Smog Meringues Remind Us That We’re Always Putting Pollution Into Our Bodies
Ready to chow down on “London Peasouper” or “Los Angeles in the 1950s” meringue? When the average person thinks of the light dessert made from whipping egg whites and sugar, those probably aren’t flavors that come to mind. But thanks to Smog Tasting, an installation that will debut on May 30 at Ideas City 2015 in New York City, people will be able to sample free meringues infused with the air pollution we inhale every day.
The smog meringues, says Nicola Twilley, a New York City–based freelance writer and author of the blog Edible Geography, are a creative attempt to spark a conversation about air quality.
“Most people think that the smog meringues are kind of disgusting, or that they’re dangerous. They recoil and ask themselves, ‘Should I eat this?’ Which is fascinating, because when you think about it, we’re breathing in this stuff every day already,” Twilley says. “But breathing is just one of those passive processes that you don’t think about unless you’re having an asthma attack or something like that. Whereas when you’re eating something, you have to think about it. You have to make a decision: ‘Do I really want to put this in my body?’ ”
So, Why Should You Care? According to the World Health Organization, air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people every year. Those who inhale smoggy air are more likely to suffer from pollution-related asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But the negative effect goes beyond our respiratory system. A recent study from researchers at Columbia University has found a connection between smog and lower IQ in children, while another study from Harvard suggests a link to autism.
To create the Smog Tasting cart, Twilley teamed up with the artist-led think tank The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, which first came up with the idea of smog meringues in 2011. Zack Denfeld, the cofounder of the center, was reading Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking, which is about the chemistry of food.
“There’s a line in there about how when you whip up the egg and the whites get to the stiff peak stage, it’s 90 percent air,” says Twilley. “And Zack immediately realized that if it’s 90 percent air, then the meringue is basically a way to harvest and trap whatever air you’re making it in.”
The collaborators also tapped the expertise of scientists at the Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside.
“When you send a cold email to actual scientists saying, ‘We want to make smog meringues,’ you’re expecting not to hear back,” says Twilley with a laugh. “And then they reply, saying, ‘That sounds really fun!’ ” With funding from the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York, Twilley headed to California, where she observed how researchers study air pollution.
Scientists use gigantic smog chambers to figure out how chemicals in the atmosphere are reacting with one another and how to stop harmful compounds from forming. A smog chamber is “like a giant Teflon bag. It’s hung from the ceiling and you pump it full of all the precursor chemicals—the things that are in car exhaust or agricultural air,” says Twilley.
Inside the chamber the chemicals mix, start reacting, and form smog. The chambers are “like being inside a giant tanning bed,” she says. “They’re lined with UV lights and mirrors. The researchers go out the door, flip the switch, there’s this purple glow, and the smog kinda cooks for a little bit. And then they study it.”
The researchers also helped the Smog Cart team come up with its DIY recipes. “We can’t go ordering sulfur dioxide to be shipped to my apartment. It’s flammable,” says Twilley. “So they helped us come up with all these workarounds—ways to create the chemicals using household items.” The team created sulfur dioxide, for example, by putting a copper penny in nitric acid. Household ammonia, decaying fish, orange peels, and pine needles also came in handy.
To whip up the smog-infused meringues for the festival’s 30,000 expected visitors, Twilley and The Center for Genomic Gastronomy have set up small versions of smog chambers in a commercial kitchen on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The pollution-filled desserts they’re creating come in four distinct flavors that align with the four major smog types. Along with the “London Peasouper” and “Los Angeles in the 1950s” meringues, Twilley and her collaborators have also created a modern “Atlanta Air” meringue and an “Agricultural Smog” meringue, which is based on the toxic air of California’s Central Valley.
“A lot of these chemicals really do have flavor,” says Twilley. “The L.A. one is mostly an ozone smog, so it has got that weird kind of cleaner tone to it.” Meanwhile, the London meringue tastes more sulfurous. “It’s a little bit like when you strike a match—that smell. It’s kind of nice, actually,” she says.
The agricultural meringue, says Twilley, is quite distinct. “It has a different pH. The others are kind of acidic and the agriculture one is kind of alkaline, which is not surprising because one of the main ingredients is ammonia, since that’s a main chemical of agricultural smog.”
As for the Atlanta meringue, the city’s smog is similar to that of Los Angeles. But it also “has biogenic emissions, which are the organic emissions from trees. All the pine forests from the South are emitting these chemicals called terpenes, which help create smog,” Twilley says.
The meringues contain such a small amount of particulate matter that they’re not harmful—the sugar content in them might be worse for you. And although they don’t taste terrible, “No one’s going to be like, ‘Oh, I love smog meringues, I want them for dessert every day!’ ” jokes Twilley.
Ultimately, Twilley and her collaborators hope that Smog Tasting will get people thinking about how we stop air pollution. “A lot of people think that smog is not a problem in the U.S. anymore—it’s only a problem in places like Beijing, and that’s just not true,” Twilley says.