Esther, Muriel, and Yvette: The Rootsby Dan Trujillo
Food experts lurk at every sidewalk table in New York City these days. But I know three women who recall a different city; one that didn’t have so many epicures, because it was hard enough to get something to eat. They also remember automats, sweet potato vendors, and when eggs were bad for you.
Esther Horne, Muriel Mervis, and Yvette Pollack are core actors in Roots&Branches, our intergenerational theater company, a part of the Haym Salomon Division of the Arts at FEGS Health and Human Services. We’re an ensemble made up of seniors (the Roots), 20-somethings (the Branches), and a few in-betweens like me (the Trunks, I guess). We all get together with our directors, Julie Kline and Kirsten Kelly. We pick a topic, and we tell stories, and we improvise, and we argue, and we experience it from another generation’s perspective. After a few months of this, we have a show. This year it’s Let’sEat!, about a family’s epic 90-year food fight over Matzo Brei and love affairs with Cookie Dough. I mean that literally, Cookie Dough’s a character in the show.
Esther, Muriel, and Yvette sat with me before rehearsal to talk food, the show, and the life of senior artists.
Dan Trujillo (Rail): What’s the single biggest thing you’ve seen change about food?
Muriel Mervis: Well, we have more variety than we did when I was a kid. I mean, there’s everything today.
Yvette Pollack: But it doesn’t taste as good as when I was a kid. When I buy a Milky Way, I have a certain flavor in my mouth’s memory, and current Milky Ways do not match that. Unless my taste buds are not as good as they used to be.
Mervis: I think they change as we get older.
Esther Horne: We didn’t have much meat. The lack of funds. I grew up, maybe it’s peculiar to my family, but we could all eat some things and say, “This is really lousy,” but not stop eating.
Rail: What’s your favorite kind of meal to eat with others?
Horne: Anything that’s not forbidden me.
Rail: But if nothing was forbidden. What do you love to share?
Horne: Brunch. Well, I’m thinking of the foods I can’t eat. Orange juice or mimosa, bagels and cream [She extends the vowel lusciously.] cheeeeeeese.
Pollack: Lobster. I love lobster so much that I want to be the source of other people's gastronomic pleasures. I rejoiced in taking my kids and their kids for lobster whenever they visited New York.
Mervis: I love lamb chops and mashed potatoes. And a lot of restaurants don’t have lamb chops on the menu anymore. I remember some years ago now, I went out with friends for dinner, and on the menu were lamb chops for 47 dollars. And I thought, that is ridiculous, I’m not having them.
Rail: What if I was buying, would you have them then?
Mervis: I mean, I wouldn’t like you to have to pay a lot of money. But you’re a rich guy.
Rail: That’s right. I’m a playwright. What’s a meal you eat all by yourself when nobody is watching?
Mervis: Nobody is watching why? That I should put on weight?
Rail: Because it’s too messy.
Pollack: Mango. Because the only way I really like to eat mango is when it’s really ripe. And I stand over at the sink, and I peel with a potato peeler, the skin all off, and then I [Slurping sound.], just [Slurping sound.] and I get it all over me, all over the sink, all over the floor, and nobody had better be watching.
Horne: A ripe pineapple. Yeah, that’s real sloppy, and the juice runs down your arms. And I even nibble on the skin, because there’s some meat and stuff on it.
Mervis: My favorite dessert is ice cream. And when I buy it, I eat the whole pint at one time.
Mervis: Can’t you eat a whole pint?
Pollack: [Mutters.] Of course.
Rail: There’s a food fight in the show. Who would you most like to throw food at?
Pollack: In the show?
Rail: In the world.
Mervis: I can’t think of anyone. You’d have to really dislike the person very much.
Rail: I know Yvette wants to throw some food at somebody.
Pollack: Lots of people. But one that comes first to mind is that smarmy, arrogant, self-centered, self-important Donald Trump. I would just love to rub a pie in his face.
Mervis: Boy, you really hate him.
Pollack: I hate a lot of people.
Mervis: Yeah, I do too. I’ve always been very happy that he wasn’t Jewish. [Laughter.] No, I mean it!
Pollack: It would make it look bad for the rest of us.
Horne: I don’t like pretentious people—show offs. I didn’t like show-offs from grade school. Maybe I’m one. Maybe that’s why I don’t like them. Being an actress, in a way you are.
Rail: You’re doing it in the right place, on stage.
Horne: It’s something I’ve wanted all my life, but had to put on the back burner until retirement. Then I was able to study, and I did for three years at the Learning Center of the Teacher’s Union. I got into the drama group-class. The teacher was a professional actor, and he was terrific. I enjoyed it so much, I felt so stimulated by it, but after three years, he said, “It’s time for you to go.” I said, “What?!” He said, “Yes. Community Theater.” I said, “I’m not ready.” He said, “You are.”
Rail: But Roots&Branches is a little different than working on a previously published play. We’re creating a new show through story and improvisation.
Horne: I enjoy the improv part, after the stories have been told, and trying to be the person that the story’s about is challenging and fun, very fun.
Pollack: I like when I see what a writer can do with the scenes that we have improvised, based on our memoir. It amazes me when I see them come to life. I feel such a sense of pride and worthiness at having developed new skills and abilities, at an age when so many of my neighbors, relatives, even friends are winding down or complaining of boredom.
Rail: I’m sure the Branches are never boring. What’s surprised you about them?
Mervis: I think their sensitivity to us, it’s very endearing.
Pollack: Working with the Branches really energizes me, when some of their energy is not exhausting me, and keeps me in touch with new ideas, slang, attitudes. However, I do feel an alienation when it comes to modern pop music.
Rail: If there was one singer or musician, you wanted to introduce to a Branch, you say, “You have to listen to this person, if you want to understand where I’m coming from.”
Horne: I feel that way about Calypso, since I was 12. Now it’s Reggae. Same thing to me.
Pollack: My favorite singer of all time is Pete Seeger. Both for his musicianship, and for his humanity, and for all he’s done for us.
Mervis: I like Tony Bennett very, very much.
Rail: If there’s one reason that the reader should see our show, a character, or a line.
Horne: “Look at how limp that noodle is. Why, it’s as limp as a used—a lady don’t say how limp it is.”
Rail: I should’ve known that’s the one you’d remember.
Horne: I know my lines, I have them down pat, I’ve worked very hard to get them. But when I’m actually in a scene with other people I get this discombobulated. When there are voices all around me. I can’t remember if I had that before or not. I’m going through that now, and it’s shocking.
Mervis: Last year and this year too. It’s tough for me. Before, I kept my lines down firm.
Pollack: Remembering blocking. The lines go out of my head when I have to remember physical proximity. I think I have a condition of spatial disorientation—unless I’m making up excuses.
Rail: Part of how Roots&Branches changed me is that now I’m curious about those challenges that you face, and that I’m going to face. Like Esther said there’s food that’s forbidden to her.
Horne: Anything worth eating. I have to avoid wheat, so that wipes out all bread, cake, cookies, pasta. I was a bread-oholic all my life, and I literally had dreams about eating Jewish rye bread with schmaltz or without. Given the choice between breads or cakes, I would take bread. I can’t have roughage, so that means all salads, which I love, and fresh fruit. The only fresh fruit I eat are bananas, and I sneak mango.
Rail: How often do you cheat on the diet?
Horne: Very rarely, because the reactions aren’t worth it. It’s a drag. I mean, socially it’s a drag, and I’m a pain in the neck. People don’t know what to prepare when I’m coming. I remember reading years ago that Carol Channing used to take her own food with her when she went to parties, and at the time, I thought to myself, “How gross.” But you know what? It’s the smart thing to do. You want to eat when other people eat. It’s part of socializing. So break out your own food.
Rail: I looked at the Proust interview before I did this one. This question, I liked the phrasing on: “What is your dream of happiness?”
Pollack: Three answers: To see Barack Obama win this election. To never never ever develop Alzheimer’s, like too many of my friends have fallen to. And to mention that once I had a boyfriend who was a strict catholic, and I was a non-Jew, and I said to him one day, “You know my idea of happiness—eternal happiness—would be in the same room with everyone I’ve ever loved, and who ever loved me, for all eternity.” And he just looked at me and said, “That would be my idea of hell.”
Mervis: My idea of happiness is the health and happiness and welfare of my two daughters, and their partners. When they’re not happy, I’m not happy.
Horne: To see my son settle. To continue acting, and to have the brains and the physical stamina to do it, to my last breath.
Let’s Eat! will run from November 14 - 18 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 W. 37th St. Showtimes are Wednesday - Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25, $15 for seniors and students. Reservations can be made at 917-606-6599, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
DAN TRUJILLO is the company playwright for Roots&Branches, and a member of The Dramatists Guild. His other plays can be found at www.dantrujillo.com.