I come from a family that talks about food. A lot. Whenever we eat, we talk about what we're having for the next meal, making dinner plans during lunch, talking about the next day's breakfast menu at dinner. So many of my memories are tied to food, to the meals I've had, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding them. So I was instantly captivated when the lights came up and Aubergine began.
The play begins with Diane (Jessica Love) directly addressing the audience, recounting the best thing she ever ate. (These direct addresses season the play, serving as little noshes in between scenes.) She takes great care to get the specifics of the meal (a pastrami sandwich) right, including a vivid description of browning the butter so as to properly toast/fry the bread. As Diane continues, it becomes clear that this sandwich is not the best thing she ever ate because it tasted amazing, because the umami was wonderfully overwhelming her senses. It's the best thing because of the memory of her father making the sandwich for her, because it's her last memory of her father.
Food is how we connect with people. When you go on a date, you eat. When you visit someone, you bring food. When you travel somewhere, you get recommendations of foods to eat and restaurants in which to dine. And, as playwright Julia Cho so smartly observes in her beautiful play, Aubergine, when you tell someone a loved one is dying, they start talking about food.
Directed by Kate Whoriskey (Tales from Red Vienna), Aubergine focuses on Ray (Tim Kang), a first-generation Korean-American chef in a big city who is summoned home to the suburbs to care for and connect with his ailing father (Stephen Park). Ray isn't sure how to care for his father (or himself); luckily, he has hospice worker Lucien (Michael Potts) to help. In Lucien's direct address, he tells us about a carrot he ate; it was one he planted in his garden. A little later, Lucien gives Ray an eggplant, or aubergine, from said garden, connecting through food.
As Ray tries to connect with his father, he enlists the help of Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim), a former flame who reluctantly agrees to serve as a translator between Ray and his uncle (Joseph Steven Yang), who still lives in Korea and only speaks the mother tongue. When Cornelia tells Uncle that his brother's dying, Uncle starts giving Cornelia a recipe.
Because he's trying to connect. Food is what comforts us and it's what we remember. Like Diane and her pastrami sandwich or Lucien and his carrot, the food memory is not powerful because the food is irresistibly delicious. In fact, you could argue (and I think Cho's play does) that foods elicit such strong memories because of almost everything but the food; we remember where and when we were; we remember who made the food and what went into the preparation; we remember why we were eating that particular food at that particular time, and, especially when eating culturally-specific foods (like the soup Uncle tries to get Ray to make), it connects us to our family and ancestors, the people who helped us reach this point. In doing so, we move a little closer to understanding those around us.
The commonality of food memories made it easy to connect with Ray and the others in Aubergine, despite the fact that I do not come from a Korean family. Like in Danai Gurira's Familiar, in which the traditions were specific but the desire to honor them could be universally felt, through Aubergine we recognize that across cultures, the ingredients might be different but the food is the same. The food and ensuing memories might help woo a lover or console a child, or they might allow you to know your dying father.
Indeed, in program notes, Cho writes, "[My father] grew up in a time and place where there were no cameras; of his early life, or even his life as a young man, I know virtually nil. But I know what he ate; I know what foods he liked. And so it is a kind of communion: I eat these things in remembrance of him."
So, what's the best thing you ever ate?
Aubergine is playing at Playwrights Horizons through October 2. Visit the website for more information and to purchase tickets.