Fighting air pollution with a whisk


Fighting air pollution with a whisk

Author: Shelby Brewster

PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies and Consuming Nature Workshop participant

On our visit to the University Archives Services Center, I came across a collection of materials from the Group Against Smog & Pollution, a Pittsburgh-based activist group founded in 1969. I was particularly interested in the Jeannette Widom Papers. She was one of the charter members of GASP, and she also happened to be a stellar baker, repeatedly winning baking awards at the Allegheny County Fair. Widom, passionate about combating air pollution in Pittsburgh, put her baking skills to work for the organization.

The centerpiece of Widom’s baking for GASP was a Dirty Gertie cookie, resembling GASP’s cartoon mascot, a bird whose wings are choked by air pollution. One of the members of GASP enlisted her husband to craft a metal cookie cutter in the shape of Gertie. The cookie’s wings were covered in chocolate sprinkles to replicate the gloomy air of Pittsburgh. This idea became a massive fundraising event for GASP: The Dirty Gertie Cookie Project. GASP reached out to other community groups to help bake, providing them with complete kits of ingredients and cookie cutters. The first round of baking resulted in 1200 Dirty Gertie cookies, all of which were sold to raise money for GASP. Widom would continue “fighting pollution with a rolling pin,” publishing three cookbooks (“Party Cookies Only,” “Fun Buns for Kids to Make, Bake, Decorate, and Eat,” and “Just Coffee Cake”) and donating the proceeds to GASP. Her fame as a celebrated baker also helped draw attention to GASP’s work.

GASP’s use of cookies to fight air pollution resonated with a contemporary artist group that I have written about in my research, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy. Like GASP, they harnessed the potential of taste as a political tool in an effort to draw attention to air pollution. In 2011, on location in Bangalore, India, artists with the Center began “harvesting air” from the most polluted areas in the city. Because meringues are up to 90% air, by whipping up egg whites in the polluted areas the meringues capture the air pollutants present in the air.

The Center encourages other artists, community groups, and students to make their own meringues in their own cities. They envision the cookies as powerful political statements, as they can be tested for particular pollutants or mailed to politicians as a commentary on city conditions. So, continuing the GASP tradition of mobilizing baked goods for environmental justice, I’ll be making smog meringues to serve at GASP’s Air Fair event. I chose two locations near my home, the McConway and Torley Steel Foundry on 48th Street and the bus stop at Negley and Centre Avenue, to make my meringues.

Stayed tuned for a second post covering the making of the meringues and the Air Fair itself!

Read about the event here

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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