Smell of the week: Fire

A favorite olfactory pleasure is the smell of burning wood  (even if the guilt from wood particulate pollution diminishes it a bit). I had the first fire of the season in my cabin last night as pictured to the right (I do my best–the wood was dry and seasoned). Not coincidentally, Starvation Gulch takes place at UAF this weekend, 24 September. The first event held in 1923 featured an entire town that was built for daytime entertainment and burned for nighttime fun and warmth (fall comes early here in Alaska). Now students compete to build the most elaborate and creative structures. Throughout the years, the nature of the annual ‘passing the torch of knowledge’ has changed tremendously from shotgun defenses of student wood piles in 1948 to drunken brawls in 1956 which prompted a 16 year campus alcohol ban (luckily we are no longer a dry campus and have our own pub). Saturday night is the culmination of the festival when everything is burnt to the ground (the pic below is mine from last year).

Volatiles are released when the temperature of the chemical interaction between wood and oxygen is between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Volatiles such as hydrogen, methane, ethylene, ethane, benzene and carbon monoxide are released up to 1300°F. Trees have different chemical compositions which result in different odors (to a degree).

Volatiles are particularly relevant to the food industry for making better wood-smoked products. BBQs fueled by hickory or other aromatic wood chips smell better and enhance the BBQ’d foods with the aroma. Meats (like jerky or bacon) that are smoked with different woods are seen as more flavour-filled or richer tasting by some consumers. How then to synthesize this scent if you aren’t a small-scale producer of gourmet smoked foods? Again, we turn to chemists for their analysis of wood volatiles to find the key chemical compounds for that smoked flavour. Oak (used in so many smoked foods, fires, and alcohol) has a keynote of whiskey lactone (quercus lactone), a compound with a strong coconut aroma!


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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