Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Olfactory hallucinations, and more

I thought I smelled something horrid.
I thought I was losing my mind.
I was smelling something.
You probably already know this but just in case, you should know that if you Google ‘olfactory hallucinations’ you will find that there already exists that Googling category. (If “Googling category” is what you call the words that appear, unbidden, mysteriously and miraculously, as you type your hesitant search into the Google box.)
You probably also know that Googling one’s self-diagnosed symptoms can lead to dire diagnoses of exotic, deadly diseases that you probably do not have.
In the case of olfactory hallucinations - until CSB relented and admitted that he too smelled the strange, acrid and rather horrid smell that was afflicting my nose -I Googled and quickly panicked that I was experiencing a temporal brain lobe seizure. I also learned that there is a lovely word for olfactory hallucinations: Phantosmia, which is not to be confused with Parosmia, which means the smell exists but is distorted.

It turns out the offending smell in question was Milorganite™, a fertilizer often used as a deer repellent on account of its aforementioned vile smell, and it seems our neighbors had just applied large amounts of Milorganite™ and the wind was blowing in our direction. And why does Milorganite™ smell so badly? Because it is dried pelletized sewage solids. From the Milwaukee Municipal wastewater Treatment plant. I had no idea. Of course I use manure on my garden, and I compost, but somehow the idea that this well-known and much lauded fertilizer was nothing more than dried feces in a bag surprised me. To learn more about the brilliant thinking that took an unpleasant human waste product and turned it into a valuable commodity, go here.

So, relieved of the worry that I was afflicted with a temporal lobe seizure and would be smelling strange things in perpetuity, I sat down to read this magazine that shows up everything month for free, Aramco World. Because many decades ago in Egypt my grandfather, Bon-Papa, worked for Cal Tex, which became Texaco, which became Aramco, I receive this glossy magazine about the Arab world. The photographs are lovely and you can be guaranteed that there is never a whiff of anything controversial or offensive – to anyone. It is, after all, a large advertisement designed to make us feel good about pumping oil from the desert countries whose cultures are therein extolled.
So, in Aramco World I learned about asafoetida, a resin and spice that, if the descriptions are correct, smells even worse than Milorganite™ – “a sulfurous blend of manure and overcooked cabbage; redolent of a summer dumpster.” Its more colloquial name is “Devil’s Dung”. This resin is an exudate produced by the exposed roots of the asafoetida plant, or the fennel & carrot family, and comes only from Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir. The trick is that once cooked, sautéed in oil say, it smells liked onions and taste delicious and is added to lentil dishes because it has the remarkable characteristic of reducing flatulence.
Is that enough about things that smell?
Now off to Cuttyhunk, and sea breezes. Word has reached me of a honeybee (Apis mellifera) experiment being conducted on Cuttyhunk, about which I am deeply curious. Stay tuned.

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