Oh, the joys of food! The colors that appeal to our eyes, the tastes that satisfy our tongues, the textures that delight our mouths. We humans would be in a cosmic quandary were it not for the varieties of food we're allowed to enjoy in our daily lives.
Those lives are often portrayed on stage—complete with wallpaper, lamps, sofas, chairs and tables, record players and microphones, in fancy restaurant dining rooms, cafés and breakfast nooks where food plays an important role, often front and center.
During my years as a teacher at Forest Hill High School, I created props for the stage musicals "Grease" and "Bye Bye Birdie" as well as the occasional skit for Classics, a competition between the sophomores, juniors and seniors. Often spoofs of popular movies, TV shows or Broadway plays, Classics skits competed in a three-night run, the exact run for the musicals.
Some of my best props turned out to be fake food. It had to be readily recognizable all the way to the back of the auditorium; it had to stand up to the ministrations of the stage crew who worked in the dark; it had to be cheap to make.
Every good cook realizes an attractive plated dish begins with the proper mise en place—having all ingredients prepared and at your fingertips before you begin. After years of watching "The Muppet Show," I knew I needed foam rubber, paint and hot glue.
Prepping for "Grease," I bought thin pieces of foam rubber and spray paint to match the colors of hamburger patties and buns, lettuce, tomato and onion slices, and French fries, as well as BLTs with potato chips. Using scissors, I cut and trimmed and shaped the raw foam, coaxing it into rather large renditions of said foods, then painted them inside an empty Xerox paper box which served well as a way to keep them from flying away when sprayed.
Once the pieces had dried, I hot-glued the burgers and sandwiches together, then glued them to paper plates, accompanied by piles of fries or chips, all glued artfully as if placed there by a short order cook.
Conrad Birdie—the rock 'n' roll singer about to be drafted into the armed services in "Bye Bye Birdie"—ate breakfast at the Peterson's house in Sweet Apple, Ohio. What would a proud Midwestern mother serve her guest? Fried eggs, pancakes and slices of ham. This time, however, I used T-shirt paint along with my scissors and glue gun. Little did I know that the foam would soak up so much paint that it would take much longer to dry—I had less time to make it look realistic. Those are the ugliest breakfast foods I've ever seen, but they served their purpose well—looking cartoonish and matching the entire production's air of exaggerated reality.
The fake food I'd enter in the state fair fit the menu for the fine dining establishment in one Classics' skit. My mise en place: donated foam rubber along with T-shirt paint, scissors, and the hot glue gun.
I opted for a large baked potato and T-bone steak for the entrée, cutting and gluing the potato into its shape before painting it. I allowed myself plenty of time to get the colors just right on the potato's jacket and topped it with a bright yellow pat of butter. To finish the T-bone, I painted wide-spaced marks made by the "grill." For desserts, I made a scrumptious-looking piece of cheesecake and a huge three-layered slice of yellow cake with chocolate icing, reminiscent of the cakes my paternal grandmother made for birthday and holiday dinners. Serendipitously, the foam rubber used for the cheesecake and the cake layers was the perfect color without a bit of paint.
I believe reality is in the eye of the beholder. Ask anyone who's seen my fake food and they'll tell you—it looks yummy enough to eat.