When I was in Manhattan, my friend Bernard and I went to the opera house without supper.
Bernard and I had met at a fancy food market in SoHo where we both had part-time jobs behind the bread station. I was going to be a famous writer and he a famous set designer. But in the meantime, we spent our bread on the cheapest Family Circle tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, then hummed the tunes of “Eugene Onegin” and “La Bohème” as we cut seven grains and stacked the baguettes.
Our shift lasted past dinner time, and the sandwiches and champagne flutes at the intermission bars were over budget for our students. So we always had just packed snacks – hearty, filling bites that could sustain us throughout the “Götterdämmerung” but were small enough to fit in my vintage beaded handbag.
In good weather, we nibbled on egg salad sandwiches and homemade chocolate truffles perched by the fountain in Damrosch Park adjacent to Lincoln Center. When it was stormy, we ate leaning against the balcony railings, watching posh patrons savor their baked alaskas intermission at the Grand Tier restaurant below, assuming that someday in the distant future would be us.
That distant future has arrived, and I still carry intermission bites to the Met in the same vintage handbag. I plan to continue this season as well (the Met reopens on Monday). But these days I’m accompanied by my husband, Daniel, whose essential contribution is a (possibly illicit) gourd full of pre-mixed bourbon or Manhattans stowed in his pocket.
Right now we could have sandwiches and champagne at the bar, or even at the Grand Tier, but we rarely do. My picnics, which are cooked to order – and, I think, a much more fun way to spend the 30-40 minutes of an average Met intermission – are now part of the opera ritual. And this year, the picnic offers another perk: pulling your mask off to eat outside at Damrosch Park can be one way to go with the Delta variants.
Over the years of Falstaffs and Salomes, I have learned some good practices when it comes to packaging these little opera pieces.
The first and most important is to minimize the damage by avoiding sloppy and sassy chunks. I like to think of opera snacks the same way I would choose appetizers for a party. Clean, freestanding appetizers that can be munched on in one hand while you hold a drink in the other work best, preferably things that taste good at room temperature.
I have a soft spot for little tea sandwiches stacked with onions, cucumbers or smoked salmon for the first intermission, followed by some sort of sweet bite – say, almond-stuffed dates or shortbread bars and homemade brownies. , for a shot – to get me through this final act. Phyllo pasta filled with anything from ground lamb and feta to butternut squash and mint, or all kinds of sweet or savory pies, could work just as well.
Then there are the maki rolls, as long as they are filled with vegetables or something cooked. You don’t want raw fish sitting under your seat for the 100 minutes of the first two acts of “Don Carlos”.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who is reprising his star role as Akhnaten in the 2021-22 season, used to bring home-made kimbap or avocado-cucumber maki to eat on a bench in the park when he was a student., and these are a great option that you can craft or buy.
“I certainly picnicked a lot when I used to attend opera in my youth,” he said. “As a performer, the backstage picnic is a whole new level of intrigue with meals that will make you sing well but not look zaftig in your costume.” (Perhaps in particular because Mr. Costanzo plays a game of Akhnaton with almost no costume.)
Once you’ve decided what snacks to bring, you should consider the packing container (you’ll need something that can fit in a small purse or bag). That old plastic yogurt container may work great, but a cute, colorful bento box or metal tiffin container is much more stylish to place in your lap. And a fine linen napkin can save your opera set from splashes and drops.
One thing you should avoid is going to the opera on an empty stomach. Mid-20th century writer Joseph Wechsberg describes the consequences for Viennese opera in his epicurean memoir, “Blue Trout and Black Truffles”.
“Sometimes my stomach would growl just as the tenor sang a pianissimo, and everyone was looking at me. Some well-fed people did ‘shsh-t!’ It was very embarrassing, ”Wechsberg wrote.
His response was to bring in some paprika-dusted raw bacon sandwiches to munch on during the first act of “Die Walküre”.
“As Siegmund and Sieglinde sang their magnificent duet on Sweet Love and Spring, the sweet scent of paprika seemed to descend, like a light mist, over the entire fourth gallery.”
Of course, eating in the auditorium during the opera at the Met is still prohibited, and especially now. But eat paprika-dusted sandwiches in the second interval, and the sweet scent will carry you throughout Act III.
Bernard and I have already made one of Mr. Wechsberg’s opera sandwiches, although I admit that after much deliberation, we cooked the bacon before showering on the paprika, and stuffed it. between slices of sourdough, thanks to the posh food store where we worked.
We were still enveloped in our light mist of paprika as Brünnhilde began to dream in her magical ring of fire, her stomach content, all our senses awakened, her heart full.
If only my past self could see what a culinary gift was giving me in the future. And a whole group of opera patrons have been saved from the indiscreet rumblings during pianissimos.