Meringues Taste of City Smog

Your personal palate for desserts might favor meringues, a pastry typically concocted from whipped egg whites and sugar. Your taste for air, though, is probably not of the smoggy sort.

But what if you could taste the smog in the form of a meringue?

While that might sound odd, or outright disgusting, these dirty desserts have in fact been created. At this year’s New Museum City Ideas Festival, meringue flavors of “Atlanta-Style Biogenic Photochemical Smog,” “London-Style Pea-Souper Smog,” and “Los Angeles in the 1950s Smog” were on offer. They were the product of collaboration between the Center for Genomic Gastronomy with the Edible Geography blog and the Finnish Cultural institute. The ingredients absorbed smog from chambers engineered by the University of California Riverside.

The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, a think-tank comprised of artists who address food controversies or work towards greater biodiversity for food systems, began the concept of smog meringues in 2011. When its founders Cat Kramer and Zack Denfeld were residents in Bangalore, India, they were brainstorming ways to merge the realms of food and politics. Alas, they came across a scientific fact while reading the book, On Food and Cooking that spawned a solution: whipped eggs for meringues are 90 percent air.

Thus, that particular airy pastry could be used as an air censor. The Center took the smog meringue idea to the streets, holding out whipped eggs to different parts of Bangalore to absorb the atmospheric particles, which they later baked up and sampled.

Denfeld reasons that if pollution is in the air, it’s easy to forget about it. Consuming food, however, can make such impurities more visceral. He shared more of his thoughts with BTR.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): Have you tasted the smog meringues that you made out of the Bangalore air?

Zach Denfeld (ZD): Yes, we tasted those, and we also tasted the simulated ones. Actually, the simulated ones are really pretty gross. With the Bangalore ones, the sugar in some ways is pretty strong when you make meringues, so I couldn’t taste much of a difference. But in the last version, we used nitric acid and copper to make some NOx and put in some matter–some dust that was harvested from the BQE [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway] in New York.

It was pretty gross! But it’s also psychosomatic. For the rest of the day I was like, “Do I have a sore throat?” and I couldn’t decide if it was from eating five meringues that day or if I was amped up.

BTR: I’m sure you’d have to do some testing to really tell!

You said you had some effects from them, but when you gave others the smog flavored meringues, did they have any noticeable reactions?

ZD: Well we primed people [at the New Museum City Ideas Festival] because it was New York and we’ve done this in a few different places. But… compared to when I’m in Europe or Asia, the US is very litigious so we had a form that said, “By consenting to eat this, you know what the risks are,” and that it’s not for children.

So I think people were very primed going in that it was a risk and something very unusual. About 40 percent of people refused to eat [a smog meringue]. A couple people spit it out. A few people ate it and said they didn’t notice that much, so we’d encourage them to go “up the chain” because we had different typologies to the strongest ones. By the time they got to that they usually felt like they had some taste and smell difference than just a normal meringue.

Most people said they felt that their throat was scratchy or that they could really taste the dust but not everyone had a reaction. A couple people seemed to think it was just a meringue–but I think the whole atmosphere and priming people psychologically had an affect on what they tasted or not.

BTR: Do you plan to do anything like make meringue out of air from a pristine nature location with no air pollution, and compare that to a meringue from air made from somewhere like industrial New Jersey, so people could see the difference?

ZD: That seems like kind of what we’re doing now with the simulations. I think why the simulations are perhaps effective is because we can be more precise about what’s captured because we have a smog chamber that we built so we can construct all the chemicals that we want.

With ambient air, it’s less clear to us how much the things that we’re interested in [that] we’re actually capturing. When we serve we’ll actually serve a base liner or a just plain meringue, which [resembles] the ambient air [when] we’re indoors.

[I learned] in this research that even wild lands–not even clear-cut forests but wild forests–have smog. “Smog” is just a term that’s used for all of these particulates that are in the air, so even in wild lands you’ll have off-gassing from pine trees and that will create a smog. That was an interesting finding for me, that there’s not anthropogenic smog that humans don’t cause (though it was pretty obvious in retrospect).

BTR: What other projects is the Center involved in?

We have an exhibition now in Kew Gardens in London called the Spice Mix Super-Computer. We’re spending three months computing every possible permutation of spice. So we have these 24 different spices in our databases and [visitors] can smell each of them in combinations… in a smell synthesizer. Then they can pick four of them to take home to submit recipes.

Our idea there is that more and more flavor companies are developing these different smells and flavors. No one really wants to buy a ton of nutmeg anymore. They want a ton of taco [spice]. [Food] companies have lots of budget and a few researchers, but we have almost no budget and a bunch of researchers. So we’re kind of putting the public to work on the question of what are the possible really delicious combinations of spices and smells and tastes that we’ve never tried before–in part because these plants are grown all over the world and come from different cuisines.

We’ve been getting some really fun recipes from the public!