“Moderation? I’m against it.”
Right from the start of Freefall Theatre’s I Love to Eat, the audience learns a lot about James Beard, one of the most influential names in culinary history — the man who became known as the dean of America’s cookery.
Many people know his name. They might recall his face, embossed on the prestigious culinary medals handed out by the foundation named after him. Maybe they even own one of the 20-some books authored by the celebrated cookbook author and television personality.
But in the play running through Feb. 27, the audience learns that there’s so much more to the man who revolutionized American cooking. A champion of seasonality and American cuisine, Beard was born in 1903 in Portland, Ore. He studied briefly at Reed College and spent several years living abroad before returning to the U.S., where he launched a small food shop and catering business and would later go on to host the first cooking show on live television in 1946.
Local actor Matthew McGee paints a vivid picture of the Pacific Northwest landscape that inspired Beard’s love of cuisine and a childhood rich with culinary experiences. The food descriptions are vivid and sensual. In one scene, McGee recalls digging for razor clams off the Oregon coast. Meals of Dungeness crab and oysters. Fresh cherries in Sonoma. Potatoes, wrapped in wet newspaper and tucked under hot coals right on the beach.
But the play also references the harsher aspects of Beard’s life: his personal struggles as a gay man during a time when homosexuality was still very taboo; the inevitable heartbreak that comes from unrequited love.
Viewers learn how opera, not the culinary arts, was Beard’s first real passion — and the disappointment he suffered when a career in the dramatic arts (he also gave theater and Hollywood a whirl) didn’t pan out. There’s a reference to the paid endorsements Beard received for products he didn’t always stand behind and a brief quip about his penchant for cooking in the nude, much to the annoyance of his neighbors.
The play is punctuated by phone calls from fans and friends, witty anecdotes and kitchen advice (on Julia Child: “I’m an inch taller and she’s an inch more famous”). But perhaps the most macabre recurring bit is the constant buzzing of Beard’s kitchen timer, which seems to act as a stark reminder that time does, inevitably, run out for all of us in the end.
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Beard died of heart failure in 1985 at age 81. In several scenes, McGee tops off a seemingly never-ending glass of Glenlivet on the rocks. He is seen opening letters — many are from fans and inquiring home cooks — but there’s also one that informs Beard of his poor health and shaky cardiovascular disposition. Despite the stark doctorly advice (“diet, or die”), Beard trashes the letter and stuffs a stale cookie into his mouth. But the sadness hangs heavy in the air.
“I hate this body for failing me,” he says.
Despite his challenges and setbacks, it’s still Beard’s love and passion for the culinary arts that prevails, and the play’s focus remains on his commitment to fresh, seasonal cooking — his enduring contributing to America’s culinary canon.
“Food is feeling,” McGee tells the audience. ”If I’m eating, then I must be alive.”
If you go
I Love to Eat runs through Feb. 27. $25-$45. Freefall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-498-5205. freefalltheatre.com.