In Roysten Abel’sThe Kitchen the mundane, humble act of cooking rice is transformed into a prolonged drama, accompanied by stark lights and the hypnotic beating of drums.
A middle-aged couple sits on the stage, wordless for the duration of the performance, stirring vats of rice. They are making payasam, a traditional south Indian sweet made with rice, milk, almonds and cardamom.
The payasam – which the audience is served at the end of the show – is delicious. The play however, is confounding.
The man and woman grimace, toil and grind away at their pots. For reasons never made clear, they look stricken, horrified, tortured. The looks of grim determination on their faces as they stirred the rice indicated slightly more arduous tasks, like pushing a barge through a swamp, or garrotting someone – not making a beloved dessert.
Their silence doesn’t stem from the everyday, ho-hum, going-about-our-business kind of work. Instead, their silence seems to come from loss, even devastation. Neither of the actors cracks a smile until the very end, and again, it’s not the smile of the quotidian. It’s ecstatic, transcendent.
It left me wondering – why all the fuss over a rice pudding?
Food – the actual ingredients, cooking methods and tastes – may vary greatly from place to place, continent to continent. What is considered a delicacy in one country might be considered inedible, even taboo, in another.
But the joy that comes from feeding those you love is universal.
Perhaps universality of experience through food is what The Kitchen was aiming for, but instead I felt confused by, even excluded from whatever the actors were going through.
For those of us who love and appreciate food – I don’t like the term foodie, because it implies that loving food is faddish and pretentious. It’s not. Loving food is loving life – the act of preparing it is an act of love. We cook for others because we love to share our love of food.
The love of food does not need to be expressed in an exulted way – which is why The Kitchen didn’t communicate anything to me. We boil spuds, we butter bread, to nourish our children, our friends, the people we care about. One of the best cooks I’ve ever met – the mother of a friend, coincidentally also from south India – could make exquisite and complex regional dishes but she also made, and I’m not joking, the best cheese sandwich I’ve ever had. Some people just have the ability to communicate with the food that they make.
Roysten Abel may not be one of those people. But the payasam was lovely.