The Plate as Palette | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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The Plate as Palette

When I was in New York City recently, I noticed a listing for an intriguing event that combined art and cuisine (two of my favorite things) at Monkey Town, an art venue and restaurant in Williamsburg. For the Color Palate Project, ten international artists were invited to create a monochromatic wor...

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Bell Peppers, courtesy of Flickr user Muffet


When I was in New York City recently, I noticed a listing for an intriguing event that combined art and cuisine (two of my favorite things) at Monkey Town, an art venue and restaurant in Williamsburg. For the Color Palate Project, ten international artists were invited to create a monochromatic work, each in a different color. These artworks were presented in turn, surrounding guests as they were served a course in the same color. For instance, the white course consisted of shrimp, pine nuts, miso, mirin and spiced daikon, and purple included Peruvian potatoes, cabbage and vinegar.

According to the Web site, the purpose of the event was "to open up all of the senses and to have an experience as a whole, where the awareness of vision, smell, taste and hearing are used and explored simultaneously with the full experience of the work and color presented."

Although I wasn't able to attend the event, it got me thinking about "eating the rainbow," the idea that the surest path to a nutritious diet is to eat foods of many colors. Presumably, dieticians who recommend this are talking about naturally occurring colors, like the orange in carrots, as opposed to equally orange but vitamin-challenged Cheetos.

The reasoning behind the recommendation is that natural colors often reflect what nutrients a food contains. For instance, tomatoes and watermelons are red because they contain lycopene, which gets rid of free radicals that can damage genes. Other red and purple foods, including strawberries, plums and eggplant, are colored by anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants. Carrots, pumpkins and orange sweet potatoes contain beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A. Green foods, like spinach, broccoli, and green beans, are colored by chlorophyll, and often contain lutein and B-vitamins.

Despite their bad rep, even white foods (at least in vegetable form) have their place in the rainbow. Anthoxanthins, a type of flavonoid, give potatoes, bananas, cauliflower and garlic their white to yellow coloring. Food & Wine has a helpful guide to eating by color, along with yummy-sounding recipes.

Aside from its health benefits, color plays a significant role in food's appeal. Color psychologist and branding consultant J. L. Morton (her online bio says she has helped clients like Tylenol choose colors for its pills) says that blue is an appetite suppressant. The reason is that blue food rarely appears in nature.

As Morton claims:
There are no leafy blue vegetables (blue lettuce?), no blue meats (blueburger, well-done please), and aside from blueberries and a few blue-purple potatoes from remote spots on the globe, blue just doesn't exist in any significant quantity as a natural food color. Consequently, we don't have an automatic appetite response to blue. Furthermore, our primal nature avoids food that are poisonous. A million years ago, when our earliest ancestors were foraging for food, blue, purple and black were 'color warning signs' of potentially lethal food.
Maybe so, but children appear to be immune to this response, to judge by all the blue-tongued kiddies drinking blue raspberry slushies every summer.

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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