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Nidhi Vantair tries the "peanut butter" and jelly sandwich from the GhostFood truck, an art project designed to provoke discussion on climate change. The truck hands out free imitation snacks of endangered foods like peanut butter, chocolate and cod.
Nidhi Vantair tries the "peanut butter" and jelly sandwich from the GhostFood truck, an art project designed to provoke discussion on climate change. The truck hands out free imitation snacks of endangered foods like peanut butter, chocolate and cod. (Colby Ware / BALTIMORE SUN)

The big white GhostFood truck popping up all over Baltimore this fall is more than a high-concept art project about climate change.

It's also a free snack.

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Granted, there are a few tasks diners are required to complete before getting fed:

Passersby who gathered at the Johns Hopkins University campus and Penn Station recently had to play one of those fool-the-brain games in which the mind and body simultaneously reach different — and contradictory — interpretations about what they've just experienced. Participants put on a white plastic mask that piped the scents of endangered foods into their nostrils. After inhaling deeply, they were told to bite down on their snack.

What the volunteers were eating weren't actually the foods advertised on the truck's menu — "Atlantic cod, beer-battered and deep-fried" or "Amazon peanut butter served on grape jelly with white bread" or even "chocolate milk with delicious cocoa from West Africa."

In reality, they were chowing down on edible substitutes that, though near-flavorless in real life, have been manufactured to mimic the texture and mouth feel of the originals.

"We chose foods that are endangered and that are familiar to people because they encountered them as children," says Miriam Simun, who worked with a fellow artist, Miriam Songster, to create GhostFood. "We're trying to evoke nostalgia."

Their "cod" is made from a vegetable protein and algae that is beer-battered and fried. The "peanut butter" is a sticky soy substitute, while the "chocolate milk" is real milk mixed with sugar. But when the synthetics are combined with the scents, it creates the illusion that the diners are eating the real thing. (An important health caveat: people with food allergies should stay away from the truck.)

Though it might seem like a lot to go through for one or two bites, the participants were powerfully motivated. As 18-year-old Alex Doran put it on a recent fall evening when the truck was parked at Hopkins: "College students are always hungry."

Yup. And so are the rest of us.

Simun and her eerie-looking white truck will be parked in various Baltimore locations through early November. Her appearance is being sponsored jointly by The Contemporary arts organization, which commissions cutting-edge, site specific arts projects, and by Hopkins, which is offering a course on GhostFood to student curators through its Program in Museums and Society.

Since GhostFood was commissioned in 2013 by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation as part of a series of art projects addressing global warming, the truck has made a minor art world splash. In the past two years, Simun and Songster have served diners in Philadelphia, Newark and Albuquerque. But this is the first time the truck has been staffed by college students.

Hopkins' Progam in Museums and Society brings artists and museum professionals to campus to work with curatorial students; the GhostFood course is being team-taught by Simun and The Contemporary's director, Deana Haggag.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking about the potential of art to be a form of activism," says Elizabeth Rodini, who directs the Program in Museums and Society. "GhostFood seemed like an ideal way to get students thinking about using art as a tool for social change."

In addition to a few stops advertised in advance, such as a visit from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Penn Station, the truck also is expected to show up unannounced at other city sites.

"We called the project 'GhostFood' because a ghost is the essence of something that isn't really there," Simun says. "We wanted to give people a very visceral experience that would help them to engage in a dialogue about climate change."

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At Hopkins, server Anne Hollmuller, 19, explained to participant Clarissa Chen, 18, exactly why each food on the GhostFood menu was at risk:

Cod could become extinct, Hollmuller said, because, as the ocean's salt level changes, cod eggs are more likely to sink to the bottom and not hatch rather than float. As winters grow shorter, peanuts are more likely to develop a mold that's toxic to humans. And drought and deforestation decrease the harvest of the cacao trees growing in the rain forest that produce the cocoa beans from which chocolate is made.

Hollmuller asked Chen how consumers might react if they were to lose their favorite foods.

"It really depends on how passionate people are about peanut butter," Chen said. "There's an opportunity cost. You have to give up something to get something else."

That's partly why Simun and Songster weren't trying to perfectly match the taste of the replacements to the original foods.

"I like to play with illusion and trickery," Simun said. "I'm super fascinated when our assumptions about the way we know the world start to bend. As an artist, I find that the moments when our footing becomes unsure are really interesting. That's when exciting things start to happen."

The imitation cod, which has the faintly sweet taste of actual fish, might come the closest. The milk is just slightly chocolatey, but the color has been left white, which works against the ruse. The texture of the "peanut butter" is convincing. But the smell of peanuts floating from the mask is so strong that volunteers can detect it even before putting on the apparatus, which destroys the pretense that they're tasting the food.

In addition, the sensation of tasting all three stand-ins is oddly thin and flat. It's as though a layer of flavor is being applied — which, in a way, it is. It's not the same, full-bodied pleasure that people experience when eating normally.

Scientists say that what we think of as a food's flavor is a mix of taste, smell, temperature, texture, memory and the expectations we bring to the experience. Partly, that's because the olfactory bulb is directly connected to the limbic system, the primordial part of the brain involved in regulating memory and emotion.

Simun and Songster aren't trained as chemists, and they knew they'd never be able to concoct a peanut-like or cod-like scent on their own. So they asked for help from Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center.

Leslie Stein, Monell's director of science communications, explained that food odors are exquisitely complicated concoctions. What we think of as a strawberry smell, for instance, might be made up of 50 or 60 different molecules. And many times, scientists don't know all the contributors involved in creating a particular scent.

The best that Monell could do was to develop a kind of odor outline of peanuts, chocolate or cod using five or six molecules. The approximation wouldn't fool anyone into thinking they were eating the real thing, but it would be close enough to be recognizable.

In real life, Stein added, people experience taste through two pathways: through their nostrils, and through the back of the mouth and throat. GhostFood engages just the former route, which is partly why the experience feels a bit insubstantial and unsatisfying.

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In addition, she said, the perceived intensity of a flavor changes with such impossible-to-control factors as a person's age (smell sensitivity decreases as we get older) and the relative humidity.

"You can't smell anything," Stein said, "unless it's volatile and can float in the air."

Ideas are like that, too. It's hard to predict when or to whom one will stick.

Hopkins sophomore Molly Young, 19, is enrolled in the GhostFood class, and for her, the seminar has been transformative.

She says GhostFood offers students a hands-on experience that's common in math and science courses but rare in the liberal arts. And she imagines that, from now on, every time she goes to a fish fry or spreads peanut butter on toast or breaks off a chunk of chocolate, she'll pause, however momentarily, before taking that first bite.

"In the past, I never really thought about maybe running out of chocolate because of the drought in West Africa, or that changing climate conditions is producing a toxic mold on peanuts," she said. "It may not make an earth-shattering change in my eating habits. But it will be a subtle reminder not to take these foods for granted."

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