Here's What Air Pollution Tastes Like, According to Two Artists

The project transforms the largely unconscious process of breathing into the conscious act of eating.
November 23, 2020, 11:42am
smog tasting India Centre for Genomic Gastronomy.
A smog harvester in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru enlists the help of a local auto rickshaw driver to whip egg whites into smog meringues at a busy street. Photo courtesy of Centre for Genomic Gastronomy.

“Gritty, with notes of burnt coal, laced with the metallic tang of gasoline and a sharp hint of chemicals—a flavour so toxic that it chokes your throat and makes you want to rinse your mouth several times over.” That is how you’d describe the air pollution in India’s capital city, New Delhi, if you could taste it. Earlier this month, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in the city climbed sharply to hazardous limits of above 900, making it the most polluted capital in the world for the third year running. Normally too, the AQI in many cities in India, China, Pakistan and others, hover in the poor to severe range throughout the year. Yet, it is only when the smog thickens to dangerous levels and we can visibly see it, smell it and begin to be choked by it, that people start talking about it.  

 The intangibility of air pollution has a lot to do with this discourse, or lack thereof. It is this attribute that the Portland-based artist-led think tank, Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, seeks to rectify with their ongoing creative research called Smog Tasting. “By transforming the largely unconscious process of breathing into the conscious act of eating, the project creates a visceral, thought-provoking interaction with the air around us,” co-founder Zack Denfeld told VICE World News. The objective is to give our taste buds a taste of what our lungs experience. And the food of choice to do so—smog meringues. 

In 2011, Denfeld and fellow co-founder Cathrine Kramer chanced upon the idea of creating smog meringues while teaching a workshop in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru. During a reading of Harold McGee’s guide to culinary chemistry, On Food and Cooking, they came upon a sentence that read: “Thanks to egg whites, we’re able to harvest the air, and make it an integral part of meringues and mousses, gin fizzes and soufflés.” It was the poetic turn of phrase, “harvest the air” that inspired the duo to think about how they might harvest and taste the smog of Bengaluru that enveloped them every day. 

smog tasting India Centre for Genomic Gastronomy.

Martha Stevenson of WWF-U.S. (right) along with another participant displays the smog meringues harvested from different cities at the Fuller Symposium in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of Centre for Genomic Gastronomy

Along with the workshop participants, they set out in the city's streets with mixing bowls, whisks and egg whites, whipping up meringues in various locations and returning to the workshop kitchen to bake them. “Willing beta-tasters who tried those meringues could identify a pungent or piquant element in them. Many noted that the taste of smog meringues from Yelahanka (a leafy suburb) was comparatively better than those from Mekhri Circle (a busy city junction),” Denfeld said. With this unexpected collision of cookery and pollution, the Smog Tasting project was born, with the intention of utilising egg foams to harvest, taste and compare air pollution from different locations worldwide.  

Since then, the project has grown to include a range of methods for sensing, analysing and evaluating the unique atmospheric taste of a place—or “aeroir”. These include guided smog tasting and smelling experiences, smog meditations, and a novel smog synthesizer that functions as an experimental food cart to generate the smell and flavour of air pollution from various places and times. In the years since its conception, Smog Tasting has travelled around the world in various iterations and served smog meringues to even national ministers of health at the World Health Organization in Geneva as well as during the COP-21 conference in Paris in 2015

In 2017, an international network of human smog harvesters was created as part of the first Smog Tasting: Take Out session at the Fuller Symposium in Washington D.C. organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Participants were invited to whip up meringues in London, Perth, Beijing, Barcelona, Washington DC, Porto and Mumbai. Their samples were then mailed by post to the Symposium where they were all tasted and compared. 

Martha Stevenson, senior director of strategy and research on the forest team at WWF-U.S., who helped facilitate the installation and also doubled up as one of the smog harvesters in Washington D.C., told VICE World News, “I tried the meringues from all the cities that had sent us their samples. All of them had different flavours, but Mumbai’s tasted the most polluted—metallic with a sharpness around your teeth.” “The project,” she said, “helps us fathom the environmental degradation in such faraway places and understand how that impacts us.” 

smog tasting India Centre for Genomic Gastronomy.

Zack Denfeld and Cathrine Kramer, co-founders of the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, started the Smog Tasting project in 2011 in Bengaluru, India. Photo courtesy of Centre for Genomic Gastronomy

Several take out editions have been held so far around the world, including one in New Delhi. Artist Rajita Schade was one of the participants in the Indian capital who had donned the baker’s hat, along with students from the College of Art. “I had positioned myself at a busy highway near the airport to whisk the egg whites into meringues,” Schade told VICE World News. “We constantly talk about vehicular pollution, but I wanted to highlight how much aviation contributes to air pollution too.” She recalled that passersby and onlookers were curious to see a woman in an apron whisking eggs in the middle of the road. Many stopped for a closer look, before carrying on just the same. At the time, Schade had felt that the exercise was almost gimmicky. “But in hindsight, I realise that we begin to perceive pollution differently when we can see, touch and taste it.” 

An installation of the smog meringues harvested by Schade and others from different areas of New Delhi—from the comparatively verdant environs of India’s Supreme Court to some crowded neighbourhoods in the city—was showcased at Gallery Latitude 28. As Bhavna Kakar, founding director of the gallery added, “Visitors to the exhibition were invited to taste the smog meringues, but most refused citing that they seemed dangerous and disgusting. I couldn’t bring myself to taste them either, concerned as I was about them being harmful.” And yet, the polluted air in those smog meringues is only a miniscule portion of what we breathe every day. Food for thought, literally.

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