A few drops of mulled-wine syrup drizzled overtop. One luscious mouthful. One bit of sweetness to end the meal.

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We never opened the dinner theatre, as it turned out. That town was far more interested in another bar and another supermarket than in what we had to offer. Just as well. I’d rather make One-Spoon Sundaes for a small gathering than a big crowd.

Mulled-Wine Syrup

This recipe can be scaled up, but it’s perfect for using some leftover wine. 

1-1/2 cups red wine
1 tbsp mulling spice (packaged, or a combination of dried spices: cinnamon stick,  clove, orange peel, allspice)
1 tsp sugar (or to taste)

Put the wine in a saucepan over low heat. Put the spices in a tea strainer (metal or ceramic, not plastic) or tied up in a small piece of cheesecloth or tea bag and add to the saucepan.
When the wine is warm, add the sugar and stir to dissolve.
Continue to simmer 20-30 minutes or until the wine is reduced to 1/3 or less.

Use the syrup to top ice cream or cake, or add a small drizzle to a glass of seltzer, ginger ale, or sparkling wine.

Snap, Crackle, Mom

Driving home from the first rehearsal for a new show, I wanted a snack.  I’d had a light supper on the way there, but it had been a long and tiring night. Something crunchy was in order, and maybe salty. Or possibly sweet.

I avoided several McDonald’s drive-throughs and a Wendy’s or two, though the idea of fries was sorely tempting. I thought about the peanut-butter filled pretzels and Cool Ranch Doritos in our pantry, but neither of those seemed right either. If I didn’t figure it out by the time I got home, I could easily enough just go to bed. I wasn’t starving; I was probably more tired than hungry.

Coming into the house from the garage, I noticed a canister of Rice Krispies we’d bought to make Kind-of Bars. (I should do that again sometime.) The canister was too tall for the kitchen cupboard, so we stored the rest of the cereal on the garage shelves along with the extra waxed paper, plastic bags, and Vitamin Water.

Mom worked late a few nights a week when she managed the credit department for a local department store. Dad might have taken her out for a bite when he picked her up after work, but more often I remember her having cereal at the kitchen table. Sometimes I sat with her and told her about school; probably, I had a cup of cocoa or a cookie, too. I never understood the coffee Mom drank with her bedtime snack, but I absolutely got the appeal of the cereal. Crunchy, a little sweet, a little salty, relatively healthful, and quick to prepare.

It was just what I wanted–and I had a bowlful of memory, too.

Okay, so I sliced a little fruit and sprinkled some homemade granola on top. It's still healthier than fries or chips.

Okay, so I sliced a little fruit and sprinkled some homemade granola on top.
It’s still healthier than fries or chips.

Duck Duck Improvise

We didn’t have long for dinner between train arrival and when we needed to leave to get to the theatre.  Grabbing sandwiches at a drive-through would have been perfectly justified, but I just didn’t want to do it.  There will be enough days coming when that really has to happen.  I stopped at the market to get half a pound of shrimp, which would take no time at all to steam (and in that no-time-at-all, I could mix ketchup, horseradish, and lemon juice to make better cocktail sauce than we’d find on any shelf). As for what else to serve, I figured I’d find something between the entrance and the fish counter.

The frozen section has a new line of international foods. A box of spring rolls presented itself.  These seemed worth a try. I’d much rather have made spring rolls, but this was a corner I was willing to cut. Cabbage, carrot, bean sprout–the vegetable course was covered.

I didn’t think about the appropriate condiments for the rolls, though. They weren’t packaged with duck sauce and hot mustard–which is just as well, considering the packaged stuff probably would have been full of ethylene this and glycol that.  She looked up a duck sauce recipe for me.

Apricot preserves, orange marmalade, fresh ginger…it was a festival of things I’d like to say were in our fridge, but they weren’t.

But we weren’t bereft.

A-Few-Days-Before-Spring Roll Sauce
2 tbsp ginger marmalade, warmed in a microwave for 30 seconds or so.
Stir in
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp orange juice, fresh-squeezed if you have it.
1 tsp Dijon mustard. This terrific mustard is the best I know, but whatever you have.
Sauce will thicken a little as it cools.

The result was not duck sauce, but something that went perfectly well with the spring rolls. It was a little like mixing duck sauce and hot mustard, which is what I would have done anyway. The shrimp probably would have been good dipped in the faux-duck, too.

We ate well, stowed the leftovers, started the dishwasher, and were on our way to a lovely production of a sweet, funny, romantic musical at a theatre built from converted barn. We love New York theatre, but there is something to be said for being able to have dinner at home and still make curtain. Especially when dinner was this good.

Shoots and Leaves (and Two Forks)

“Honestly, I won’t eat that at work.” I figured as much, but thought a little salad might go nicely with two slices of leftover pizza. “Let’s have it with dinner,” she said, handing me back the package as she packed the rest of her lunch. (I don’t so much pack her lunch as leave it on the kitchen counter; she puts it in whatever bag she’s carrying. Sometimes, as with the salad, she’ll pass on an item–“Yesterday’s yogurt is still in the office fridge,” for instance.)

Salads are tricky for lunch-at-your-desk, unless they’re the main course. There’s too much potential for dressing-spillage. Who wants to submit a report with vinaigrette on it–or, worse, requisition a new computer keyboard because Alt and Enter are gummed up with Thousand Island?

Also, she seldom eats salad alone. She “steals” it off a plate we share. It’s my salad; she’s just getting away with something. I’m not sure I understand, but it’s been this way for far too long for me to question it now. It makes things convenient when we’re out to eat, though: she’ll have the fries, I’ll have the salad, and we’ll split them both. (It’s not quite as stereotypically romantic as sharing a milkshake, but probably healthier.)

She brought home a bagged salad a week or so ago, and we agreed it was the best such we’d ever had: kale, cabbage, and carrot, topped with sunflower seeds, bacon bits, and a slightly-creamy citrus vinaigrette. The salad was tremendously crunchy and savory. The bitter greens were nicely balanced by the slightly-sweet dressing. My only complaint–and it wasn’t really one–was that the greens were shredded so finely the salad was more like a slaw. There’s nothing wrong with slaw, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. And maybe shredding the greens diminished their bitterness.

We met at a diner before going to the theatre last Wednesday. Diners with novel-sized menus can be intimidating, but I narrowed it down: since I’d had a sandwich for lunch, I restricted myself to the salad page. I wasn’t looking for meat or cheese. I didn’t read too closely, but the one with cranberries looked appealing.

Our meals came. We laughed. The cranberries were, of course, topping a bowl of kale, cabbage, and carrot. No sunflower seeds, though, and no bacon. Too many dried cranberries, maybe, and the oil-and-white-vinegar dressing was not so interesting as the bagged salad’s. The vegetables were in big pieces, almost the size you’d want for a stir-fry.

I wondered what it would be like to stir-fry that combination of vegetables and top them with fresh bacon, or maybe some sliced sausage. It would really be a main dish. She pointed out that greens become more bitter when heated. She’s right, which doesn’t bother me a bit, since I like bitter greens (and I like it when she is right). We’d want sweetness to balance, like the dressing that came in the bag–or, better yet, one just like it that is made only from ingredients we can pronounce.

I’ll try it some night, and serve it in a big bowl. With two forks.

Endings Are Hard

Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life is the story of a 40-year-long relationship, from the day Erika and Vicky meet until what well be the last elevator ride they share. Its chronology is shuffled, though, shown in what might be an associative manner–one fragment of conversation leading to another that happened years earlier or later. It was enormously well performed by two strong actresses on a simple set, supported by light and sound design that helped us follow the action forward and back in time. The play was fascinating for 60 of its 65 minutes, but my attention flagged in the homestretch. Since it was clear from early in the play that the relationship ends, late-in-the-play flashes to much-earlier moments diminished in impact. If there was a Crucial Moment that those late moments were supposed to illuminate, I missed it. This particular elevator ride didn’t seem important enough to be the Big Finish–certainly not paralleled with the skydiving scene that was interspersed with it. Or maybe I missed it.

Or maybe the point was to provoke discussion, which it did.  We walked from City Center to Grand Central, considering the production and the play’s structure, the believability of the fictional characters’ relationship, and comparing them to couples we knew, and to us. (We came out favorably ahead, I am pleased to say.)

The last play we’d seen in that theatre was similarly fascinating–funny, creative, and thoughtful–until its last five minutes, when the writer or the director or somebody decided what the play needed was a truly weird finish, like a perfect Thanksgiving dinner where the pumpkin pie crust is made from beach sand and Vaseline.

Endings are hard, we agreed. So are beginnings and middles, for that matter, but especially endings. It’s that last image that stays, the one that lingers as you leave the theatre. Or the table: you can get the appetizers wrong and foul up the main dish, but a terrific dessert will save the day. We weren’t grumpy about Bright Half Life, not even unsettled, but unsatisfied.

We turned down 43rd St., and found Baskin-Robbins still open. We ordered chocolate milkshakes. Nothing too complicated, nothing weird. We got the ending right.

Festive Enough

I arrived at her office to pick her up for the Big Fancy Theatre Event, and found her nowhere near ready to leave. There was One More Thing to do, and it might take a while.

This is why we didn’t make reservations at a Big Fancy Restaurant before the Event. Odds were better than even that one of us would be delayed. (Smart money said it would be me, but this time it wasn’t.)

I left my coat and bag in her office and ran to do an errand. I returned, showed my visitor’s pass and rode back to the office. Still not finished. I proposed going around the corner to a Pretty Good Burger Place to pick up dinner. She pointed to her desk, where her half-finished lunch sat. “Maybe just some fries for me?”

Passing the security desk on my way out (again), I asked the guard if he wanted a burger; I’m pretty sure he was required to decline, but he appreciated the offer.

The Pretty Good Burger place offers just the right amount of choice for me:

Burger or a hot dog?
If the former, how many patties?
Cheese?
Bacon?
Condiments?
Fries?
Beverage?

One patty is plenty. Since only American cheese is offered, it’s easy for me to decline. Bacon on a burger is not a terrible idea, but I wasn’t in the mood. Lots of condiments are offered–nearly enough to freeze me with indecision. I settled on lettuce, tomato, mustard, A1 sauce, and sautéed mushrooms, hoping I hadn’t created a burger too messy to eat. An order of fries and a small Diet Coke completed the order.  I ate a few peanuts from the bin by the drinks counter while I waited, then collected dinner and headed back.  The security guy barely looked up this time.

She finished her project, and we had dinner over her semi-cozy desk–burgers and fries before a theatrical gala, just like last fall. The mushrooms had been pushing it, but I managed not to end up looking like I was wearing the salad bar.

I cannot complain about hearing the words "Almost finished," since I say them all too often myself.

I cannot complain about hearing the words “Almost finished,” since I say them all too often myself.

I’d like to say we strolled up 8th Avenue to the theatre, but the truth is we had to walk pretty briskly to get there in time. I’d like to say, too, that the performance was spectacular from start to finish. There were wonderful moments, and some good-intentioned acts that, to our eyes, missed the mark. Everything was well-performed–from a string quartet playing (and singing) a mashup of a Brahms quartet and the Frozen song “Let It Go” to a female-ensemble version of “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” led by Florence Henderson.  When Carol Friggin’ Brady is on stage 8 rows in front of you, you can forgive a lot.

As is often the case, the evening stretched long. We arrived home looking not quite so fresh as when the venerable and exceedingly polite usher referred to us as “handsome gentleman and beautiful lady.” Still, the cats were waiting at the door, happy to see us. Even if the evening wasn’t perfect, we got dressed up, we spent the evening in a Broadway theatre, and we supported a worthy cause.  That’s festive enough.

Separate Checks

She took a very early train to town on Monday to have breakfast with an old friend, and stayed late in town tonight to have dinner and see a show with another friend. And I couldn’t be more delighted.

We both work long hours, and she has a long commute. She takes breakfast and lunch to the office nearly every workday; I often do, too, and on my late nights I’ll at least take something as a between-rehearsals snack. We see each other first thing in the morning and in the late evening, and on some parts of the weekend. That’s about it. There isn’t that much time together.

But there’s also not all that much time for our friends.  Even those who are our friends were, just as likely, her friends or my friends before they knew us as us. Friends deserve time.

We don’t have to enjoy spending time with the same people–though we mostly do. In the same way, we don’t have to enjoy all the same foods. It’s perfectly okay for her to have a burger if I want a piece of fish.  It’s perfectly okay for me to want a chicken sandwich when she’s craving macaroni and cheese. I love bitter greens. She could eat rice at every meal. Most of the time we agree on a menu, or meet in the middle, but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why there are restaurants. And lots of pots and pans in our kitchen.

While she’s been out with her friend, I haven’t been lonesome. I stopped at home and ate the leftovers from my dinner Wednesday night (a seafood dish she wouldn’t have enjoyed), then I went to the theatre, too. I saw a school musical starring the son of one of my friends. In fact, it was the invitation to that show that occasioned her evening: it’s a show she really dislikes. (Just like friends and foods, we don’t have to like the same plays.)

The show I saw ended earlier than hers, so I had time to stop at the market after, and spend some time at home with the cats before going to meet her train. We’ll share the stories of our days and our evenings.

Maybe over breakfast or lunch.

A Night at the Not-Quite Disco

I don’t travel all that often, but when I do I try to eat something that I can’t get at home–a local specialty.  Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood has never steered me wrong; in Minneapolis, for instance, it helped me find the best roast beef sandwich I’ve ever encountered. But asking those you meet is a good idea, too.

Nobody in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, could agree on what one thing I had to eat before I left. Almost nobody, in fact, had any strong opinions at all. “Cheese curd, I guess,” said one fellow. So, when I stopped for lunch during a little sightseeing trip between rehearsals, I saw them on the menu and asked for a serving.  They’re deep-fried bits of cheese (imagine a solid-cheese Cheeto) served with ranch dressing. If that’s how they’re served, that’s how I’m trying them–though after a couple of bites the combination of buttermilk and cheese was dairy overload. I asked for some cocktail sauce and tried not to notice the waiter looking at me as if I’d grown an extra head. (Tomato, lemon, and horseradish were, to me, the perfect foil for the fried cheese, though to look at that combination in print makes me understand why the waiter looked at me strangely.)

This isn’t a story about Wisconsin, though. There will be lots of stories about Wisconsin, but those for other days.

When I told her about the cheese curd, she said, “Oh, poutine!” It turns out that cheese curds aren’t especially local to Wisconsin; they are part of the national dish of Canada. Poutine is a plate of french fried potatoes topped with cheese curds over which brown gravy is ladled. I have no idea who first came up with this idea, but if it was a customer at a restaurant, I suspect the waiter may have given a little eye-roll.

This isn’t a story about Canada, either. (I’m not sure that she’s ever been to Canada, and I’ve only been there a couple of times–and I’ve never ordered poutine when I was.)

It turns out that there are many versions of poutine, and plenty of them don’t involve cheese curds. I am not so closed-minded as to say I will never try the one that involves feta cheese and vinaigrette dressing, but it’s not high on my list of enthusiasm.

A particularly swanky version of poutine is served at one of her favorite restaurants. Not her favorite spot; as discussed previously, that is not a spot for a pre-theatre bite. Seeing A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters with Alan Alda and Candice Bergen–our Friday night plan–was a bit of an occasion, so we decided to go her fancy poutine spot.  If our history was any indication, drinks and appetizers would be plenty for dinner.

On Wednesday, as we walked to the train station after work, we realized that it was going to be late enough that we should have dinner before boarding. But not fries, she said. “No, that’s for Friday,” I agreed. “And surely not Disco Fries,” she said. I laughed, trying to imagine fries in a white polyester suit, doing the Hustle under a mirror ball. “You know, American poutine,” she said, and I laughed all the harder her name for the American diner version of a Canadian dish.

We ended up at a diner, with an omelette and a BLT and a chocolate shake in a glass as big as her head–but not Disco Fries.  Which were actually on the menu.  I thought it was a very amusing coincidence until, meeting for coffee with a collaborator at a different diner, I saw Disco Fries listed there, too.

She laughed harder than I had at the thought the she had invented the name.  (She maintains she isn’t that clever, though I know better.) In the Northeast, fries with cheese and gravy are called Disco Fries, though I can’t find an explanation why. Even in this regional variation no sources agree what kind of cheese or gravy is supposed to be used.

Nios’s variation is as lavish as I had been led to understand: excellent fries with shredded mozzarella and julienned strips of pepperoni, sprinkled with chopped parsley, set under a broiler to melt the cheese and crisp the pepperoni, then bathed (but not soaked) with beefy gravy that most decidedly did not come from a can. Salty, crunchy, and rich; with a little salad alongside, and very well-made cocktails, it was a perfect pre-show dinner.

I’ll try Canadian poutine when I have a chance, and I might even take her for cheese curd next time we’re in Wisconsin.  Until then, when fries, cheese, and gravy meet, it will be at Nios. With no disco music.

 

 

 

Divide and Encourage

It takes about eight minutes to get to the train station in the morning, and they’re often my favorite eight minutes of the day.  We’re up, awake, and ready to face the world.  It’s time for a quick conversation about a story we’ve heard on Morning Edition, or a strategy session about the day to come. Of course, plans change, but it’s good to have a start.

“You’re having dinner with Rachel on Monday, right?” I asked her.

No, it turns out not.  She’s meeting her colleague for a drink after work on Tuesday, when I work late anyway. “But how would you like…”, she began, describing a performance organized by some of her other colleagues on Monday.

I hardly ever decline an invitation to the theatre, but a friend had sent me a first-thing-in-the-morning email offering a ticket to a concert in which he’s playing. It will be the first time he’s going to be all dressed up in a theatre where he expected his wedding to take place. Although he didn’t mention it that way, I knew it would be a little strange for him to be back there.

I didn’t have to say another word. “You should be there to support him,” she said.

“And you go to support your kids,” I said.

“It’ll be odd to be in different theaters,” I started to say. “Wait, no, it won’t.  It’ll be like, we own the theatre district!”  We laughed, and arrived at the train station in time for a quick kiss goodbye and confirmation of our meeting time tonight.

Of course we don’t own the theatre district.  Sometimes we’re very peripheral to it, and to the work done there.  But it’s nice to think we can both provide support where it’s needed, even when we aren’t together. We show up.  It’s what we do. For each other, and for our friends.

There won’t be Dinner at the Country House on Monday. There’ll probably be a couple of slices of pizza, purchased from different shops, and eaten on the way to different theatres. Or maybe there won’t even be time for that.  Maybe dinner will be pretzels and soda after the shows.  We’ll meet at Grand Central to share a train ride home, and have plenty of time to talk about our very different, very similar days.

A Sense of Occasion

She’d worked from home on Friday while I was recording music in my basement studio.  Evening approached, and with it time to change from casual clothes into something more festive for the season-opening gala concert of a theatre company we support.

The performance was in a big cabaret space that has neither bar nor kitchen. Outside food and drink are permitted–indeed, encouraged.  I had hoped to organize some semi-elegant picnic supper for us, but getting the demo recorded took longer than I expected, and time grew short. “Can we get takeout from the Awesome Burger Place?” she asked. We could indeed.

I didn’t think about the possibility of heavy traffic most of the way to the theatre; we arrived just a few minutes before the concert began. Our fries had lost some crispness and the burgers were not as warm as they once were (and, sad to say, hers wasn’t nearly as well-cooked as she’d asked for it to be).  The store-made potato chips we’d had as a snack on the way were light, not a bit greasy, and perfectly salted.

Our picnic gear wasn’t especially classy–her wonderful picnic basket is packed deep in a closet while the painter and flooring installers work–but we looked spiffy.  The Artistic Director of the company, passing through the lobby on his way backstage, took one look at us walking in and said, “I’ll see you later, sir,” before scooping her up in a mock-lascivious embrace.

Explaining the concert’s theme, the director quoted Jonathan Larson’s Rent: “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” Every performance was delightful, from an Andrews Sisters tribute “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” to a medley of Vietnam-era protest songs in the first act; highlights of the second act included the youngest soloist singing a very sophisticated song about parenthood with clear understanding of her text, and the 75-member cast massing their voices on Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday” and The Lion King’s “Circle of Life.” This was our third night in the theatre in a week, and, easily, our favorite performance of the three.

At intermission, there was a silent auction with a wide array of items for bid. After the concert, we discovered that we’d won tickets to a Broadway show we want to see, a set of piano lessons for her, and a session with a running coach for me. Including dinner, concert tickets, and our winning bids, we still hadn’t spent as much as we would have for a pair of seats at the Broadway show–and we’d supported local theatre and our friends.

Usually we meet for the theatre after work. Getting dressed up for this evening and leaving the house together made it feel like a “real” date.  Although this was community theatre, there was a sense of occasion about our evening.  It reminded me of my parents going dancing at the Elks club on Saturday nights.  I don’t recall how often Mom and Dad had dinner at home before going out, but I’m pretty sure they never walked into a theatre with burgers in a paper sack.  On the other hand, maybe I’m remembering it wrong and that was exactly their idea of a good time.  It was ours, certainly.