Black is the colour …
“Black is the colour of my true love’s hair, his face is something wondrous fair,” goes a traditional ballad sung in the Appalachian Mountains, with origins likely from Scotland.
I started thinking about colors and food when I read of the passing of Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. Heaney wrote of food in many of his poems, one of his most famous being “Oysters”:
Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary.
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot in the water.
Heaney also wrote of blackberries, in “Blackberry Picking,” his words evoking a childhood pleasure, prickled as your fingers might be with thorns and stained with juice, the joy of anticipation urging you on to find another berry and yet another, hiding like shy kittens amongst the brambles. And yet in the thrill of the chase, the cold knowledge of what it meant to rip the living fruit from their perches:
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once of the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
But for humans, when it comes to food, black is seemingly a color more acceptable than blue. (See my previous post on color in foods.)
Even Mother Nature seemed to agree to that truth, with the creation of many naturally black ingredients found in pantries around the world:
Black chicken (Silkie)
Black sesame seeds
Wood ear fungus
But blackness in food really comes into its own when human hands combine certain things – liquid, heat, time – and produce something entirely different, products of fermentation, smoking, and drying.
Century eggs (pi dan)
Fermented black beans
Zha Jiang (ja jyang – sauce for noodles)
In the presence of a hot, fierce fire, meat turns black, as the heat chars the flesh.
I wonder, and this is mere speculation on a question that probably can never be answered fully, if the taste for the burned flesh of hunted animals could have predisposed humans to seek out foods colored black?
Color preferences in foods, or any objects for that matter, tend to be difficult to pinpoint when it comes to humans. Theodosius Dobzhansky, a biologist, stated in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Later, in 2010, Stephen Palmer and Karen Schloss, psychologists from the University of California-Berkeley, studied the question of color preferences and published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They suggested that color preferences in food are adaptive, implying that innateness plays a smaller role in food color choices than previously believed. Paul Rozin, a long-time student of human food preferences, points out that the concept of “disgust” plays a huge role in food choices and acceptance. “Disgust evolves culturally and develops from a system to protect the body from harm to a system to protect the soul from harm,” he says.
There’s so much more to all this, but here is just some food for thought for now.
Note: This post first appeared a few years ago. I am gearing up with a post about molasses and Barbados and early days in Britain’s American colonies, the importance of which seems to slip under the radar when it comes to many food history narratives. And Seamus Heaney’s poem inspired the photograph with the skull.
© 2013, 2016 C. Bertelsen, including all photographs.