For special occasions, Harlan Baker’s family used to go to a Chinese restaurant in White Plains, New York, called Tung Sing. It was exotic – for the 1950s. It served what were then unusual dishes with names like chow mein, lo mein and moo goo gai pan.

In the decades since, our understanding of and appreciation for Chinese food has expanded along with our menu options. But as a kid, Baker recalls a trip to Tung Sing as an extraordinary, mysterious experience. As his family chatted away, Baker sat with his plate of noodles and imagined Tung Sing as a remote Chinese outpost that was under attack.

When the playwright learned that Portland-based Snowlion Repertory Company was producing a collection of short plays as a tie-in to Maine Restaurant Week, he returned to an idea for a play that he started years ago. In the play “Tung Sing,” a man reflects on his childhood and lets his imagination transport him to a place far, far away.

“Tung Sing” is one of 12 short plays that comprise “The Maine Dish: A Feast of Plays about Food.” It will be on stage at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater March 5-8.

The evening of theater is the latest attempt by the arts community to piggyback on the success of Maine Restaurant Week.

Last year, the Maine Historical Society hosted an exhibition of old menus. Art galleries have hung shows featuring food-themed work.


And now we have a dozen plays about food.

“It’s interesting to see how Maine Restaurant Week is inspiring others to do things,” said Maine Restaurant Week co-founder Gillian Britt of Cape Elizabeth. “I am intrigued by it. It says a lot about how much the concept of Maine Restaurant Week has seeped into the general consciousness and how willing artists are to create something that will resonate with people.”

Maine Restaurant Week actually covers two weeks, from March 1 to March 14. It celebrates the culinary talents of Maine chefs and restaurateurs and is a way for the state’s restaurants to attract customers during a traditionally slow season.

The idea for “The Maine Dish” began with Margit Ahlin and Al D’Andrea, co-founders of Snowlion Repertory Company in Portland. They have an in-house playwriting group, and suggested food as a theme for the playwrights. They were invited to write a short play about food; that was the sole restriction.

The result is a menu of wildly diverse plays featuring 17 actors, a dozen playwrights and four directors. There are comedies, dramas and a musical. Some are set in restaurants, others in the kitchen. One is in an art gallery, another in the TV studio of a cooking show. One takes place in Africa, where two children seek comfort food while trying to evade rebels.

One is even in outer space. Each runs about 10 minutes. The plays will be presented in two acts, with an intermission.


Cast members play multiple roles in different shows. “The theme is food, but we have a play about self-liberation, about accepting family traditions, about feeding the soul – and about not having enough food to eat,” said Ahlin, Snowlion’s producing director.

Among the food-based cultural traditions explored are Chinese, Swedish, Jewish, African and American. And yes, actual food will be prepared on stage during the show. So, in addition to being interesting theater, “The Maine Dish” also should be the best-smelling play of the season.

“We’re always looking for ways where we can serve the community,” D’Andrea said. “We felt this was a great way to tap into something that is particularly important in the community, and offer a different perspective.”

Playwright Bess Welden, who penned the piece “Madeleines,” hopes “The Maine Dish” helps people think about the stories that are embedded in food and in family traditions that revolve around food.

She started thinking about the story behind “Madeleines” a few years ago, after her mother-in-law made a recipe book for the family. A collection of favorites, the book included a recipe for the cookies her mother-in-law baked the day Welden’s husband got his driver’s license. From that day forward, the orange cookies were known as “license cookies.” The idea of baking a specific recipe to mark a milestone sparked her writing.

But the story goes much deeper.


“I also wanted to write something about adult sisters coping with the death of their mother,” she said. “The play’s themes touch on sibling rivalries and how perceptions from childhood shape relationships later in life, among other things.”

For the playwrights, writing around a theme that relates to a big community event is an opportunity to reach an audience that might not otherwise think about attending a play.

“I love the notion of creating theater that resonates very specifically with another cultural event in the community,” Welden said. “I also think it’s just a smart marketing idea, an innovative way to connect with potential audiences.”


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