“Fartless Herring,” says Marc Abrahams without a pause when I ask him what his favorite recipe is in the newly released Ig Nobel Cookbook.
Since 1991, Abrahams has been handing out Ig Nobel awards every year here in Cambridge, Mass. Oh Thursday night, Abrahams will host his 24th “first annual” awards ceremony.
The Ig Nobels are a riff on the Nobels, but one meant to honor researchers whose work “first makes you laugh, and then makes you think.” It it's a festival of the strange, whimsical, and downright odd — and this year’s ceremony won’t be an exception.
The theme is food, Abrahams says from his perch atop a stool at the Hi-Rise, a coffee shop that's a stone’s throw from Harvard Yard. It’s the kind of place where you can smell the intelligence. Or maybe it’s just chicken salad.
Abrahams often meets up here with Corky White, a food anthropologist at Boston University. Two months ago, they cooked up the idea to make an Ig Nobel cookbook to go with the food-themed awards.
They started asking previous winners for recipes, not without some fear. “I mean, look who we’re asking," Abrahams says. "If you knew that a man had been the first scientist to notice, let alone take notes and publish a report on, homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck, would that be the first person you would ask for a recipe for you to eat?" Fair point.
But Abrahams and White were flooded with responses and recipes, so the Ig Nobel Cookbook was born.
“I don’t believe we have a waiver in this cookbook that exempts us from responsibility should anybody make one of these recipes and find it, at best, inedible — at worst explosive,” says White with a grin.
Take the scientists who won an Ig Nobel for research involving dead salmon and MRI machines. Like most Ig Nobel-winning projects, it sounds frivolous at first. But if youdig in, you might find some method behind the madness.
In this case, the study showed the dangers of how easily doctors and technicians can misread MRI results. The scientists did this by putting a dead salmon in an MRI and still managing to find brain activity. So for the cookbook, these scientists offered up — voila — a way to cook salmon in an MRI machine.
“Among the instructions is ‘remove all safety devices,’" White says. “I think it also requires that the cooks leave the room while the thing's buzzing.” Even if the book did have a waiver, I still don’t think they’d recommend you give that one a try.
White also points out a lovely cake recipe provided by the Italian psychiatrist who discovered that during the first six months of romantic love, the brain behaves quite a bit like it would if it had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Duh.
But Abrahams’ favorite recipe is that one for herring, which was submitted by Swedish scientists.
“They discovered — and this had been completely unknown to human beings, apparently — that herrings seem to communicate by farting," he says. "They have a fair amount of proof on this. So one of those Swedish scientists gave us his recipe for herring. Fartless herring.”
As for my own favorite recipe from the book, let's get back to that homosexual, necrophilic duck. The story starts innocently enough back in 1995, on a day when Kees Moeliker, a curator at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, was sitting in his office.
"A male mallard ... crashed against the window of my office at the museum and got killed,” Moeliker explains. “And the moment the duck landed, a live duck showed up. Same species. Same sex.”
Moeliker got his camera and his notebook and proceeded to document the, shall we say, intimate moment that followed. After keeping the evidence in his desk drawer for a few years — “It’s not the kind of thing easily shared with your peers,” Moeliker quips — he finally wrote it up for a small journal.
Then he won an Ig Nobel for his research, and his life completely changed. Suddenly, if someone around the world observed strange animal behavior, they sent the evidence to Moeliker. He’s now known in Holland and beyond as simply “The Duck Guy.”
So when it came time to contribute a recipe to the Ig Nobel cookbook, you can probably guess where Moeliker went. Hid recipe is pretty simple: Pluck your duck, gut it, and cook it whole in butter. But keep the stomach, Moeliker insists, because you can cook it in apple brandy for a delicious appetizer.
I mention that, in the Ig Nobel cookbook, Moeliker's recipe is illustrated with photos of the original incident. When I ask him if he thinks that would put people off trying to fix his dish, Moeliker laughed. “I don't think so. I don't think people should be afraid to eat a duck that's done something strange.” Duly noted.
By the way, I'm assured this is only Volume I of the Ig Nobel Cookbook. I think I’ll bring my fire safety goggles along for Volume II — and possibly top up my life insurance.