Smog meringues at the GASP Air Fair


Smog meringues at the GASP Air Fair

Author: Shelby Brewster

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

Fortunately, the weather on Tuesday, August 8, was sunny and clear, if a bit breezy. With egg whites and whisk in tow, Ana Rodríguez Castillo and I headed to the McConway & Torley Steel Foundry on 48th Street in Lawrenceville. Railroad tracks cross the entrance to the facility, marking the border between their property and the city street. I stood just outside the facility, wary of the security guard in his small hut monitoring those entering and exiting the property. Whipping up the egg whites here took approximately half an hour; Ana graciously documented the process with her camera. While we caught some curious looks from the workmen around the facility, we continued largely unbothered.

At around 11:45, a group of five or six men congregated outside the security hut. As they were wearing khakis and polo shirts, rather than the jeans and work boots I’d seen on other workers, I assumed they were management. They headed out of the compound toward Butler Street (I believe they were going to lunch). As they passed by me, still whisking, most of them simply stared. One man, however, walked right up to me and stuck his face near the bowl of stiffening egg whites. He asked me what I was doing. I replied that I was making meringues as a performance project, and that because they are very light, I would capture whatever was in the air where I was standing. He looked at me, then around at the plant matter covering the ground near the railroad tracks, back at me, and replied, “Like pollen!” Not wanting to jeopardize the completion of the meringue, I answered, “Sure! And whatever else is here!” and carried on whisking. He and his associates laughed and continued on.

After the McConway & Torley egg whites reached desired stiffness, Ana and I headed to the bus stop on Centre Avenue and Negley Avenue, a high traffic area. Luckily for us, a road construction crew was busy working on Centre; they had cut out a large portion of the asphalt and were using a backhoe and other construction vehicles to complete some work. I was excited for the potential of even more pollutants to make their way into these meringues.

Being so near a bus stop, there were many more witnesses to these meringues. Many people getting on and off the bus gave me strange looks, though few asked me what I was doing. A pair of workmen in a moving truck hollered at me and asked about the whisk (I told them they could taste the meringues at the Air Fair). One woman getting off the 71 loudly encouraged me to keep whisking. A man with a video camera who was sharing the corner with me cautioned that if I kept beating the egg whites they would turn stiff (I replied that, as I was making meringues, that was precisely the point). We returned to my kitchen, polluted egg whites in tow, and I piped the meringues onto baking sheets. I also whipped up an “unpolluted” batch inside, to serve as a sort of control group. Visibly, I couldn’t tell a difference between the meringues, but I was eager to hear responses from visitors to the Air Fair.

GASP hosted the Air Fair on Thursday, August 10, at Assemble community art space in East Liberty. In addition to the art exhibit GASP had built, a number of environmental organizations had tables to talk to visitors about their work on air pollution issues. I set up my own table among the other, displaying three silver trays with the three varieties of meringue I had made. Responses were quite varied, but most people who attended the event tried at least one of the meringues. Several people decided to conduct their own blind taste test, to see if they could identify which meringues were the “polluted” ones. The overall consensus seemed to be that the McConway & Torley confections tasted grittier or dirtier than either the bus stop or kitchen meringues. Some people were concerned about tasting the polluted versions, and I replied by asking if they were concerned about walking down Penn Avenue and breathing in that car exhaust. Some people didn’t know there was a steel foundry in Lawrenceville, like me before I started this project. Many visitors were also unaware of GASP’s history of baking, which I was more than happy to relate to them. Overall, attending the Air Fair with the meringues demonstrated the potential for taste experiences to reveal or unsettle expectations about invisible environmental pollutants. I plan to continue exploring how culinary experiences might be commandeered for an activist purpose.

Find out more about the inspiration behind this event here


Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh