Smog-Infused Desserts Offer an Edible Taste of Global Pollution Issues

The Center for Genomic Gastronomy mixes meringues with the distinctive reek from the world’s least breathable cities.

Photo by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy.

Most cities take pride in their local culinary and cultural offerings, but one rarely hears anyone brag about the richness, variety, or flavor of their hometown smog. And yet, every urban locale has its own subtle stench and particular blend of bilious, airborne dreck. In order to raise awareness of global pollution issues, a recent project by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, the Edible Geographyblog, and the Finnish Cultural Institute distilled the distinctive taints of cities around the world, using them as the basis of a unique line of edible treats. Setting up a food cart at the New Museum’s Ideas City Festival this past Saturday, the project offered attendees a chance to try meringue cookies made with smog flavors like “London-Style Pea-Souper Smog,” “Atlanta-Style Biogenic Photochemical Smog,” and a cool, retro “Los Angeles in the 1950s Smog.”

Sound kind of gross? It’s supposed to. The idea is that most city dwellers don’t think twice about breathing something into their lungs that they would be aghast at putting into their bodies by other means. According to a Guardian piece from last year, smog kills around seven million people worldwide each year. And Edible Geography’s Nicola Twilley points out that in New York, at least, “air pollution levels are highest in neighborhoods that are majority non-white and low-income—a particularly insidious form of environmental injustice.”

Photo by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy.

Each flavor of garbage air was lovingly crafted by smog experts, who recreated its special blend of noxious elements using precursor chemicals heated under ultraviolet lights. The smogs were then baked into meringue, a dessert mostly made of egg foam. According to the Finnish Cultural Institute, egg foams can contain up to 90 percent air (or in this case smog).

“Most people ask ‘Is it safe to eat?’ and we reply ‘Is it safe to breathe?’” Zackery Denfield, co-founder of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy told FastCo Exist. “We think that when people are laughing they are thinking, and we get a lot nervous laughter.”

Aside from peddling confections of dubious deliciousness, the smog cart also offered passers-by field guides to doing their own smog harvesting and suggested food pairings for each smog option. And yes, according to Twilley, one can actually taste the difference between the different cities’ smogs, which she describes as “equally disgusting.” Normally, the idea of purposely making “disgusting” cookies would be an outrageous affront to the institution of dessert and everything good and pure that it stands for. But in this case, Twilley reminds us, these meringues were delivering an important message:

Our hope is that the meringues will serve as a kind of “Trojan treat,” creating a visceral experience of disgust and fear that prompts a much larger conversation about the aesthetics and politics of urban air pollution, as well as its health and environmental effects. Eat at your own risk!