Julia Cho’s Aubergine is, among other things, a play that rouses one’s sense of taste. The opening monologue includes a mouth-watering account of eating a pastrami sandwich: “an explosion of hot, buttery bread and meat, crispy on the edges, the pepperiness of the pastrami edge sharp in contrast to the golden, almost fried, crumb.”
Elsewhere, characters discuss dishes that some of us may not have heard of, yet we can almost savor them. Perhaps that’s because the characters talk about food in profoundly personal terms where flavor and texture meld with memory and emotion. Few plays can make the audience this hungry.
Taste can also mean personal preference, as in the phrase, “It’s a matter of taste.” Here, our sense of taste becomes a metaphor for the indisputability of subjective experience: we like what we like. Indeed, some preferences are so overwhelming that they can become deep-seated desires, bypassing thought.
For example, many Koreans have to have some rice after a Western-style meal, even one with bread or pasta. Otherwise, they don’t feel as though they’ve really eaten. In that sense, the intimate stories that the play’s characters share about hunger allude to the cultural dimensions of food—that individual tastes are often inherited. What we ate as children can lead to lifelong cravings. For example, my wife and I disagree on the “right” way to eat garaettok, a kind of Korean white rice cake. I prefer dipping it in a mix of soy sauce and sesame oil, whereas my wife likes to coat it in honey after lightly toasting it.
But when we argue, my wife and I are each drawing from deeply ingrained memories of celebrating the Lunar New Year. This argument is irresolvable not simply because it’s a matter of personal taste, but because it’s impossible to measure one family tradition against another.
Just thinking about rice cake causes a slight pang in my stomach. But am I actually hungry, or am I experiencing something else—nostalgia, regret, grief—as hunger? And if I can reaffirm my connections to my family, including those who have passed on, by having garaettok the way we used to eat it, then what about the character of Ray, a second-generation Korean American chef who has lost touch with his Korean roots?
Ray barely speaks the language, knows nothing about Korean customs, and never talks about Korean food. What tastes, if any, could he have inherited? Perhaps his father’s approaching death is especially hard on Ray because his father is his only link to a culture that he can’t see or feel on his own. “I guess I’m going to be an orphan. Which makes me sound twelve,” Ray jokes. But this remark masks a real fear: how will Ray know who he is anymore without family? How can his hunger be satisfied?
Ray’s uncle remarks that Ray’s talent for cooking comes from his Korean grandmother’s sohn-maht, which Ray’s girlfriend Cordelia fails to translate, feebly offering the nonsensical phrase “tasty hands.” “Hand-taste” would serve better as a literal translation—as in the “handicraft” of a great cook.
But even this translation doesn’t fully capture the Korean term’s sentimental and somewhat magical connotation. Sohn-maht is how Koreans explain why nothing beats mom’s cooking. Tastiness itself comes from something in the hands. Even though Ray didn’t know his grandmother, Uncle firmly believes that Ray somehow carries on her amazing sohn-maht, across generations and across the Pacific Ocean. How does that work exactly? No one can say.
And so, the play reveals one other truth about taste. One’s personal taste—and identity, which is what I’m really talking about here—comes about in inexplicable, unexpected ways. We’re never carbon copies of our parents; indeed, Ray has tried hard to not be his father. But it’s also possible that the part of ourselves that we think is most unique to us, the very thing that makes you you, actually tells the story of where we come from and the people who come before.
You might not be able to explain why you like, sometimes even crave, certain things. But those things could still explain something about you.
-Kee-Yoon Nahm, Dramaturg
TheatreWorks Presents Aubergine
Aubergine follows Korean-American chef Ray, as he cares for his dying father but struggles to connect with the man who never understood his life’s calling in the kitchen. When his uncle arrives unannounced to cook an unexpected last meal, they share more in food than they ever could in words. This poignant play explores food as nourishment, not only to the body, but also to our individual heritage and shared humanity.
Aubergine features both Korean and English dialogue and will be subtitled accordingly, such that the show can be enjoyed by English or Korean speaking audience members.