Saturday, July 16, 2011

Monochromatic Mealtime

Sophie had already made a name for herself by turning aspects of her intimate life into art when Paul borrowed some of these aspects to construct the character Maria in his Leviathan of a novel. The two were friends, Paul and Sophie, and the latter thought she would turn the whole thing into a Double Game by bringing her own life closer to the parts Paul had invented for Maria. One of Maria's obsessions was eating monochromatic meals. The passage from the novel that describes these feasts for the eyes goes:

Some weeks, she would indulge in what she called "the chromatic diet," restricting herself to foods of a single color on any given day. Monday orange: carrots, cantaloupe, boiled shrimp. Tuesday red: tomatoes, persimmons, steak tartare. Wednesday white: flounder, potatoes, cottage cheese. Thursday green: cucumbers, broccoli, spinach—-and so on, all the way through the last meal on Sunday.

While Sophie had never before thought of this particular concept, she shared Maria's pleasure in setting herself certain rules to follow with severity until she tired of the game and moved onto another. Paul was correct in characterizing it as an indulgent restriction. But Sophie, more of a perfectionist than even Paul imagined for Maria, filled in the details for the rest of the days and made the elements adhere even more closely to each day's color scheme. Sophie writes:

To be like Maria, during the week of December 14, 1992, I ate Orange on Monday, Red on Tuesday, White on Wednesday, and Green Thursday. Since Paul Auster had given his character the other days off, I made Friday Yellow and Saturday Pink. As for Sunday, I decided to devote it to the full spectrum of colors, setting out for six guests the six menus tested over the week.

The act of eating involves such a chaotic complex of senses, feelings, memories, and meanings that it can sometimes be comforting to try to simplify the basic elements.

To what extent does eating become a conceptual act so that we care more about the idea of what we eat than the food itself?

In this case, one must imagine that the sense of order and visual harmony of these meals gave more pleasure than their actual taste. I myself would rather gaze at Orange than wash a mouthful of shrimp laced with cantaloupe down with orange juice.

When I was a child, I would often eat my meal in one section at a time, finishing one entire portion before moving clockwise on to the next: first green beans, then mashed potatoes, then the pork chop, and finishing with my apple juice. Other people would be upset by this unnatural method but could never quite give a convincing reason for what was wrong with it.

Nowadays, I find myself most obsessed with the richness of the color variations in my meals and worrying when they are overly monotone, so precisely the opposite of Sophie/Maria. I like multi-colored mosaic meals mainly for their aesthetic balance—my food makes me happy when many colors play together—but varied colors also suggest a fuller range of nutrients, giving me a practical alibi for this personal preference. Once in awhile I find myself suddenly faced with an accidentally monochromatic meal. Ever since I experienced Sophie Calle's Double Game, I am less apt to "fix" it with more color and instead eat these meals in homage to her, smiling to myself about the various games we consciously or unconsciously play in putting a meal together. My most recent monochromatic meal was Off-White: mashed potatoes, cauliflower puree, and mozarella melted on toast. I drank goat milk.

The other night, I decided to revisit my indulgent restriction from childhood of eating my meal in fractions but this time doing it in an even more extreme way, by eating each section separately in the same bowl that I would empty then refill with the next portion.


Green : Beans
        Red : Tomatoes
         Yellow : Batata Baroa

This last is my favorite kind of potato here in Brazil, batata baroa, also known as Peruvian parsnip, though it tastes like a lighter version of sweet potato.

I ate very slowly and did nothing else besides pay careful, yet leisurely, attention to each part of this meal in thirds.

The taste and texture of the green, crunchy, slightly salty;
the red, grainy-soft, watery, ripe;
the yellow, creamy, sunshine, hearty sweetness.

This is the practical alibi of these seemingly silly food games: to remind us of how to see and taste what we eat. We put down our books, forget our need to make conversation, stop thinking about what we are going to do afterward, and merely look, then taste and feel what has entered our mouths at that moment.

1 comment:

The Woolly Mammoth said...

Lovely meals, I would love to see if I can find some batata baroa in the South American grocers here. So glad you mentioned the Chromatic Diet too, it's one of my favourite works.