Have you ever wondered what another city’s pollution tastes like? Of course you haven’t. And yet, there it was: a tasting booth serving up smog meringue at Ideas City last Saturday. The edible experiment traps all kinds of nasty grit, grime and chemicals in an egg and sugar mixture, ruining what would have been a tasty dessert for the sake of science. At the festival put on by New Museum we not only tasted London and Atlanta but also stopped by a soil testing booth to check out what lurks in some dirt samples we collected from Tompkins Square and McCarren Parks. Here’s what we found out.
There’s more than twice the amount of lead than is considered ideal for a recreational area in the soil at McCarren Park, at least in the sample we gathered from around the trunk of a large tree near the handball courts on the Union Avenue side. Various organizations have different standards, but generally you want less than 100 parts per million for growing produce and less than 400 ppm for recreational areas, explained Tatiana Morin, director of the NYC Urban Soils Institute (according to this government agency, a level of 1,200 ppm is acceptable for non-play areas). With 1,100 ppm, McCarren Park’s sample is cutting it close even for areas not meant for recreation, which probably has something to do with Brooklyn’s industrial past, Morin said, adding that it could also be related to the demolition and construction that’s been going on in the neighborhood over the past few years.
“It could be due to any old building material. Lead paint is one of the biggest ones,” she said. Even though lead paint and leaded gasoline have been outlawed for decades, their presence lingers forever, layering more and more lead on the soil. “The only way to get rid of it is to remove or bury it,” Morin said. The bikini-clad sunbathers who’ve lately materialized in Tompkins Square Park will be happy to know that the soil we gathered there, in a dusty patch near one of the gates (just inches from several prostrate people’s toes) had a more acceptable level of 271 parts per million.
Morin explained that PH levels are also important when determining how human-friendly the soil is; a neutral pH will help keep toxins locked in the soil, while dirt with an acidic pH can act as a “release button” for harmful chemicals. Neutral soil has a pH of 6.5 to 7.5. At McCarren Park’s pH of 5.8 “you start to release pollutants off, and they can get taken up by plants,” said Morin. Once again, Tompkins Square Park’s dirt proved superior; at 6.63 it fell into the neutral zone. Whether or not these findings are indicative of how harmful or safe the soil really is, it’s hard to say. The sunbathers may be increasing their immunity by exposing themselves to whatever bacteria or parasites are in the well-used grass, or they may just be increasing their likelihood of picking up a disease, Moran said. “People tend to think of the skin as a protective barrier, but it’s one of the largest absorbing organs in the body,” she added. “That’s why topical medicine is so popular, and the exposure is not always benign.”
Having gained a healthy level of anxiety about what’s going on beneath our feet, it was time to be creeped out about the air we breathe. The Finish Cultural Institute of New York, with the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Edible Geography, was serving smog meringue: tiny, sugary treats filled with enough noxious gas and grit that anyone wanting to try one had to read a disclaimer saying the seemingly innocent plop of pastry could potentially, possibly, maybe make you sick. And yet many people, this reporter included, ate them anyway.
They were designed to convey the taste of air in different cities by taking each area’s specific pollutants and whipping them into the egg whites used to make meringue. It’s a culinary approach to a scientific problem–a way to make people understand how pollutants affect our lives in a sensory way, said Gabriel Harp. We’ll let him explain the science behind it, and how the project came about, in the video below:
“When you normally whip meringue, it’s white,” said Nichola Twilley of Edible Geography. “These turned out yellow.” And yes, it tasted bad. It started off okay, sugar being the dominant flavor at first, and then it melted to release the full effect, with a sinister aftertaste that’s hard to describe.
“LA was a little bit savory. I don’t know if I want to know what made it that way, but there was a little something at the end,” said Michael McDonald of Fort Greene. “London was the best,” his wife, Meagan McDonald, chimed in.
“London had the least amount of aftertaste,” Michael agreed. “I’m still tasting LA.” Megan nodded, sucking her teeth. “Atlanta is lingering.”