The current revival of Oklahoma! has been lovingly nicknamed “the Oklahoma! that fucks.” The musical, which takes place in the Oklahoma territory in 1906 and is centered around a box social (an event during which women prepare boxed lunches and men bid on them), has always been innovative. It was one of the first musicals to open with a song sung by one man rather than a chorus; a show that synthesized dance, music, and plot in a way the form hadn’t before. Still, a box social. To get from there to the horny darkness of the revival takes a lot of rethinking. And part of that, from the get-go, has been serving chili and cornbread to the audience for dinner.
It used to be that dinner and a show was a corny concept, a better-than-nothing performance for both the actors and attendees. Or if you ate in a theater, it was a bag of M&M’s smuggled in and surreptitiously unwrapped as the lights were going down. But recent productions have been changing the way food and theater intertwine. Waitress serves pie to patrons, the scent of which sets the scene. A recent production of Sweeney Todd was made to look like it took place inside Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, and offered the option to arrive early for a dinner of meat pie and mashed peas (no humans were harmed in the making). The cast of Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 threw pierogi to the audience. And during Oklahoma!’s 12-minute intermission, audience members can get a serving of chili and cornbread, just like the homesteaders would have eaten. Well, not quite.
A traditional Oklahoma chili comes out of the territory’s Mexican food traditions; the Oklahoma Historical Society says the earliest mention of the dish in the state was a 1897 pamphlet mentioning a “Mexican chili and tamala vendor.” Most of the recipes from the time called for meat, chile peppers, and masa, but one early recipe for “Chile soup” from the area called for beans, the inclusion of which remains a hotly contested issue in chili-making circles.
But the chili served at director Daniel Fish’s reimagining of the musical, which was first produced at Bard College in 2015, bears little resemblance to what you’d find on the Oklahoma prairie. For one, it’s vegetarian, and uses three types of beans, wheatberries, and kale. This was more about practicality than anything. “I went to the stage before they even constructed anything, and we had to figure out how we were going to keep it hot, bring it there, and have it ready for serving,” said Denise Thomas, director of catering for Metro Events, which makes and serves the chili for every Oklahoma! performance. While Thomas originally presented the Oklahoma! creators with some meat-based options, they went with a spicy, vegetarian poblano chili, likely because it could appeal to a wider array of audience members.
Metro Events serves eight gallons (around 285 servings) of chili and cornbread at each show. The chili is made in a 55-gallon boiler at its kitchen a few blocks from the theater, as is the cornbread, which is cut in neat cubes and stacked in straw baskets. The chili is brought to the theater and kept going in crock pots that dot the tables on stage, until the intermission when it’s distributed a cup at a time, first-come-first-served to the audience. The chili is a prop in its own right, too, as during one number Will, one of the protagonists, lustfully lifts the lid of a crock pot between his legs, releasing suggestive steam toward his lover, Ado Annie. “From what I hear, people love it,” says Thomas. “And people notice us. They’re like, ‘Here are the chili guys!’”
When you think of chili, you think of events in a similar spirit to the box social: You think neighborhood chili cookoffs, and arguments over meat versus beans, and big pots meant to feed and comfort a whole family. As I mingled with other theatergoers on the stage, eating cornbread and admiring the painted backdrop, I assumed the chili was meant to be a grounding experience, another clue reminding the audience that we were in Oklahoma, that the story we were watching, however modern, was one of farm folk on the prairie, and that we were all here to enjoy a box social together.
But the taste of poblano and cumin was still in my mouth as the second act began with a laudanum-induced dream ballet featuring dancer Gabrielle Hamilton running around the stage in a sequin shirt that read “DREAM BABY DREAM,” as cowboy boots fell from the sky. The music was a tense arrangement of the lighthearted songs we heard before, stressed and nervous strings plucked in the dark. The combination of flavor and sound broke all my expectations. I wondered if this was the taste the creepy farmhand Jud had in his mouth as he harassed Laurey into going to the dance with him, what cowboy Curly tasted as he fantasized about Laurey’s body and Jud’s demise, if it lingered on Laurey’s lips as she woke from her drugged-out dream.
It wasn’t that the chili was an old-fashioned reminder of what Oklahoma was; the traditional flavors were being launched into modernity by the rest of the musical. Chili did not have to be the province of hoedowns and cookouts, a quaint juxtaposition at a Broadway musical. It could be part of an immersive theater experience, something that pulls you even deeper into the world of the play.
Oklahoma!, which is nominated for eight Tony Awards, is advertising a limited Broadway engagement, and just announced it’ll be kicking off a national tour in Oklahoma City in 2020. But Thomas said she hopes they’ll be able to cook chili for as long as possible, and that the success of the musical’s chili program will open up how people think food can be used in theater. Because, as Oklahoma! proves, it doesn’t have to be a gimmick.