John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
With Jell-O shots representing fecal-coliform levels in the Boston Harbor, this edition of food visualizations is as strange as ever.
When the first “data cuisine” workshop kicked off in Helsinki in 2012—with dishes such as “Criminal Herring in Fur Coat,” a savory representation of Finland’s crime rates—not many likely expected the movement to last. Yet here it is four years later with its U.S. debut in Boston, in which chefs composed scrumptious snacks riffing on local issues like food sourcing, wealth inequality, and water pollution.
About that last one: Yes, there really was a fecal-coliform cocktail, called... retch... “A Million New Friends.” Fortunately, no toxic bacteria were included. But the culinary strangeness didn’t end there. Below, find some of the other fare served at the June event at the Goethe-Institut Boston. Descriptions were provided by the Data Cuisine organizers, which include Moritz Stefaner and Susanne Jaschko. (Gaitskell Cleghorn Jr., ex-chef at the community nonprofit Haley House, acted as culinary director.)
From above, all three vodka jello shots look almost the same. A nontransparent light-blue layer doesn’t allow you to see what’s under the surface—just as the water in the Boston Harbor looks like throughout the year. But independent of when in the year you take a bath, you will always make contact with more fecal-coliform bacteria than considered harmless. In proportion to the average amount of coliform bacteria in summer and winter, lemon zest is added to the jellos. Blueberries are used for the harbor rocks, a plastic whale is added to the summer version, and candy cane and powdered sugar to give an impression of snow and slush in the winter version. The third glass shows the max amount of coliform within the recreational limits.
Many factors affect fish populations in the Gulf of Maine, but certainly water temperature has a major impact on the populations of cod and lobster. These seafood entrees create awareness for the rising lobster population and the declining cod population in the Gulf over the past 16 years.
A ceviche, a cold dish, represents the ratio of both dwellers in 2000. You can experience the effects of rising water temperature in the two lukewarm sous-vide morsels representing data from 2007. And eventually, in the 2014 preparation—yes, it’s getting hot—both the lobster and the cod are broiled and served with smoked paprika and burned fins.
This Bostonian layered-rice dish makes a critical statement about the class-based disparities in relation to densities of hazardous waste sites in Massachusetts. Basically it shows that the poorer you are, the more you are exposed to pollution. Hence, the black rice increases with the density of waste sites, with a dramatic-looking sewage of waste (pesto) of the upper layer [leaking] into the soil (white rice). Finally, the amount of scrambled egg on top indicates the income group.
In this smoothie-drinking performance, each of the fruit purees must be consumed simultaneously through straws whose length corresponds to the distance the food has traveled to Boston. The blueberries imported from Canada result in a 7.5-inch straw; the strawberries from Peru in a 27.75-inch straw; pineapple from Costa Rica in a 31-inch straw; Greek peaches in a 32.7-inch straw; Turkish cherries in a 35.7-inch straw. And finally, the Chilean Blackberries traveled the longest way resulting in a 37.5-inch straw.
The recent “The Color of Wealth in Boston” report revealed the difference in access to liquid assets in the Boston population. The research inspired Boon and Carol to make six daiquiri variations in which the different rums used indicate the ethnic group/origin and their amount of liquid assets. In many cultures, alcohol is made from sugarcane byproducts. In order to produce rum, sugarcane needs to ferment, which means it must be put aside and not touched for some time, just like people do with their financial assets.
The cocktails should be served in ice spheres of different thickness (thick = most assets = more protected; thin = least assets = least protected) which must be cracked before drinking. The performative action of slashing the ice reminds us that for those people with little liquid assets a simple event such as an accident or loss or employment means financial hazard.