Seattle World’s Fair is Cool Again (Thanks to Café Nordo)
Visiting the Space Needle was not on the top of my “must list” when I moved to Seattle six years ago.
To be honest, it seemed like one of the city's miscalculated impulses—like getting a lower back tattoo or a car phone.
Maybe that's because my vision of future worlds is more fired up by the likes of Back to the Future or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure than that of the Jetsons.
The technology in those movies—wielded by Christopher Lloyd and George Carlin—felt so much more DIY and rock ’n’ roll, than the sterile, corporate heaven lorded over by Mr. Spacely and Mr. Cogsworth. (Although I wanted a magical food machine as bad as the next kid).
The World’s Fair (aka Century 21) 50th anniversary celebration is right around the corner—which means celebrations, exhibitions and Space Needle paraphernalia are already at large in the city. Cue Space Needle adorned cupcakes and letterpress posters (I’m not mad; I’m just saying).
“…1962 was a major turning point in Seattle History. Not because what was predicted then for ‘Century 21’ came true—much of it did not—but because events of the year shifted the perception of Seattle from a port city in the wilderness to a city on the cutting edge of change, finding its place in the world.”
In this context, the Needle’s symbolic worth becomes clearer. And its physical appearance closer to acceptable.
But learning about Seattle's World’s Fair still didn’t feel exciting until I saw Café Nordo’s theatrical feast To Savor Tomorrow.
(It closed November 26, having sold out most of its shows well before then. Sorry for the late notice, but perhaps this glowing review will help convince the Seattle Center to pay Café Nordo lots of money to reprise?)
You can explore the fascinating web of 1962 World’s Fair from myriad angles: architecture, city politics, urban planning, fashion and my fiancé’s favorite: bric-a-brac.
Café Nordo, local traveling theater company and gourmet kitchen with a serious philosophy on food and a mysterious unnamed kitchen staff, took the opportunity at the eve of the Century 21 golden anniversary to think about the climate of cuisine at the time of the World’s Fair.
To Savor Tomorrow is a play that satires the burgeoning industrialized food industry of the 1960s, which sought to end world hunger with genetically modified and convenience foods – but instead led us where we are today: drowning in aisles and drive-thru's full of processed, packaged and ultimately poisonous food-like food.
Created by Erin Brindley and Terry Podgorski and staged at Fremont’s funky new theater space, West of Lenin, To Savor Tomorrow invites audiences to enter a black box space outfitted with rounded ceiling panels and sixties-style plastic bucket chairs. You genuinely feel like you’re in the bar on a Pan Am flight, which the pilot soon informs you over the PA, is scheduled to arrive in Seattle just in time for the World’s Fair.
As the play continues, it is discovered that food scientist Proudhurst is also on the plane – and she’s carrying in her briefcase valuable notes that, if delivered to the United States, will ensure the Decline of Western Civilization (a.k.a. our present day reality).
Stalking her on board are a handful of American, Chinese and Russian secret agents disguised as Pan Am employees. They scheme to stop or expedite the delivery of those notes, depending on which side of the Iron Curtain their sympathies lie.
When the show isn't focused on making us laugh with timely wisecracks, the doomed, but earnestly optimistic ambitions of the time are captured in fantastic monologues delivered by Petra Proudhurst, a food scientist played by Opal Peachey.
Here's a monologue excerpt as transcribed on Nordo’s Carnal Food blog:
The world is on the verge of a new age; the Age of Tomorrow. Let us project ahead to an age of prosperity in which technology ushers in an era of leisure. With new textiles, new building materials, new colors, new flavor enhancements, new hair products, new fuels nothing is impossible. Never before has humanity made such progress in understanding the world. We stand on the edge of tomorrow.
And this one:
We have created a global agriculture industry the world will never forget.
It’s heavy stuff if you know how it ends (Hot Pockets now come in bite sizes!).
But with implications about how urgently we need to make changes in order to preserve our bodies and our planet, also comes delightful choreography (especially charming when the flight attendants explain the safety routine via a flirty dance) and slapstick humor.
The incompetent agents (one of them played by actor Mark Siano, channeling Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy character to great effect) get mixed up in plenty of shenanigans that feel like a braid of scenes from Three’s Company and James Bond, with plenty of savory innuendos.
Then, there’s the food:
Nordo entertainment centers around a multi-course themed gourmet meal, including cocktails! Really. Strong. Cocktails. Don’t call it dinner theater. The food and theater become integral pieces of a richer experience that it is so much more than consuming one element simply to help digest the other.
Each course of the meal reflected the cultures represented by the secret agents on board. First, came a Russian flight of blinis, or tiny delicious pancakes topped with with house-made sauerkraut and beet caviar on a hard-boiled egg (sounds gross, but tastes great!).
After that, the Chinese spy somehow got mixed up with the sixties aspics trend by way of a piece crab meat floating in a tiny pork gelatin mold (sounds gross, and sort of was gross).
Last but not least: the true blue meat and potatoes got gussied up in the form of a compote of braised pork belly, sirloin, and chicken liver, with a sort of mashed potato-like sauce on the side (God Bless America; I ate mine and my date’s).
Each meal was complemented by a classic cocktail: the Red Martini, the People’s Mai Tai and an Old Fashioned. Although the best drink came during the prologue. Called the “Cruising Altitude,” it was just a light and fizzy mix of Prosecco and Esprit de June liqueur.
I don’t know how they got all of these plates and cocktails assembled in the West of Lenin space. As nicely constructed a theater it is—there is no commercial kitchen backstage. The crew should receive a Gregory Award for their savvy prep work alone as meals came out fast and furious and only once a tiny bit cold. It’s also important to note that many of the ingredients were provided by great local establishments: Repast Bakery, Full Circle Farms, Café Walter Sound, Taylor Shellfish and Vino Verite.
What Café Nordo does really well in this show—besides feed you—is strike a balance between celebrating and skewering 1960s nostalgia.
Audience members were invited to attended dressed in their best 1960s formal wear – I believe the glamorous local burlesque artist Lily Verlaine showed up sporting a charming fur hat; another woman rocked go go boots; while a delightful middle school English teacher sitting at my table (it's family-style seating) was having the time of her life in elbow length gloves.
Your feet didn’t leave the ground, but you still felt a dramatic departure from Seattle’s drab, practical present as you entered the veneered world of the 1960s, when pilots and flight attendants were better tailored; sex was just a conversation starter and holding your liquor was a mark of sophistication, not a problem.
But amid all that intoxicated remembrance, there is a very levelheaded message To Savor Tomorrow has to offer: we may think the Jetsons-style convenience food was just a funny fantasy of our childhoods—but, in reality, we’re eating and behaving as if it’s the inevitable and safe conclusion of our fast-living revolution. (Just add water!)
In the midst of what I’m sure will be many fun and fascinating exhibits looking back on the wonder and excitement of the 1962 World Fair, I’m grateful to the Café Nordo team for reminding me that looking back is really about measuring how far we’ve come – and how far is left to go.
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