Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Mummy Meat

People used to eat mummies.

Last week for the first time, I saw someone else writing about this, but in the spirit of the season, which is Halloween here in the US. Good time for a perennial favorite here at Limbic Signal:

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 Gu√©rer 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, October 15, 2020

Exobiotic Nose Patrol

Feb 2020, phys.org

"Romantic Partner" they call it.
155 people, sweaty t-shirts, you get the idea.
You don't even have to be there, just your shirt: "effect similar to taking oral melatonin supplements."

I'm going to chime in here and say this is something to do with security and familiarity. Knowing that another member of your tribe is with you while you sleep makes you less paranoid of the silent creepers waiting to attack you in the dead of night, be they lions, tigers or viruses. And your body knows who is a member of your tribe via both olfaction and your immune system (which are inter-related by their chemosensing inputs).

Your immune system knows who's deep inside your network because their microbes are deep inside your body crawling and growing and metabolizing all over your face, in your nostrils, under your fingernails, and throughout the entire length of your digestive system. Your immune system has one job, and that's to keep the xenobiotics at bay.

Yes, your immune system is hyper xenophobic. As you move through life, you pick up all kinds of microbes from your environment and especially from the people around you. All the while your immune system is working like crazy to detect, attack and remove all those microbiological trespassers.

If you spend enough time with certain people, then your immune system will need a way to identify those people and their biomes so that it doesn't waste time attacking things that aren't actually a threat. It's a probability game -- if you hang out with these people a lot, then they probably aren't a threat, and neither are their microbodies; you'd be better off saving your energy for another time, like when you're at the gym swimming in a sweaty soup of other people's effluence.

Point being, the more immunologically exposed you are to another person, the more your immune system will "know" who they are by the way they smell, and even while you sleep. And when your immune system is relaxed, so are you. (And yes, immunological exposure means exactly what it sounds like.)

Post Script
Stanford Medicine, Sep 2018

For two years straight, Michael Snyder, MD, professor and chair of genetics at Stanford, sported a peculiar accessory — a little gray box strapped to his bicep taking sips of air and recording his exposome cloud.

It turns out, at any given time, we are bombarded by a combination of microbes, fungi, chemicals, viruses, particulates and even tiny microscopic animals, a new paper in Cell reported. This whirling plume of particulates is called the human exposome.

The long-term goal, Snyder said, is to simplify the device into something that resembles an exposome-monitoring smart watch that can suck up and analyze the atmosphere on its own.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Full Cat Moon Revisited

It's that time of year again where the smell of feral cats marking their territory scents your local neighborhood. Only it's not actually the cats, it's the plants themselves. English boxwood to be specific. At the right time of year (which is now in New Jersey), these popular shrubs are announcing their presence via the sharp smell of a well-used litter box.

The offending molecule, called “cat ketone,” is also a main component in blackcurrant. Pour yourself a dram of blackcurrant desert wine, take a sip, and then smell the inside of the glass. And there you'll have it. Now take a walk around the block (anywhere from August to October), and pay attention. Once you tune in, you'll notice it every time you pass one of these bushes.

Sometimes we actually like bad smells. Rather, we learn to like them. Maybe it has something to do with our ability to control the biosphere so expertly. We have refined the practice of fermentation such that it has become an integral part of our diets. Bread, beer, cheese, kimchi, sauerkraut, chocolate; all these things are fermented. Fermentation is controlled rotting, and it's unnatural. (It's described way better in this book about fermentation that won the James Beard Award in 2013 for Reference and Scholarship.)

Uncontrolled rotting makes bad smells. Controlled rotting still makes bad smells, but less. And we learn how to ... re-evaluate those bad smells in light of their finer attributes. "Parmesan cheese" (isovaleric acid) comes up a lot in regards to this. If you put isovaleric acid in a hundred small bottles and give them to a hundred people, half will call it gross and the other half will love it. I call it quantum hedonics, but you can just call it an acquired taste.

Here’s  a picture of a boxwood shrub:

The Chukchi and Yupik of the Beiring Straits eat fermented fish, reindeer blood, and walrus fat and have even been said to have a preference for partially decomposed food.* This is reflected in vocabulary too: for example, Chukchi veglyt’ul ‘old edible’ versus pegyt’ul ‘old, should not to be eaten’; ... .
*Yamin-Pasternak, S., Kliskey, A., Alessa, L., Pasternak, I., Schweitzer, P. (2014) The rotten renaissance in the Bering Strait: Loving, loathing, and washing the smell of foods with a (re)acquired taste. Current Anthropology 55: 619–646.

In the Soviet era, some indigenous people were no longer exposed to these foods and odors; thereafter when the Soviet Union collapsed, younger people who had to go back to the fermented foods (or starve) had difficulties ingesting these potent odors. This goes to illustrate the importance of early experienced environmental odors.*
*Beauchamp, G. K. (2014) Foul odors of rotted food: Lessons from olfactory physiology. Current Anthropology 55: 634–635.

That all being said, it's not a bad thing that your blackcurrant apertif smells like civet; it's enriching your experience, and that's a good thing, right? Or would you rather not know?

“cat ketone”

And here's a similar molecule that you can get as part of the AROXA Beer Taint Kit:

“buchu mercaptan”
Catty, like blackcurrant juice or tom cat urine, tomato plant

Notice below how this substance is described on the Good Scents Company directory for blackcurrant. They are used by the flavor and fragrance industry, so they are less likely to use the words "cat piss." "Catty" will suffice!

black currant bud absolute
currant bud
sulfered family
unusual fruity aroma

The Art of Fermentation: An in-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World
by Sandor Ellix Katz

Winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship, and a New York Times bestseller, The Art of Fermentation is the most comprehensive guide to do-it-yourself home fermentation ever published. Sandor Katz presents the concepts and processes behind fermentation in ways that are simple enough to guide a reader through their first experience making sauerkraut...

Post Script
Civet is a kind of animal musk taken from a kind of cat/mongoose. It’s used in perfumes because humans like the way it smells. Maybe it reminds us of the “quantum hedonic” natural body odors that we wash off every day. Civetone is the name given to the molecule that most represents the Civet smell.

Post Post Script
National Geographic attracting jaguars using Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men 1986.