"If you feed them, they will come," says Susan Weinman, lead singer in "Bon Appétit!" a 20-minute opera about Julia Child being performed next week at the Fringe Festival. "Food breaks down barriers. And it gets them in the door."
Weinman could be speaking for the entire Philadelphia Fringe Festival this year. Food and drink have been everywhere: in the shows, served to the audience, or on sale at the bar hosting the show. Breaking down barriers is one reason for all the eats and drinks; "getting them in the door" is another. And a third big reason: Many of these shows concern family, food, and history. Food and drink play the leads in Philly Fringe.
So when you enter "Bon Appétit!" (Sept. 17) the comic opera about the pioneering television food personality playing at the Bainbridge Club on Bainbridge Street, chocolate cake and coffee await you. "Instead of noshies and snacks after the show," Weinman says, "give it to them right when they come in. Get them comfortable." At the politically titled Great Again (Sept. 14-18), you get "a swell piece of apple pie, straight from the oven!"
Sonya Aronowitz is proprietor of Juniper Productions, which is putting on #Cocktail Plays (Sept. 18-20), four short dramas performed at Philadelphia Distillery on East Allen Street. Each play is paired with a specially designed cocktail featuring one of the distillery's products. A fine example is Distill, a cocktail paired with the play Distill by Josh A. Campbell. (See accompanying recipe.)
"We want to bring down the walls and bring people to theater and theater to people," Aronowitz says. "It also involves the social situation, where people go to feel comfortable and be with one another. So, of course, drinking is involved."
Is it ever. Bye Bye Liver: The Philadelphia Drinking Play (Sept. 15 and 21-22) at the Evil Genius Beer Company on North Front Street advertises "interactive drinking games," so best be ready.
This year, FringeArts has taken the lead in all the bibulousness by creating a digital cocktail book. Barmasters at 10 Philly drinkeries created a cocktail matched with each of 10 "curated" (as in underwritten, grant-supported, more elaborate) shows at this year's Fringe. Each cocktail responds, in some sense, to its partner show.
For Geoff Sobelle's Home (Sept. 13-16), Jess Conda of Fergie's on Sansom Street designed a drink with Bulliet rye, Benedictine, and a dash of orange/chocolate bitters. "In thinking about this drink," she says, "I thought of the home I was raised in that belonged to my grandparents, and the parties they used to have there with 'The Crowd,' their merry band of Rat Pack-era friends. I had good chats about what our parents and grandparents would drink around the home. For this, we're going with a Monte Carlo, which is a riff on a Manhattan that adds Benedictine for sweetness. And we're adding a little extra sweetness with bitters."
So what's this commitment to, well, booze? Hallie Martenson, communications director at FringeArts, says, "Our Fringe is modeled on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which has a rich and important tradition of drinking. Fine drinks are a serious part of attending Fringe in Edinburgh, and we're working for that same feeling. Besides," she adds, "this year, the Fringe turns 21, so we're now of drinking age."
Maybe the most heartfelt gesture to food at Fringe is The Meatball Chronicles (Sept. 10-12), Debrianna Mansini's paean to family, food, and tradition. We learn her personal recipe for meatballs, panettone, calzone, and much else. "The meatballs recipe came down from my grandmother to my mom, who put her own spin on it," Mansini says, "and when it got to me, I put my own spin on it. That's how tradition works."
As mother and grandmother and aunt did, Mansini makes meatballs by feel, no measurements. Her voice takes on almost tactile depth and texture as she narrates: "Each part of the meatball has a memory for me. So there's ground beef, ground pork, and sometimes Italian sausage taken out of the casing. And sometimes, if I have it, I add ground turkey. Or chopped prosciutto.
"Meatballs are kind of like that – it's what you have around. Fresh bread crumbs soaked in milk. Onions ground in a blender so they're really soft and liquidy, so there's no pieces of onion – there's a line in the play, 'You can't leave the onions out, it won't taste the same.' There's egg, salt, pepper, and lots of fresh parsley like my aunt Dolly made it."
And although theatergoers did not get to sample those meatballs after Meatball Chronicles, those who see "Bon Appetit!" do get a taste of Child in the opera in her honor: that bittersweet chocolate cake at the end is her famed recipe for gâteau au chocolat l'Éminence Brune, from the 1975 edition of her hallowed cookbook. Weinman bakes Child's cake before each performance, and that is what is served to the audience. During the show, she mixes another cake on stage. "My friends say, 'Susan, get a box of mix, make it, and give them that,' and I say, 'If it's good enough for Julia Child … ' "