By LIGAYA MISHANSEPT. 21, 2017 New York Times
Food in inky tones can’t help but capture the imagination — no wonder, then, that a number of specialty farmers and food and cheese makers have bred or created attention-seizing comestibles. From far left: thousand-year-old eggs, charcoal-blended cheddar, black tomatoes, Bone Char Pearl cheese, black Silkie chicken and black corn. Credit Photograph by Flora Hanitijo. Styled by Suzy Kim.
WE KNOW ONLY a few grim details of the Hell Banquet, which took place in the first century A.D. The host: the glowering, paranoid Roman emperor Domitian, never happier than when executing opponents in the senate. The setting: a room black from floor to ceiling, lit by low-burning lamps, with each guest’s name engraved on a tombstone-like stela. The food: of the kind normally offered to the dead, and entirely black.
The emperor spoke of mortality as his guests, the city’s leading lights, ate in silence, convinced they were supping at their own funeral. They hurried home, only to soon receive word that a messenger from the emperor was at the door — surely an assassin. Instead, each was presented with his personal gravestone from the table, which turned out to be made of silver: a gift and a sign of honor.
Was there a lesson, beyond the power of rule by dread? That to truly enjoy a meal, we must approach it as our last? That earthly pleasures are heightened when we remember that everything will one day fade to black?
Today, such a feast would be a photo op. For the past few years, Instagram has been haunted by fetchingly shot black-hued foods. Not foods so pedestrian as to occur in the wild, like lentils or raisins, but, rather, engineered creations: a dome of ice cream, black like the dark side of the moon; a black bagel like a whorl of raccoon eyeliner; a black foot-long hot dog like a skinny balloon filled with ashes.
Of all the senses, sight commands the largest labor force in the brain, demanding the fealty of hundreds of millions of neurons. No wonder taste is under its thrall. Studies have shown that our perception of a food’s flavor can be altered by even the color of the plate it’s served on. In a 1936 experiment by the chemist H. C. Moir, subjects were confounded when presented with orange jellies dyed green and vanilla cakes that resembled chocolate. Most could not reliably identify the foods’ true flavors. (In another experiment, dishes at a dinner party were misleadingly colored to the point that some guests felt ill.) The midcentury psychologist and marketing trailblazer Louis Cheskin, who wrote ‘‘Color for Profit,’’ called this phenomenon ‘‘sensation transference.’’ Among his firm’s findings: that people shunned margarine, which was naturally white, until it was artificially colored to match butter, and that when an extra tinge of yellow was added to the green 7Up can, customers insisted that the soda contained more lemon.
SO WHAT DOES the color black — or, if you insist, the lack of color — taste like? More precisely, what do our brains tell us it should taste like? From experience, we might expect the tartness of blackberries or the brininess of black olives or the near-bitterness of charred meat and blistered pizza crusts. Black is the menthol buzz of licorice or the density of rough bread from countries near the Arctic Circle, where the winter months see only a few hours of daylight. It’s marine, like rice blackened by cuttlefish ink in Valencia, Spain, or turfy, like rice blackened by long-soaked djon-djon mushrooms in Haiti. It’s the mineral tang of British blood pudding, Ecuadorian morcilla, Tibetan gyuma, French boudin noir. It’s the funk of huitlacoche, a fungus borne of rotting corn, blossoming like a nuclear cloud out of the dying cob, a delicacy in Mexico. It’s the subtle presence of vanilla, announced by sootlike black spots, scraped from the hard furrowed pod. But even given these associations, when I see a food that’s not naturally black turned that dramatic shade, it strikes me as so discordant that I expect it to taste like nothing I’ve tried before.
How disappointing, then, when an activated-charcoal latte topped with a milk-foam swan tastes no different from a regular latte; same with the black hamburger bun issued by Burger King in Japan in 2014, and the 2013 limited-edition black macaron from Ladurée in collaboration with designer Reed Krakoff, which was merely chic, like a little black dress. Pechkeks, black ‘‘misfortune’’ cookies made in Germany, with the tagline ‘‘Black Cookies. Black Humor,’’ are just a gag. (Sample fortune: ‘‘Life is a symphony — and you’re playing the kazoo.’’) I’d like to think of black-hued food as a punkish act of defiance, a rebuttal to ‘‘unicorn grilled cheese,’’ oozing gooey rainbows and ‘‘mermaid toast,’’ dressed in swaths of blue and green, but I fear they’re all the same novelty act.
And yet: The early 20th-century Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki, in his tract on aesthetics, ‘‘In Praise of Shadows,’’ noted of soy sauce, ‘‘how rich in shadows is the viscous sheen of the liquid, how beautifully it blends with the darkness.’’ Westerners, he argued, were too quick to banish darkness with bright lights. ‘‘Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,’’ he wrote. Consider how Westerners coo over the Silkie chicken’s cuddly feathers, while chefs in the East prize it because beneath the fluff, it’s black from skin to bones, with an almost gamy flavor (although some say it tastes just like chicken). Maybe the role of unexpectedly black foods is to disrupt the everyday, to remind us that not everything is sweetness and light. Maybe this makes the sweetness sweeter.
Recently, I made a pilgrimage to Morgenstern’s on New York City’s Lower East Side, an ice cream shop that caused a fuss on social media last spring when it introduced a flavor they called black coconut ash. A scoop is as dark as basalt. It swallows all the light in the room. It stains the lips and teeth zombie gray. To make ice cream so black seems to verge on sacrilege, summer buoyancy traded for a glimpse of the abyss. The color comes from charred coconut shells; coconut flakes, coconut cream and coconut milk, churned in as well, are invisible.
I couldn’t detect any of it. For a moment, like one of Dr. Moir’s bewildered subjects, I couldn’t place the flavor anywhere in the known world. But when I closed my eyes, I recognized it. It tasted like vanilla.