LXI: Cloudy with a Chance of Meat

One of the most popular traditions in world folklore is the notion of things falling from the sky. The only region truly out of reach to human explorers (at least until recently), the sky is a place of mystery, intrigue, and imagination. We didn’t know what was up there, so it didn’t seem that unreasonable to think it could drop water, ice, fire, frogs, birds, golf balls, cats and dogs, non-dairy creamer, or even raw meat on us at any given moment.

If you’re enjoying a meal right now, you’re about to stop enjoying it.

It was a delightfully sunny March morning in 1876 outside the small town of Olympian Springs, Kentucky. One Mrs. Allen Crouch was going about her usual business making soap in her yard when a stomach-churning thwack startled her from her work. She looked around in surprise to see what appeared to be a piece of raw meat lying on the ground, about the size of a saucer. Several thwacks later, she realized that the meat was falling from the sky. Talk about a day-wrecker.

Mrs. Crouch told her neighbor, a Mr. Harrison Gill that the pieces of meat varied in size from half-dollar to small plate, and that they floated gently down from the sky “like large snowflakes” before smacking unceremoniously into her yard. Mr. Gill told a Louisville newspaper that he himself had seen the pieces of meat strewn about the 5000 square foot farmyard and “sticking to the fences,” and that it appeared to be “perfectly fresh”.

There was, of course, a massive debacle over what exactly the meat was. Two brave gentlemen and decided to taste it (*gag*) and declared it to be “either mutton or venison” and were apparently somewhat miffed that it had been left out overnight and had become dry and spoiled. A cat who also sampled the meat had no comment. The locals seemed to think it was beef, but a hunter declared it to be unusually slimy bear meet, while a butcher insisted it was some new, unknown meat, the likes of which he had never smelled before.

Some people decided to do the smart (and safe) thing and send it off for professional analysis. One professor declared it to be frog spawn, sucked up from a nearby pond by the wind. A chemist decided to dunk it in some chemicals and light it on fire, declaring that it smelled like burning mutton and some pieces even had wool still on them. One particularly horrifying analysis identified it as the lung tissue of a human infant. A writer at the New York Times called it “cosmic meat” that he said had come from outer space, which makes sense because “there revolves about the sun a belt of venison, mutton, and other meats, divided into small fragments,” according to him. Many simply identified it as mystery meat.

Thankfully, someone eventually got a sample of the mystery substance to someone with some common sense, namely, scientist Leopold Brandeis. He did some tests that involved actual science and not guesswork or randomly lighting things on fire to sniff them, and he believed the substance to be Nostoc, also known to the common folk as “witch’s jelly” or “star-slubber” or “troll butter”. Great job naming stuff, old-timey people.

Known to science as cyanobacteria, Nostoc is a phototrophic (“light-eating”) bacteria that lives in large, gelatinous colonies and is generally pretty gross. According to Brandeis, there is a vaguely meat-colored aquatic variety which could in theory be absorbed into a cloud where it would swell with water and then fall from the sky. The problem was, it was a cloudless day, which led to only one conclusion: vulture vomit. When black vultures and turkey vultures, which are common to that region of Kentucky, gorge themselves too much, they have difficulty flying, which leads to mid-air projectile vomiting. This vomit was then carried by the prevailing winds onto the Crouch farm, which explains both the clear sky and the vaguely meaty consistency of the “rain”. It also means so pretty unpleasant news for those two brave gentlemen and a cat.

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