How do you coax city slickers to really take notice of air pollution? Start selling meringues, of course. At this year’s Ideas City festival in New York City, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy set up a “Smog Tasting” food cart introducing aeroir (a play on terroir for the atmospheric taste of place) meringues infused with recreated urban smog from four cities.
Riffing off the fact that egg foam is composed of 90 percent air, the Center’s experiment stemmed from the question of whether batter, which captures air when whipped, could also trap air pollutants. “Smog Tasting grew out of this idea of using food as a biosensor…Perhaps this could be a way of calling attention to the problem,” Zackary Denfield, cofounder at the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, told Fast Company.
The meringues were made in small smog chambers the team had designed and fabricated under the advisement of researchers at the University of California Riverside, which trapped grime and chemicals in the egg-white-and-sugar mixture.
The four less-than-tantalizing recipes included the “classic London peasouper,” a sampling of the Los Angeles atmosphere circa 1950, air from a present-day air-quality warning event in Atlanta, and California’s Central Valley agricultural smog, the latter a carcinogenic cocktail of ammonia and amines from feedlot manure lagoons and other organic waste.
Scientists formed each smog type by mixing different chemical precursors and “baking” them under UV light. The result was a slightly yellowish dessert which imparted a noxious aftertaste initially masked by the sugar. “Most people ask ‘Is it safe to eat?’ and we reply ‘Is it safe to breathe?’” Denfield said. “We think that when people are laughing they are thinking, and we get a lot of nervous laughter.”
According to the Center, capturing smog in edible form transforms the “unconscious” process of breathing into the “visceral” act of eating. Inspiring disgust is one way of garnering attention.
Conceptualized in 2012 by college students in Bangalore, the project was introduced in May to health ministers and World Health Organization delegates in Geneva. Its showing in New York City by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy in collaboration with the Finnish Cultural Institute of New York was part of the Center’s larger scheme of examining the health implications of where our food is sourced.
In a post on their dedicated blog, Edible Geography, the Center wrote that according to scientists the Center had consulted with, the human digestive system is better-equipped to catalyze chemicals than the respiratory system.