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The true history of mammoth meatballs

April 7, 2023

The recent story of a meatball made from woolly mammoth protein is old news to this reporter.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

My stepfather was one of the world’s best flavor chemists. Known in the trade as the man who invented strawberry, which, he told me, is the easiest flavor to fake.

For the record, my stepfather, whom I’ll call Ira in this column, used only naturally occurring flavors and odors. Extracts of plants and such. Not chemicals, although everything alive is chemicals. 

Several decades ago, a big cola company gave Ira oodles of money to spend up to two years trying to invent a flavor that did not exist in nature.

After two years, he told them it couldn’t be done.

Some years later, Ira was invited to a big meeting of flavor chemists in Russia (then the Soviet Union), where the gracious hosts served their honored guests with mammoth steaks — for reals — from a mammoth that had emerged from the melting permafrost. 

The Soviet Union took what it wanted, or thought it needed, then had the old mammoth cut up into steaks.

Well, hey, so would I, if I needed the money.

This is all true.

But today, our new, celebrity woolly mammoth meatball, unveiled at the Nemo science museum in Amsterdam on March 28, made news around the world, in Agence France-PresseThe Guardian and The Associated Press, among others. 

Tim Noakesmith, co-founder of the Australia-based cultivated meat company Vow, said the lab-grown meat was cultivated by scientists who identified the DNA sequence for mammoth myoglobin, a tasty protein, then “filled [it] in” with DNA from an African elephant, and grew it all in stem cells from sheep.

Yum! (Waiter! Could you bring me another palate-cleanser? No, leave the bottle.)

Noake said that lab-grown meat could help the world fight global warming, as emissions from billions of acres of livestock farming account for 1/7th of our planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, much of it — I kid you not — from cattle flatulence and burps.

(Ever gone on a date with a cow? I did, and let me tell you … but I digress.)

The CEO of Vow, George Peppou, told The Guardian that the best way to wean consumers off animal flesh is to “invent meat.”

Professor Ernst Wolvetang, with the Australian Institute for Bioengineering at the University of Queensland, told The Guardian that creating the mammoth meatball was “ridiculously easy and fast. … We did this in a couple of weeks.”

Yikes! If only the woolly mammoths had known!

Faux mammoth meat has not been approved for human consumption, and no one, officially, has tasted it yet. (Sure, sure.)

The AP said the mammoth (in both senses) meatball was “sized somewhere between a softball and a volleyball,” and that, even though no one, allegedly, has put human tongue or choppers upon it, “it smelled good,” after being “slow baked and then finished off on the outside with a blow torch.”

Maybe they should advertise it in trade magazines for welders.

Noakesmith called his mammoth burger “a totally unique and new aroma, something we haven’t smelled as a population for a very long time.”

I beg to differ. My stepdad Ira chowed down on mammoth steak 50 years ago.

I asked Ira what 12,000-year-old mastodon tasted like. Ira replied, in his Boston accent: “To tell you the truth, Bawb, it was kind of tough.”

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