Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Brown, Anyone?

Woe is brown, orphan of the color world, at best its foster child. Like the last kid chosen for the softball team, brown rarely gets picked as someone’s favorite color. It never shows up in a rainbow; almost never on a color wheel. Winston Churchill once said, “I cannot pretend to feel impartial about colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.”

Brown is almost as common on planet Earth as water and grass. It's the color of soil, tree trunks, animal hides, mountains, and the skin of most human inhabitants. So why is that blue and green get all the juicy adjectives? Writers avoid calling brown by its name, preferring descriptions such as rich, dappled, fawn, or purple, even "purple majesty." Let’s face it, brown is the color of dirt--dry and dreary as “the long brown trail before me.”

Those of us living in central Oregon’s high desert are surrounded by brown. Countless shades of it make up the fault-block mountains and rimrock mesas that rise above us. It’s found in thunder eggs, agates, dust devils, and on the branches of tumbling tumbleweeds. Rattlesnakes wear it. So do pronghorns, elk, deer, coyotes, and hundreds of species of birds.

Being the color of the ground we walk on, brown represents stability. It signifies something natural rather than manufactured, as in paper vs plastic at the checkout counter. On the other hand, brown can also indicate decay, the bad parts we cut off fruits and vegetables. If there’s too much of it, we throw the food away. We’re told the most colorful fruits and vegetables are healthiest, and to make sure we get the message, advertisers photograph vibrant arrays of fresh carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, and eggplants. Brown rarely makes an appearance in these pictures unless mushrooms or raisins are included.

Poets tend to ignore brown, preferring to immortalize green as in “Trees” by Joyce Carol Oates or “In the Green and Gallant Spring” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Novelists often pair romantic moments with rose gardens, bluebirds, and meadows. Even authors from countries like Ireland, where it rains so much it’s always green, place their characters in leafy environments.
When poets do use brown it’s to describe something autumnal or made of wood as in “a belfry old and brown” in Longfellow’s “The Belfry of Bruges.” Rarely is the color used romantically, although “my love is like a brown, brown rose” might be appropriate when sending a bouquet of dead flowers to an unfaithful lover.

I try to focus on “feel-good” associations when I describe something brown. Coffee, for example; toast, bronze, suntanned. Warm-blooded animals also evoke cozy correlations like foxy, fawn-colored, cashmere, and buckskin. I once worked for a cosmetics company where part of my job was to name each season’s makeup colors. Something new and compelling for brown eye shadow was imperative, since it was one of our best-sellers. Sienna, amber, and hazel had been used to death, thus I preferred food or animal-related names like “Hot Mocha” or “Sorrel.” Now I see browns called “Scandaleyes” or “Vamp,” names reflecting image rather than a familiar color.


I am a fan of brown. I have brown eyes, tortoise shell eyeglasses, and I wear a lot of camel, beige, and brown clothing. However my favorite browns are the ones that go in my mouth: steak, fried chicken, stew, French onion soup, chocolate, pie crust. Most brown foods get their color from frying, braising, caramelizing, or baking. Without some form of browning, we’re left with meals that are boiled, steamed, or poached. These cooking methods are healthier than frying, but health-food advocates can have their rice, asparagus, and poached salmon. I’d rather have a burger, fries, and a Coke.

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