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A Museum-Worthy Watermelon Salad

A few weeks ago, I went to the Whitney Museum of American Art to eat a watermelon salad.

It wasn’t on the menu at Untitled, the museum’s restaurant. And I didn’t know when I walked into the museum that it would even be a watermelon salad.

The salad was being served in one of the galleries as a component of artist Darren Bader’s untitled piece (named in the Whitney’s materials as fruits, vegetables; fruit and vegetable salad).

watermelon salad at the Whitney Museum
Photo: Casey Barber

A forest of pale wooden pedestals in the center of the room held fruits and vegetables of varying types and quantities.

On one, a bunch of beets languidly draped their greens down the side of the pedestal like Rapunzel’s hair. On another, a single luminous strawberry beckoned.

Every few days, the produce was removed from its place of honor and “chopped, sliced, shaved, and diced,” per the wall text.

whitney museum fruits and vegetables exhibition
Photo: Casey Barber

All the pieces were tossed together to make a salad—unadorned, no dressing—and scooped into tasting portions for visitors.

After the performance of serving the salad, the pedestals were replenished with new fruits and vegetables and the cycle began anew.

whitney museum fruits and vegetables exhibition
Photo: Casey Barber

This kind of work is, pardon the pun, something that an articipant like me salivates over. It’s ridiculous and yet compelling, self-serious and hilarious, the mix of high- and low-brow that I love so much in art.

I take it too seriously, but I laugh at people who take it too seriously too.

And from Gordon Matta-Clark to Rirkrit Tiravanija, artists have been exploring the act of serving food as an artistic work for decades. (This tradition, which I am highly into, deserves more space than I can devote here.)

watermelon salad
Photo: Casey Barber

Part of the appeal of this particular Darren Bader piece was the element of chance—salad roulette.

If you arrived early enough, before the produce was stripped from the pedestals, you’d know what potentially could, but not necessarily, end up in your portion of salad.

Or if you arrived after the individual ingredients became part of the greater whole, you’d just have to pick a cup of salad and see what was all jumbled in there.

watermelon salad ingredients
Photo: Casey Barber

It could have gone very badly, as it did for another journalistic museum-goer. But for me, it went very well.

I chose carefully at the table of salad samples. The cup I picked was colorful, with the watermelon prominently plopped on top, while other options seemed less visually appealing off the bat.

watermelon salad
Photo: Casey Barber

My watermelon salad was spiked with slivers of other crunchy elements, all playing off each other like brushstrokes of complementary colors.

Celery, rhubarb, and cabbage brought cool, tangy, and savory flavors and textures to the party. A few scallion rings added pops of pungency.

The salad was so good, in fact, that I was inspired to codify it into a recipe. And with my watermelon salad, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting with every bite.

watermelon salad
PIN THIS!

I added a light, tropical dressing made with coconut vinegar and sugar to tie the whole thing together a bit more, but otherwise it’s more or less what I ate at the Whitney.

No need to put it on a pedestal or serve it in an austere gallery space, either. This is a salad that’s ready for any party, especially those of the backyard variety.

And you can call yourself an artist for making it, too.

watermelon salad

Watermelon Salad with Rhubarb and Celery

Yield: 6 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes

A watermelon salad with celery, rhubarb, and jicama is inspired by an interactive exhibition at the Whitney Museum. It's a refreshing masterpiece!

Ingredients

  • 1 mini seedless watermelon
  • 1 small jicama (about 12 ounces)
  • 2 rhubarb stalks (about 5-6 ounces)
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 1 cup shredded green or purple cabbage
  • 2 tablespoons coconut vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon coconut palm sugar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 scallion, green parts only

Instructions

  1. Peel and slice the watermelon into 1 1/2-inch cubes.
  2. Peel the jicama and slice into 1/2-inch cubes.
  3. Slice the rhubarb and celery into paper-thin half-moons.
  4. Thinly slice the scallion into rounds.
  5. Toss the watermelon, jicama, rhubarb, celery, and cabbage together in a large bowl.
  6. Whisk the vinegar and sugar together until the sugar dissolves. Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly until emulsified.
  7. Toss the dressing with the produce to coat. Sprinkle with the scallions and serve.

Notes

Salad can be made up to 1 day in advance.

Refrigerate the produce and keep the dressing separate at room temperature.

Toss the salad and sprinkle with scallions just before serving.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 101Total Fat: 5gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 23mgCarbohydrates: 13gFiber: 4gSugar: 7gProtein: 1g

The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.

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