In the 1876 ‘Shower of Flesh,’ when meat rained down from the skies above Kentucky, people said it ‘tastes like mutton.’ But the actual explanation turned out to be — literally — stomach-turning.
In my never-ending quest for knowledge relevant to animal husbandry and livestock production, I regularly review a roster of scientific journals for studies concerning meat, poultry and related topics.
Well, actually it’s called Google Search, but even so, there are mountains of information that must be sifted through to extract information to inform the business of raising food animals and providing meat for American dinner table.
The key word being “meat.”
What follows is one of the strangest, weird meat stories I’ve ever encountered.
It involves a mystery dating back to 1876, according to a New York Times article published on March 3 during the nation’s first centennial. On that day the newspaper reported, “Large hunks of flesh fell from the sky over Olympia Springs in Bath County, Kentucky.” As noted in a Scientific American blog post this week, the phenomenon occurred near a house belonging to Allen Crouch, whose wife was outside making soap.
My, how times have changed in the last 138 years. I can’t even remember the last time my wife made soap.
“The meat, which looked like beef, fell all around her,” the Times story reported. “The sky was perfectly clear at the time, and she said it fell like large snowflakes.”
As the story continued, a Mr. Harrison Gill visited the day after the “alleged flesh falls” and noted the presence of “meat sticking out of the fences and scattered across the ground.” At least one of the pieces measured almost four inches across, although most were about two inches squared, according to the newspaper. The “meat pieces” were apparently fresh when they fell, but after being exposed to the air overnight were spoiled and dry.
As the story reported, “Two unidentified gentlemen turned up to taste the meat-rain and declared that it had the flavor of either venison or mutton.”
Okay, I’ve heard people boasting about being “adventurous” gourmets, but eating hunks of “meat” stuck on fence posts to assess their “flavor” is something else altogether.
It’s worth reporting: Times have changed since the late19th century.
Witch’s butter, or star slobber?
So what were those “unidentified gentlemen” (convicts? mental patients?) actually sampling? It certainly wasn’t fresh mutton or venison.
One explanation emerged when someone analyzed the specimens, announcing that the “meat” was not actually meat at all. “At last we have a proper explanation of this much talked-of phenomenon,” a report in Scientific American stated at the time. “It has been comparatively easy to identify the substance and to fix its status. The Kentucky ‘wonder’ is no more or less than nostoc.”
What is nostoc, you ask? According to Scientific American, it is a type of cyanobacteria that forms colonies surrounded by a protective gel. Now, nostoc is capable of swelling up into a translucent jelly-like mass in the presence of moisture, scientists pointed out. But the bacterial masses are inconspicuous when dry, so back then, people believed nostoc would “float on the breeze until it rained, which caused it to fall from the sky like hail. Colorful nicknames such as ‘star jelly,’ ‘witch’s butter’ and ‘star-slobber’ were thrown around,” according to the blog post.
The particular species of nostoc that rained down on Kentucky way back when was apparently a species known as Nostoc cranium, which is described as the color of seaweed — adding even more of a “wow factor” to the exploits of the gentlemen who declared that the hunk they sampled, as they used to say in the 1870s, “tastes like mutton.”
There is one more piece to this strange puzzle: It wasn’t raining the night the nostoc-that-tastes-like-mutton fell onto Mr. Crouch’s domicile. So how could those flakes balloon into meat-like hunks in the absence of precipitation?
Turns out that the samples, once they were analyzed by one Dr. A. Mead Edwards, a histologist and president of the Newark Scientific Association, were some kind of animal cartilage and lung tissue. But where did they come from?
According to a Dr. L. D. Kastenbine, writing in an 1876 edition of the Louisville Medical News, the mystery meat was projectile vulture vomit.
You read that right — which, again, takes me back to the “gentlemen” who tasted the samples.
They don’t make food tasters like the used to.
As Kastenbine told Scientific American at the time, “The only plausible theory explanatory of this anomalous shower appears to me to be that suggested by an old Ohio farmer — the disgorgement of some vultures that were sailing over the spot, from their immense height, the particles were scattered by the prevailing wind over the ground. The variety of tissue discovered — muscular, connective, fatty, structureless, etc. — can be explained only by this theory.”
Two species of vulture found in Kentucky, the black vulture and the turkey vulture, are both known to projectile vomit their stomach contents, as either a defense mechanism or to make themselves light enough for flight.
Or as clever way to get a couple of would-be gourmets to engage in what can only be described as one of the all-time stupid human tricks.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.