Around a hundred people entered the upstairs reception hall at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin for cocktail hour last Thursday. A line started early at the bar. Everyone was eager to taste the specialty cocktails made for the occasion.
Vigorously shaking their concoctions, the bartenders draped freshly cut lace lichen in one drink, the pale green filaments undulating like seaweed in the bitters. They finished a second, sweeter one with a lemon verbena foam and fog-harvested water. Three flavors of popcorn were served up in movie-style brown paper bags: cultured dairy butter, fir tree, and sloppy joe military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).
Despite all appearances to the contrary, this wasn’t an awards dinner for Bay Area locavores. Aeroir: A Taste of Place, as the event was dubbed, is part of the Headland Center's ongoing programming around "a creative interpretation of place." The happenings typically include talks by artists in residence and shared meals. Conceived of by a trio of confident, purposeful artists, Aeroir turned out to be a peculiar and disorienting amalgamation of taste and place, capped by an eccentric culinary performance art gesture aimed at raising environmental awareness.
Before the five-course meal, the organizers distributed several pamphlets and menus and repeated verbal instructions throughout the night to help the audience understand what Aeroir was about. "A Word on Aeroir," the main program’s two-page preface, explained most succinctly how the intangible qualities of air and sky could be ingested and even appreciated by the human palate: “The act of consuming air through our digestive apparatus, rather than passively inhaling it through our respiratory system.”
The waitstaff served up salt-baked beef, mung bean cakes, and bowls of mud-red cabbage soup with lemon foam and a soy-marbled egg to add flavor and pizzazz. But the main ingredient on the menu that night isn't generally to be found in fancy restaurants, but rather in the air we breathe: smog.
Nicola Twilley, a food writer who takes an adventurous, exploratory approach to the subject on her podcast and in her blog Edible Geography, presided over the event, together with Gabriel Harp and Zack Denfeld of The Center for Genomic Gastronomy and CoClimate. Twilley explained the concept behind infusing egg-white meringues with smog fabricated by the "smog-tasting cart" that doubled as her podium.
They found their inspiration in Harold McGee's book of culinary chemistry On Food and Cooking. McGee, who was also in attendance at Aeroir, wrote that "an egg foam is 90-percent air." With that in mind, The Center for Genomic Gastronomy fabricated the cart as a small scale smog chamber. It creates a mixture of different pollutants that react together, resulting in the formation of smog. Each city, region and country has a specific Aeroir, or combination of potentially harmful elements, such as hydrocarbons, soot or sulfur. Think terroir except up above terra firma. The "structural properties of meringue batter" (all that air) easily absorb those rotten chemicals and act as the perfect vehicle to assist their studies and assault the taste buds.
Later, as Twilley carried a portable smog machine to “season” our unsalted tacos with the polluted contaminates found in Mexico City’s air, something akin to unease dawned on the downcast faces of the diners. When bugs showed up in the course described as “The Secret Life of Dust,” the conceptual aspect of Aeroir was suddenly made a little too real.
The point — gathered quickly — was that our sense of taste is affected by our immediate atmosphere, by the air and its varietals, otherwise known as contaminants. Aeroir turned out to be a smog taste test. But were the mouths of the guests sensitive enough to distinguish the different qualities of the air pumped into those meringues? Mine certainly was: the sooty taste of Beijing's sky was like swallowing a pocket of grit and ash in comparison with the limpid quality in the air of California's Central Valley.
While Aeroir made an emphatic, unequivocal point about our poisoned, polluted skies, swallowing morsels of it, despite an agreed upon health risk waiver, excited a blistering headache and a bout of nausea in at least one guest. This must have been how Persephone felt in Hades after eating those forbidden seeds, regretful of the curiosity and greedy appetite which led to breathing in such dark oxygen.