I Ate Monochromatic Meals For the Sake of Art
I'm obsessed with conceptual artist Sophie Calle's 1998 work "The Chromatic Diet." I wanted to see how it worked in the age of unicorn food.
Photo courtesy the author
Sophie Calle, France’s most famous performance artist, has undertaken some invasive (by design) projects in her time. She's worked as a maid secretly documenting guests’ possessions, and once found an address book, called everyone inside to ask them questions about the book's owner, then published their answers in the local paper.
Calle applies this same level of rigor and inspection of intimacy to her less controversial endeavors. In a 1997 photo series called “The Chromatic Diet,” Calle set out to create a meal each day only using ingredients of the same hue. The project is a directly meta response to author Paul Auster’s Leviathan, in which the protagonist (based on Calle) performs this very eating ritual.
Since “The Chromatic Diet” series, many have dipped their toes in dining colorways. Lucia Litman, the woman behind the namesake viral Instagram account, matches foods like licorice and radishes to their nearest Pantone. Up until recently, Jen Monroe, a pop-up chef behind Bad Taste Biz, ran a series of monochromatic dinners, which featured pill boxes full of pickled daikon, lemon, finger lime, pickled ginger, cucumber blossom for the yellow meal and blackberry lapsang souchong–suspended gelatins for the black meal.
While Calle's project predates today’s phenomena of capturing food for public consumption, it’s not clear if Calle ever ate the colorful meals documented in her “Chromatic Diet” series. And while I am obsessed with these conceptual projects with obscure ingredients and tweezer-level precision, I wondered how actually eating in monochrome during the work week would be.
So I put myself to the challenge.
My version of “The Chromatic Diet” would be meat-free, on-the-cheap lunches that coupled ingredients by hue, making use of what was already in my kitchen cabinet. Oh, and I’d need to coordinate the meal with the bowls and plates they’d be presented on. (Since I work in the food-art space, I have a bit of an advantage on this last bit because I hoard a rainbow spectrum of dishware for various projects).
Inspired by Calle’s art series, each day this week I ate green, purple, blue, pink, and yellow meals and then gave them a letter grade based on how easy it was to accomplish.
MONDAY (GREEN DAY: A+)
Imposed menu: Green curry with green lentil rice, spinach, broccoli, green beans, and Brussels sprouts, with a scallion garnish. An iced matcha and quick pickles on the side.
Verdict: I thought it’d start off easy and assign myself green for the first day because there were no shortage of green ingredients in my fridge. I am going to give this day an A+ because I actually ended up using many of the ingredients Calle did, and they all came together well. I also incidentally own the exact same jade plates that Calle uses in her version, so bonus points for that.
TUESDAY (PURPLE DAY: B+)
Imposed menu: Miso-glazed Thai baby eggplants, purple carrots, Swiss chard, and purple long beans, atop a cabbage slaw. Lavender tea on the side.
Verdict: September is an exceptionally good month for purple produce. From an aesthetic standpoint, I think the purple meal was my favorite. But I gave this a B+ because there wasn’t really any protein in the meal and I wish I had used purple cauliflower. Also, lavender tea tastes like what I imagine guzzling a bottle of granny perfume would be like.
WEDNESDAY (BLUE DAY: D)
Imposed menu: Pea-flower chia pudding with CAP Beauty blue majik spirulina coconut butter, agave, Oatly oat milk, and blueberries.
Verdict: I’m not sure if I could’ve done an all blue meal pre-“unicorn foods” trend, when spirulina began appearing in recipes and wellness blogs. Now it’s pretty easy to find, but still there aren’t many other known blue foods to complement it. I knew blue was going to be hard to accomplish but I wanted to rise to the occasion. In Maggie Nelson’s book, Bluets, meditations on the color blue, she writes, “a voluntary delusion, you might say. That each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.” I felt like an agent who had failed the mission. I gave this meal a D.
The chia pudding, while a lovely pale blue, left me feeling hungry about ten minutes later. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to give this an F because eating blue foods did sort of make me feel like a mermaid.
Another option would’ve been to go the savory route, the way Venezuelan chef Mercedes Golip makes blue arepas or even use blue corn tortillas from the Mexican supermarket down my street. But keeping to the rules, I didn’t have any relevant ingredients for that in my cabinet.
THURSDAY (PINK DAY: B)
Imposed menu: Borscht with a side of pickled turnips, hard boiled eggs pickled in beet juice, a dinosaur plum, and a rose water lassi splattered with blended goji berries.
Verdict: This meal gets a B because the side dishes here could have been a bit more complex. The soup is really more red than pink. In Calle’s pink meal she pairs strawberry ice cream with ham, which is...disturbing to my sensibilities (but what do I know? I’m a vegetarian). Other pink foods I could have used: pink potatoes, Swiss chard, radishes, watermelon, pears, rhubarb, grapefruit.
FRIDAY (YELLOW DAY: A-)
Imposed menu: Husk cherries, peach, Swiss chard, yellow long beans, with a ginger lemon saffron sauce and Diaspora Co. turmeric couscous. Asian melon on the side.
Verdict: My last meal was the most filling and delicious. I had never used peaches in a couscous dish before, which I thought paired surprisingly well with the long beans and husk cherries. Plus, yellow is sunshine to the belly on a gray day like this. I gave this an A-.
Conclusion: Overall, green was definitely the easiest to accomplish but purple felt the most magical to eat, and it's the color I’d be most likely aim to incorporate more of in my diet going forward. What does it say that there aren’t more naturally growing blue foods?
Ultimately, a chromatic diet made my work week lunches a lot more exciting, but took way more brain power than I can reasonably dedicate to a dish that gets eaten beside my computer. I think maybe I'll leave this one to Calle.