A square of fake grass in the middle of the room is the place that contains 100 black apples.
All of them spread evenly on the flat surface. People walk by, checking the artworks exhibited at the walls and not knowing what to make of the apples… until we arrived. With an air of mischief, Quintina and I approach the black apples. I asked her, in a not-so-soft whisper, if she would like one. After a semi-discreet nod that everyone is aware of, I take a black fruit for her. I tease her with a first bite but it is actually me who is the one doing the honours. When she finally gets to eat it, we are sure that most of the people around have seen us, so we leave the room sharing our delicious forbidden fruit.
“The town did not have much time to be evacuated.”
From the adjacent space, we keep checking their behaviour in order to see how they are going to proceed. They do know now that the black apples are edible, what is more, they should not be that surprised as we always play with food in our shows but still, this is somehow new to them. The viewers start taking the apples and biting them. What they don’t realise is that actually half of them are plastic apples painted in black while only the other half is made of dark cakes shaped like apples and garnished with a green leaf of mint. Their chances to bite something plastic are fifty-fifty and some of them are not so lucky. One of our colleagues abruptly enters the room and tells them that this piece is a metaphor of what happens in Chernobyl: You don’t know what is safe to eat and what is not. Some people have been living there since the disaster and they are perfectly healthy but for others the situation is different; their bodies have been compromised. It is a roulette, a Soviet Roulette.
The way Chernobyl affected life and food has no borders. Germany has a ban on tomatoes and mushrooms coming from certain countries of the Soviet bloc because those two vegetables are able to absorb and contain radiation in dangerous proportions, more than any other vegetable we eat. Certain areas in the UK are still sealed after the contaminated cloud passed by three decades ago. It is a story that remains dormant in our collective imaginary and that now belongs to video games, youtube documentaries and contemporary legends. I can tell you about one of those legends. It is called “The Black Rain”.
“Milk was supposed to help the body to cope with the radiation, so the white and holy liquid was consumed in the contaminated area only to cause temporary discomforts including sickness.”
Once upon a time, more than thirty years ago, the Chernobyl cloud was looming over Europe. The following destination of its predicted course was Belarus and then Moscow. An invisible radioactive ghost was about to cover the whole territory and stayed there for a few days, enough to decimate the population, some of them in a matter of days, for others in the course of their lifetimes due to all sorts of diseases. Desperate times call for desperate measures and one of them took place in that time. The radioactive cloud was dissolved by throwing chemicals on it from several helicopters. Those chemicals were dark and inoffensive but when dissolving the cloud, they created a black radioactive rain that showered the town of Gomel, located at the South of Belarus. It was an apocalyptic image of mythical proportions. There are not many records about it; any documentation about it is scarce. A town was sacrificed for a country, all in the name of a greater good. The cloud was not completely destroyed and some of it still went to Belarus, other parts of Europe and the whole planet but that image of the Black Rain haunts me ever since I came across it.
Gomel suffers a high rate of cancer diseases and its population only started rising again from the end of the noughties. However, I’ve never heard about it in the media, it has never been part of the collective public knowledge regarding the radioactive catastrophe. I wonder endlessly how “extraordinary” it must have been to witness that event. The town did not have much time to be evacuated and its population was never warned. Nevertheless, human beings were poisoned and mother nature was deadly injured by us as a race, again. A scientist was banned from Belarus after exposing the case but some pilots in charge of the operation have finally admitted their involvement by giving details of the procedure called Cloud Seeding.
“They attribute their survival partly to vodka, which has turned into a more sacred liquid than milk itself.”
As impressive as the black rain image can be, radiation is invisible, it engulfs us all like a deadly ghost and I’ve tried to replicate it in different ways wherever I travelled, talking about the way Chernobyl affected food all over Europe and the world. That is how the Black Rain Cocktail was born. A transparent long glass, clean and shiny, dry and cold. Candy floss fills the glass like a cloud being held in a translucid cage. Suddenly, while you are holding it, a waiter appears and pours delicately on the glass a mixture of vodka (wink to Chernobyl) apple juice (a second wink) and edible black colourant (wink to the cloud seeding). The pristine white candy floss gets dissolved in front of your eyes by the dark mixture, a dark rain that has diluted the cloud into your glass and giving you the classic flavours of Chernobyl.
Perhaps I should have started from there, with vodka, not apples. The legend of miraculous vodka is another tale of many survivors. When legends are in the making, some directions are tested only to find better ways, more accurate solutions. At the beginning of the disaster, the rumour about milk was spreading all over the area. Milk was supposed to help the body to cope with the radiation, so the white and holy liquid was consumed in the contaminated area only to cause temporary discomforts including sickness. That is when vodka entered the scene as the new saviour. A bit of vodka before entering the contaminated zone and much more than a bit afterwards. One can wonder if the vodka does not help with the radiation, it may, however, help lift our spirits when interviewing some of the few liquidators (that’s how they called the soldiers and firefighters who helped with the disaster back then) who are still alive. They attribute their survival partly to vodka, which has turned into a more sacred liquid than milk itself. Its strength symbolises the impetus of Mother Russia. It nurtures, it cures, it makes you happy and on top of that, it cleans the radiation from your body. If apples are the signature product of the Chernobyl region, vodka flows in the veins of the whole Soviet structure. That is why we finished our gastronomical adventure with Vodka Jellies.
We stumbled upon a Slovakian scientist who has been studying for 15 years the effects of radiation in soybeans and linseed. He makes a protein map of both exposed and unexposed seeds and compares them. His conclusions are fascinating regarding the seeds grown in Chernobyl because they mature faster and contain more proteins related to growth and development than the ones cultivated outside the exclusion zone. The technique he used to make the protein map is called ‘gel staining’. To make a homage we decided to present his work printed on a tray with a thick layer of vodka gelatine. In the big tray, you could see the main conclusions of the research, the protein maps and scratch the surface to enjoy the intoxicating gelatine.
Our gastronomical journey about Chernobyl and its thirtieth anniversary ended there but we feel it was only the beginning of another quest. The radioactive cloud has cast a shadow that refuses to go and the tragedy of Fukushima in Japan reminds us that even now, many lessons have not been learnt. We live with an ongoing danger of creating bigger toxic clouds and the ones around have been poisoning us slowly, silently. Perhaps it is too late now and one day we are all going to live in a big Chernobyl-like zone, in an ongoing roulette at dinner and showered by a perpetual black rain.
“Food of War” is a multidisciplinary art collective dedicated to exploring the relationship between Food and Conflict through art. “Clouded Lands” was their touring exhibition about the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and the way it affected life and food.