Saturday, January 23, 2010

Edible Colors

I was wondering how I developed the images of colors that are most vivid in my mind. I'm sure that like every toddler learning to talk and name colors, I learned to identify apples and tomatoes with the color red, bananas and lemons with yellow, and oranges and carrots with orange. Green beans, peas, celery, and spinach, though familiar on my plate, were probably not mentioned in my color-teaching baby books.

The radio sang to me about J-E-L-L-O which spelled Jello and came in Raspberry, Strawberry, Cherry, Orange, Lemon, and Lime. Our family mainly stuck to raspberry and lemon. Lifesavers came in a 5-flavor pack: red, orange, lemon, green, and grape. Wint-o-green Lifesavers -- in a roll colored dark green -- were themselves white. Another roll offered pale colors like pink grapefruit or apple. Other hard candy and lollipops created other color-flavor associations. But when we ate grapes, they were light green, not deep purple like a Lifesaver or Welsch's Grape Jelly. The dull color of the half of a lime in the limeade at the Kresge lunch counter didn't look or taste like green Jello or a green Lifesaver.*

Crayola crayons were my major source of color knowledge. First were the eight basic crayola colors in one row in a box. They included the rainbow list that I had memorized: red, orange, yellow, green, blue as well as black, white, brown, but they always used the name violet where I had learned to call it purple. Though there was once a plum crayola, there was never a purple crayola, if the website doesn't lie. (But there was a book about Harold and his purple crayon.)

The 48 crayola box became available when I was in early elementary school. (I know this because I'm looking at the history of crayola colors here.) Apricot, salmon, melon, lemon yellow, olive green, and orange crayola colors connected directly with foods. I must have tasted crayons, at least once, but they did not taste like their names at all. Other foods on our table every day didn't appear in the crayon box at all, though their names are also colors -- coffee, cream, eggshell, cocoa. Not to mention one that I saw at school not at home: bubblegum.

Soft drink colors and flavors were even more unlike their food namesakes -- Orange, Grape, Black Cherry, and Cream Soda (which was vivid red). Our family had a color we called "borscht pink" which was not the color of beets, but the color of beet borscht that had been mixed with egg white while hot and then with sour cream while cold -- and thus turned a much pinker, lighter color. My mother once caught sight of a dish of strangely artificial-looking pickle relish at an amusement park food seller's counter; she said one should never eat anything that was that shade of green. She turned out to be right -- a dangerous dye had once been found in similar foods. Eggplant, papaya, mango, watermelon, pineapple, and many other colors named for foods also came into my visual and gustatory vocabulary over time.

I'd be willing to swear that there was a Chartreuse crayola color, but I can't find anything but yellow-green and green-yellow until the 1970 box of seventy colors. I never connected any taste to that color until I visited the Alps and learned about the sharp, medicinal liqueur made at the monastery of the Chartreuse fathers. Obviously also I was an adult when the color words claret, burgundy, chablis, wine, and champagne became meaningful to me.

Many crayola colors connected to other natural objects, plants, or flowers -- lavender, rose, goldenrod, mulberry (we had them on a tree but didn't eat them), sky blue, mahogany, flesh (changed to peach years later for political reasons), brick red, silver, copper, pine green, aquamarine, and so on. Along with magenta, maize, fuchsia, burnt sienna, raw umber, and many other crayola colors, all assumed a firm place in my mental color spectrum. It was years before I learned that maize meant corn, that Sienna and Umbria were regions of Italy with vividly colored dirt, that there were flowers called fuchsias or that turquoise was a stone. I still don't know what magenta comes from -- ok, I googled it, it doesn't refer to anything in my experience to date, it's just a chemical dye. Like mauve.

More color imagery outside of food or crayolas includes stones that give names to colors: amber, jade, ruby, emerald, topaz, lapis lazuli. Lapis is used in Chinese carving, as I learned about in a poem by William Butler Yeats -- in his imagined scene carved in lapis "Every discoloration of the stone,/Every accidental crack or dent,/Seems a water-course or an avalanche/Or lofty slope where it still snows."

I wasn't that old when I learned the lyrics to the Gilbert and Sullivan Mikado's song about letting the punishment fit the crime, condemning "The lady who dyes a chemical yellow. Or stains her gray hair puce, Or pinches her figure, Is painted with vigor. And permanent walnut juice." If there had been a Crayola named "puce" then I might be able to conjure a vivid mental image of the purplish-brown that the lady dyed her hair.

*Here's another strange fact from the web: the list of Jello flavors has grown a great deal since my childhood, while Lifesavers seem to have fewer choices. Jello now includes Berry Blue, Apricot, Strawberry-Banana, Pineapple, and Pina Colada, and many others, but not back then. And Lifesavers have only a few of the choices I recall.


~~louise~~ said...

Simply fascinating, Mae. Something I just never gave much thought to. I guess I too grew up in a world of edible colors. Food for thought...

We went to the Crayola Factory when the grandkids were here. The kids were thrilled when they got a free box of crayons that included the color Mac & Cheese!!!

Tracy Feldman, painter said...

I don't remember a crayon that was chartreuse, but I remember an elementary school teacher making a big deal out of a book (probably a reader of some sort) that was that color, making sure we learned the name, and probably how to spell it.
I do remember, however, eating mulberries sometimes. You may have known better. I think they were pretty good and didn't cause anyone to get sick, but they were likely to stain your clothes and hands.

Mae Travels said...

Hi Arny,
When I tasted mulberries I found them very bitter. I have always wondered if the trees I've tried (in MO and MI) produced less than edible mulberries, because I've seen recipes that call for them. Maybe you have to cook them in some special way. Anyway in my mind they are not really a food, and not ever a very vivid color.

Cynthia Bertelsen said...

I remember always wanting the nice, big box of 64 crayons, which I never got because my parents claimed not to have enough money to buy a box for all four of us kids. So I grew up with the basic 8 colors ...

Great post, Mae.