Thursday, November 8, 2018

Mummy Meat

People used to eat mummies.

A while back I discovered that people with lots of money and imagination were eating preserved human bodies to get high, about 200 years ago.

I thank Annick Le Guérer for this tidbit, she wrote about it in her book Scent, the Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell, written in 1988, and translated from French in 1994.

There was a time, we must remember, when mummies were a new thing, never before imagined by the Westerners excavating these immortalized bodies. It's hard to conjure the pretense of shock at something that has been around since long before you were born.

For a moment if you will, try to imagine what it would have been like to learn that deep within the awe-striking pyramidal limestone masses were 3,000-year old physically intact human bodies. This at a time before we had refrigerators! We couldn't even keep a bowl of potato salad from going bad in a couple days, and here's an entire human body with its skin still intact, and older than the entire city in which you live.*

That's magic to a person of the 19th century. Today, our tupperware will probably last longer than our species itself, nevermind the bodies we leave behind. We have plastic flowers for goodness sake. But if you can transport yourself back to a time where everything was ephemeral, you can begin to understand the fascination.

And the exoticism. The preserving substances used on mummies were much less known to Europeans hundreds of years ago. Today we can fly from London to Cairo in four hours. Then, it could have taken up to a month. Today we can have in our pantry any spice produced in any place in the world, within a few days. Things were different then. Egypt in itself was pretty exotic, and mummies, forgetaboutit.

So if you can now picture yourself at an all-nighter in a regal estate, well after midnight, deep into the spirits, when your host spreads on the table these tiny morsels of dry-aged royalty from another era, and who might as well be from another planet, and tells you to dig in – you will be intoxicated. The meat doesn’t make you intoxicated, of course; the idea is enough to placebo the heck out of your dopamine receptors.

I get into the details of how smells are so good at tricking us in this older post. But if you're interested in throwing your own mummy-party, these folks from the University of York have decoded the ancient recipe:

-a plant oil –  possibly sesame oil;
-a "balsam-type" plant or root extract that may have come from bullrushes;
-a plant-based gum - a natural sugar that may have been extracted from acacia;
-crucially, a conifer tree resin, which was probably pine resin

*Note that this isn't entirely true, for we have known for a long time about preserving things. Many of the same substances used to preserve mummies also preserve our food. Also note, however, that roughly speaking the practice of using spices to preserve food decreases as you move from the equator, with those places tending to use fermentation as a means of preservation instead, which is the opposite of using spices – one keeps microbial activity at bay, and the other uses it on purpose to regulate the rate of decay. Fermenting mummies would not have worked as well. But that’s pretty tangential, and a transparent excuse to say fermented mummies.

** Know that Europeans are not entirely unfamiliar with mummies; they’re called relics, and they’re not nearly as old.
***Finally, preserving the dead is not the most uncommon thing ever; Japan has a long history of it.

Post Script:
Embalming was just one aspect of preservation. Other steps included:
-Removal of the brain - possibly using a "whisking" process to cause the brain to liquefy
-Removal of the internal organs
-Putting the body into a natural salt to dry it out
-Coating the body in the embalming recipe , to kill bacteria and to seal it
-Wrapping the body in linen

Aug 2018, BBC

Nov 2016, Limbic Signal

Feb 2016, Network Address

Apr 2017, Network Address

Japanese Mummies

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Peer Pressure is the Market's Best Friend

AKA Febreeze is now teaching us about more than just noseblindness

Many years ago, an odor neutralization product was released on the market, directed at homeowners, or anything-owners who wanted to get rid of bad smells without actually getting rid of the source. (When the source of your bad smell is a teenager, for example, it's harder to just get rid of it, you know?)

Anyway, it didn't work too well. When they tried to do field research to explain why their product was failing, they discovered something that they probably should've already known, having been in the odor industry - people develop noseblindness to the bad smells of their own homes.

As the researchers knocked on door after door to figure out why their product wasn't working, they discovered that lots of people lived in smelly homes. But when you live there, day in day out, you develop a kind of resistance to your olfactory environment. This is the same reason you tend not to notice the buzzing of a fridge. It's called attenuation, and it's a way for your perceptual system to conserve resources. If something is lurking in my immediate vicinity, but it's been there for weeks already, I'm simply not going to notice it, because it's not a threat. If it was a threat (or an opportunity), I would have noticed it already.

People didn't realize they needed this odor-cancelling product, and that was a problem, obviously. So they did a pretty smart marketing about-face. They taught people to use their product after already cleaning something, to make it smell even better. This is basically an air freshener, except that instead of using it after making a room smell really bad, you use it after making a room smell good, by cleaning it. Pretty genius, I must say. Unless it didn't work, of course, in which case it would be the dumbest idea ever.

It wasn't a dumb idea, because Febreeze was a pretty successful product. Things must have changed, because it looks like Febreeze is changing their strategy. Now they're using what they 'learned' about noseblindness to pit us against each other.

If you take a look at this commercial (or not, since I'll describe it right now), you'll see how one person has developed a noseblindness to their own bad smell, and hence are made fun of by another person who lives with them, and who astutely solves the problem with Febreeze.

If you can't tell that you live in filth because your brain has tuned it out, your housemate will remind you. And if you're watching this commercial at the same time you're thinking how come nobody ever comes over to visit, maybe you can conjure an imaginary housemate to convince you to use an odor-cancelling product. Or you could also just clean your apartment, because that might have the same effect.

And if you’re an entrepreneur trying to sell a product, don’t just focus on your target audience, but the person right next to them. Lucky Charms knows something about this, you know what I’m saying? Happy Meals? Nothing convinces people like the people around them. In fact, anyone abusing social media to interfere with the political zeitgeist knows this very well.

Image source: Rocky III, the movie