Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What's that smell?

I heard the greatest story on NPR today, one that I had to tell a number of people because it tickled my fancy and brought happiness to my world. The link to the story is here, but I'll sum it up for you. This Harvard scientist was researching the way ants communicate through chemical signals, and found that when an ant dies, the other ants ignore it until two days after it's dead. At this time, the ant carcass gives off a certain scent. The very next ant who happens by grabs the corpse and takes it to the ant graveyard, throwing it on the other dead ants. He spent ages testing out various chemicals (the essence of rotting fish, feces and sweat, to name a few) until he discovered what the chemical was. Well, in the wacky world of academia, the next logical step is to see if you can screw with some ants. First, he made dummy ants, sprayed them with this stuff, and watched the ants react as if it were a real corpse. Then the fun started. He sprayed a live ant with the chemical. The very next ant to happen by grabbed the struggling (and, presumably, baffled) ant, hauled it to the graveyard, and threw it in. You can picture it, can't you? "Hey! Hey! I'm not dead! Tiffany, wait! It's me, Beth! Heeeeeyyyyy! Ewwwwww!" The poor ant cleaned herself off as best as she could, returned to the colony, and was promptly picked up by another ant and carted back off to the graveyard. It took her about an hour to clean herself off well enough to be accepted as alive and not some strange zombie ant.

I was listening to this while driving. I started laughing so hard I nearly missed the road to my sister's house.

I was reflecting on this story while I was making dinner tonight, and I had a revelation. Bear with me as I ponderously explain.

When I was pregnant, I would occasionally get a whiff of fishiness from my food. Now, I'm talking about not-at-all-containing-fish, haven't-cooked-fish-all-week sort of food... and not necessarily strong, but just a touch. Enough to make me turn up my nose. Sometimes I couldn't finish the dish, sometimes I just had to take a few deep breaths and then could go back to eating. I'm pretty sure Darling Husband thought I was pretty insane, asking him to please smell the grilled cheese and see if it smelled fishy to him. Because it never did.

I haven't really given it much thought outside of that. Until tonight, when I started thinking about smells in general. I often find I get the strangest smells when I'm doing making a roux, for example. (I should explain that a roux is made by melting butter, oil or another fat in a pan, adding in flour and cooking them together. The raw flour taste cooks out quickly. This is the basis for creamy white sauces like bechamel, too. When doing a white sauce, you leave the roux really rather blonde. When making gumbo, you're aiming for more of a coffee, nut brown color. The flavor this adds is indescribable.) At first, it just smells like butter. Then, after a few minutes, there's a distinct banana smell. It's truly strange. After a while, there's a strong popcorn aroma to the roux. This, too, is just a phase. Then it just smells like awesome roux, particularly when you throw in onions and oh, I'm getting off topic.

Once when I mentioned the banana phase of roux making to Darling Husband, he (who has a degree in chemical engineering) explained that the "banana" smell is a chemical that bananas release. It's the same thing they use to ripen fruit, which is why if you put a banana in a brown paper bag with some peaches or whatever, they will ripen faster. Somewhere in the building of the roux, then, this chemical compound must form.

Cooking is, after all, an elaborate chemistry experiment.

Back to the ants. And dinner. So I'm frying up plantains tonight, and I get that old, familiar wisp of fishiness. Suddenly it all clicks. I'm not crazy, I just smell well! There must be a chemical that, to me, smells of fish. And it must be present in the cooking process of some foods. When I was pregnant, I was very sensitive to smells, and so it makes sense that I would smell them more strongly then. Ah-HAH!

I have a super sniffer!

Tonight the fishiness passed quickly, and the plantains were fantastic. I'll blog about them later, because I have quite a lot to say on the proper selection and preparation of plantains. But for now, gentle readers, I bid you adieu and bonne nuit. May your worlds smell sweet.


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  2. Any thoughts about people who can smell colors? (Listen! Can you smell that? Something smells blue.)

  3. Remarkable what a nose can detect. More fantastic is the fact it can be all explained quite logically. It is at the same time reassuring and sad since it takes away the mystery. B. the mom

  4. Esters are what make bananas smell banana-y, and also what makes certain beers like Hefeweizens smell banana-y. And presumably at some point in the roux-making process, something breaks down to an ester.

    Take a look here:

    And as for synaesthesia... Well... Could be the drugs?


  5. Interesting link! Thank you!

    And also, "synaesthesia." That's a $5 word if ever I heard one. ;o)

  6. Alexander Luria, a Russian neuro-psychologist,reported on a patient with extreme synaesthesia who, when exposed to tone of 2000 Hz (that's an octave above high C)at 113 decibels, responded, "It looks something like fireworks tinged with a pink-red hue. The strip of color feels rough and unpleasant and it has an ugly taste,rather like that of a briny pickle." Sound, color, touch, and taste all together!

  7. Thanks, sweetie! I'll put it on your tab. ;-)