In 1997, performance artist Sophie Calle took up the challenge of creating single color meals every day for a week and then documenting it. The project, entitled “The Monochromatic Diet,” was inspired by a character named Maria (purportedly based on Calle), in Paul Auster’s The Leviathan, who takes on a similar color meal challenge.
Though unaware of Calle’s project before embarking on her own color meal, Jen Monroe has found herself creating art that focuses on a similar monochromatic rule. Initially learning about food through journalism and getting hands-on experience in various kitchens out of college, today Monroe is known by her friends and a niche section of the food world for her version of monochromatic edibles. The meals, which initially began as a casual thing to do with her sister for friends at their apartment, has since transformed into a ticketed event that has elevated the experience to an artful performance, inviting more strangers each time and collaborators eager to jump on board.
Her first attempt was “Black Meal,” (featuring caviar suspended in jelly) after she and her sister serendipitously both read J.K. Huyman’s À Rebours, first published in 1884, in which the main character creates a funeral banquet, using solely black foods. Since then, Monroe has taken on “Pink Meal” (Beet-pickled deviled egg, shrimp mousse), “Yellow Meal” (using pill trays to display saffron-rice, roe, and pickled ginger sushi), and “White Meal” (where she explored the use of white as a way of selling products like Apple through coded messages about purity).
Working on each meal she tries, within the constraints of the color, to not only present idiosyncratic plating methods, but to create a balanced nutritional meal for attendees. During the process she scrambles around the city to places like the (now defunct) Manhattan Fruit Exchange or Indian speciality store Kalustyan’s, attempting to source obscure foods, like pink dragon fruits, instead of the more ubiquitous white version. Every detail of the meal drips the color in question, from the flowers to the wine, and, of course the guests’ and servers’ own attire.
Last month, her color meals project concluded with “Red Meal,” her most elaborate work yet. The menu for “Red Meal” included everything from a finger bowl with petals and rose water to steak, quail egg, lacryma vinegar, burgundy spinach, pickled chard, candied beets, nightshades, harissa, and strawberry cardamom candy served in little jewel boxes. The event was staged in the Bond Collective space in the Financial District (previous meals were held at Baby’s All Right) with an eclectic musical soundtrack; “Red Meal” featured surprise performances by harpist Marilu Donovan and the dreamy vocalist Aerial East sprinkled throughout the meal. Upon entrance, attendees were greeted with almost ambient wedding music by cellist Young Gun Lee. During GLASSER’s albanian folk song, the striking confrontational voice even prompted one guest to burst into tears at the table.
“I wanted the whole meal to feel like a painting, so I thought why not actually have someone paint him while he sits on a couch with velvet flowers,” Monroe shares. The model was Kenyan-born designer and movement artist Jerome AB who not only posed for the painting but also offered one of the most interesting performances of the night by slowly tying himself with elegant an red cord—using the ideas of bondage to explore the perimeters of movement.
With each meal, Monroe thinks carefully about the emotional life of the colors she’s working with. There are certain colors that wouldn’t present Monroe with enough options to create a multi-course meal. While she’s still open to the challenge, she avoided a “blue meal,” and others that were too close to colors she had already attempted. “I’m okay with red blending into orange. I think that’s what it means to work with and understand a color to its fullest…Leaning into the places where colors bleed, exploring where the color ventures out,” she says. Red comes with clear associations of passion, and, at its most extreme, death.
“It’s a fascinating sex and death drive color,” she says. But more than that, it seems especially timely to be working with the color red. From iconic costumes featured in the 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to its political associations with conservatism, one might argue, that a shade of red should be Pantone’s Color of the Year.
As for future meals? Jen Monroe is looking to work with the idea for different companies. And talks of revisiting the project for a rainbow meal is certainly not off the table.