If you type “Spam recipes” into Google, you’ll come up with 2,010,000 results. The Cool Cucumber Avocado Spam Sandwich and the Country Rice Salad are my favourites. But when I make them I use all the ingredients except for one: Spam.
If you’re as grossed out as I am by this slab of tasty over-produced pork with debatable bits of ham, then you’ll love the visceral and Spam-inflected cooking show currently running at Toronto’s upscale Market Kitchen.
Veteran writer and actor Jovanni Sy’s solo show, A Taste of Empire, not only uses Spam (a lot) as a prop representing the subservient and oppressive past lurking beneath the cheerful façade of an expert chef, the show also treats audiences to a darkly comic and heart-wrenching gutting of an unsuspecting fish lying dormant on the countertop and waiting to be rendered edible.
As he prepares Rellenong Bangus, a Filipino fish dish, Sy explains, in serio-comic detail, the ins and outs of imperialism and how the consumption, construction and distribution of international cuisine can be a truly oppressive practice that goes back as far as early Spanish conquest, and resides within any form of contemporary foodstuffs that, as Sy puts it, “leave a really giant footprint on the earth.”
Sy’s personal food philosophy includes a love for kiwi, a food “that comes from 12,000 miles away.’” That’s quite the gastronomic footprint! He explains that he loves “eating exotic foods,” and at the end of the day his basic food philosophy “is one of, ‘Oh my gosh, what do you do?’”
What Sy has done is create a very entertaining and well-researched show that attempts to reveal everything the food industry tries to conceal. Then it’s up to the audience to decide how much of a footprint they want to leave behind as they munch merrily along.
A Taste of Empire does just that as it dutifully administers, without preaching, to spectators clearly complicit in the vicious circle of keeping our collective bellies full.
The script is expertly crafted and moves in and out of levels of awareness and enslavement around issues concerning labourers often caught within the poorly paid trap of globalized consumption. As a pawn in his master chef’s corporate food empire, Sy’s minion-like assistant chef character attempts to be a brave evangelical worker, out to sing the praises of his wealthy employer. This should be a recipe for a fine parodic performance, and yet the only weakness in the show is a lack of careful emotional sculpting by director Guillermo Verdecchia. His collaboration with Sy has not created enough high-spirited levels of comedy and tragedy within the performer’s delivery style, which might have rendered the very moving climax of the piece more palatable.
As it stands, A Taste of Empire is at times exhilarating and stomach-churning, but the opening and closing segments have not yet been crafted into levels of emotion that complement each other sharply enough, making for the roller coaster ride of imperial politics and global cuisine that the script seems to beg for. A little more spice and a formidable dash of Galloping Gourmet-like pacing could render the performance a much more exciting ride.
Nevertheless, this is a truly unique and tasty summer treat that – with generous portions of sea salt and freshly ground pepper perhaps – could become a delicious entrée.