Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lessons from a New York Moment in Ann Arbor









 










I had a New York moment in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It's been over three years since I arrived from New York. Developers have cannibalized half the places I miss in the city, but home is home and certain things make you miss it like hell even if the places you knew don't exist anymore. New Yorkers can't help themselves. What's trapped inside our heads from childhood defines our whole life; forever

A New York moment, now? It took me a year to realize that all of the things I thought I couldn't find anywhere else in the country were here; food, friends, quirky creatives, local coffee roasters, community, people who are driven by "why?" instead of "so what?"  So what took so long? 

Lesson One: My problem was that I thought New York City was the center of the universe. It isn't. Especially now.

The possibility of a New York moment in Ann Arbor existed the day I arrived. There are a lot of ex-New Yorkers in Ann Arbor. Some up and left because they were bored. Others had kids and thought New York City was 'no place to raise a family'. Some folks went to The University of Michigan and felt the same urge Diaspora Jews had for "the return". Baby boomers who experienced one too many trips through the revolving door marked "failing economy" got tired of the unrelenting vertigo and took off to explore entrepreneurial terrain. 


Ann Arbor has grit that's driven by synaptic impulses (it's home to The University of Michigan) and it's cheaper to live here than it is in New York. There's no shortage of great restaurants either, though you'll have to go to Ypsilanti if you want really good Chinese food. As far as supermarkets go Kroger is a food mecca and if you're in luck, the first cashier you meet will know more about science fiction than the entire cast of The Big Bang Theory (in my case a cashier recognized that "the Krell" were an advanced race from outer space in the movie Forbidden Planet and was happy to tell me so when he saw the spelling of my middle name). Buh-bye New York. I'll visit often, but when I do please know I'm not staying for good. People in Ann Arbor are characters and as the only "trained nose" in Ann Arbor, so am I.

Lesson Two: Wishing for a New York moment is equivalent to spell casting; one wish and the moment will immediately find you. 















My New York moment in Ann Arbor (or A2 as the locals call it) happened when the unstoppable troika of food, love, and loss followed me into the jam section at Babo: a Market by Sava. Babo is a gourmet food store in Ann Arbor that feels like a less neurotic Dean and DeLuca and is marked by authentic conviviality that is particular to the Midwest.

I dropped by the market on a grey winter day in February and was on a marmalade mission. Babo stocks Medlar marmalade from Spain that's impossible to find if you live stateside. Juergen Ausborn introduced me to this unusual fruit via a jammy confection sold at a Pierre Marcolini chocolate shop he managed in New York City. (The chocolatier is based in Brussels and is no longer operating in New York; the line was dropped a year after Ausborn drowned while snorkeling in Bermuda).

Pierre Marcolini offered some of the most exotic and delightful chocolates I'd ever eaten. The store was around the corner from The Clarins Fragrance Group where I worked as a marketing consultant so it was easy to give into temptation at least twice a week. The chocolatier was known for masterfully applying floral flavors in some of his chocolates. What he did with violet and tonka bean was beatific. 

I walked up to the cash register at Babo's coffee counter with flavor remembrances in tow when suddenly my eyes were drawn to colorful and oversized rainbow bars (aka seven-layer Neapolitan bars). They were childhood magnified. The decades peeled back as I looked at them; I was standing at the cookie counter at Weber's bakery in the Bronx hoping one of neatly arranged rainbow bars in the glass cookie case would find its way into my mouth. If an accompanying parent didn't buy the rainbow bars I'd deploy "cookie face" which was a glassy-eyed combination of wonder and sadness. Cookie face worked wonders on the meanest lady in a hairnet. I never left the Weber's without a few free treats. This amused my father. My mother, on the other hand, found it reprehensible even though I'd always share.

Lesson Three: When you think you've found New York you have really found yourself; no matter where you are.


















All of the cookies that Babo makes are showcased inside glass domed cake stands. The presentation is so beautiful that even an oat bar looks like a deliberate work of art. The colorful macarons are a visual respite from what can be seen at the opposite side of the counter by the window; dull snow covered sidewalks, salt parched asphalt roads, and a gray sky that lasts into forever. The cashier tells me that the macrons are delicious, but very delicate. "Once in a while I get to eat one that breaks," she says with a reserved smile. I tell her how excited I am to have finally found medlar jam and she encourages me to speak with one of the store's owners. "His name is Kris and he loves to talk about food," she says. 

The woman at the counter was right about Kris. He and I had an animated conversation about food. Kris and his sister Sava own Babo, Sava's Restaurant, and Aventura in Ann Arbor. The food business is family business and each of their enterprises is well run and beloved. There was something familiar about Lelcaj's elocution and it turned out that he and his family once lived in the Mosholu section the Bronx. My family moved to nearby Pelham Parkway after spending 20 years in the Fordham section of the Bronx. We reminisced about the neighborhood bakeries we knew, trips to Arthur Avenue, and agreed that the Bronx was and still is a very special place, which is largely due to its diverse immigrant population. 

"Whenever I visit it doesn't matter whose house I'm in. When my head hits the pillow and I hear the overhead trains I know I'm home," says Lelcaj. I began to recall an experience I had when I visited my sister in Forest Hills last year. I was instantly comforted by the sound of overhead trains on the first night I went to sleep after flying in from Detroit. Forest Hills resembles a larger version of Pelham Parkway so it's easy to feel the comfort and nostalgia of being home in Queens. I hadn't recalled this memory until Kris shared his story.

Lesson Four: If you talk about food it can bring back the dead.
                            "Our family has always been in the food business," Lelcaj says. "The store is named after my father, Mark. He was with us when we got started, but died of pancreatic cancer in 2011 before it was finished." 

I thought about my own father who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. I told Kris I was sorry about his dad and we shared stories about our fathers' experiences before and after cancer. Kris tells me that Babo is an endearing Albanian term that loosely translates to "father". "It's funny," he says. "People who never knew my father say his name all the time. I like that. It's like he's always here." Kris's voice is mixed with humor and low-key irony.


                                                                                                                                                       

                                      




The conversation shifts to neighborhood bakeries including trips to Arthur Avenue. Kris informs me that Babo's offsite baking facility smells like heaven on earth when the all of the ovens are running at once. I imagine the smell of the Stella D'oro cookie factory from my childhood, and the perfume of vanilla, anise, cinnamon, and lemon that made my sister and I roll down the car window so we could get as much of that sweetness into our lungs as was humanly possible (we'd practically hyperventilate). These experiences led to the permanent appearance of Stella D'oro Breakfast Treats on the shelf next to the cereal in our kitchen pantry. The "S"-shaped treats were a food group in our household and each of us was known to enjoy them with a little bit of grape jelly. 

Lesson Five: New York has a cookie that really isn't really a cookie, and a really good one doesn't exist in Ann Arbor...yet.
















The texture of Stella D'oro Breakfast Treats is slightly crumbly and reminds me of a New York cookie from my childhood that is really a large handheld cake masquerading as a cookie. Black and white cookies are frosted with equal halves of vanilla and chocolate icing. Memories of eating them inspire an insatiable craving so I ask Kris if he remembers them and he does. The staff at the take-a-number bakeries of our childhood would hand tie boxes of these cake-like cookies and hand them off like presents. Black and White cookies had a tendency to disappear. 

There aren't any cake boxes or spools of striped bakery twine at Babo, but the gourmet food shop is rife with imagination and possibility. I ask Kris if he thinks Babo could make black and white cookies. He thinks about it and smiles. We exchange business cards and I make my way towards the door with four jars of medlar jam in hand. The temperature outside is bitter cold, but it doesn't bother me. Kris had a gleam in his eyes. I saw a black and white cookie in their light...

Notes:
For a great description of the Stella D'oro aromascape read Ian Frazier's article "Out of the Bronx: Private Equity and the Cookie Factory," in the February 6, 2012 edition of The New Yorker

For the record, the producer of The Big Bang Theory is Mark Cendrowski; a graduate of The University of Michigan. Word, nerd...

Kate Krader, chef and writer for Food and Wine, insisted on visiting one of the local Pelham Parkway bakeries in my neighborhood when we were just out of college. Her quest? The perfect black and white cookie. She returned to Greenwich Village with a bag of them.

I've been working for two arts organizations at The University of Michigan since February 2013. Each organization promotes interdisciplinarity that is inclusive of the arts. The Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) is a national organization. ArtsEngine is a local one. Both are housed on North Campus at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Happiness in a Bottle: Christmas Fir Cabin Spray by Juniper Ridge

Unseasonably cold temperatures across the country have triggered polar vortex memories that most of us would prefer to forget. It's an unfortunate association, but there's a sensorial antidote for the collective PTSD affecting portions of the country experiencing December weather this November; it's Christmas Fir Cabin Spray by Juniper Ridge

The product is the sixth in a series of "cabin sprays" made by Juniper Ridge and is described as "Christmas tree in a bottle". One spritz and you can say goodbye to forest-inspired scents that have been conning nostrils for decades. Christmas Fir Cabin Spray's fresh arboreal bouquet replaces memories of store bought fauxery with the soothing aroma of fir, cedar, and pine sourced from Mt. Hood. The product smells "real" because folks at Juniper Ridge go into the forest and forage for raw materials before distilling the ingredients by hand.













The scent of the forest belongs in the air which is why Christmas Fir Cabin Spray by Juniper Ridge is rife with Proustian potential. It's not a scent you have to learn; it's a scent you know in your DNA. Whether the memories are tied to gentle walks in the forest or Christmas trees lined up for sale, this olfactory creation is a righteous must-have at $30 a bottle.

Notes:
Image titled "Douglas Fir Variations" is comprised of four Creative Commons graphics. It was designed by Michelle Krell Kydd.  The images are (clockwise): Douglas Fir and HemlocksCoast Douglas Fir Cone by David Douglas, Douglasie by Petwo, and Abies Alba by Böhringer Friedrich.

This article was serendipitously posted on the anniversary of the first volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (1913). A future Smell and Tell workshop that links scent, memory and literature is in the works for 2015. December's Smell and Tell is focused on Patchouli and takes place on Wednesday, December 3, 2014, from 7:00pm to 8:45pm at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. For more details click here.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Scented Memories: My Father's Leather Shop




When I was a child I would accompany my father to his leather shop on 236 West 27th Street in the garment district. The world changed the moment you walked into the freight elevator and were greeted with the scent of gear oil and metal. I remember the aroma of the shop which was a combination of leather, rubber cement, tailor's chalk, spools of thread, rolls of acetate lining, coffee, manila pattern paper, pencils, wooden cutting tables, rack and push hand carts, metal chairs ornamented with handmade cushions, buttered rolls and bagels, and the warm metal of zealous sewing machines stitching away.


                                                         





A flock of women from the Caribbean to South America worked there. I remember watching them change from their work clothes into street clothes and admiring how lady-like they were. The changing room was a flutter with slips, skirts, dresses, pantyhose and the staccato of Spanish conversation. The women were like butterflies. When they'd leave the shop you could smell traces of soap, hand cream and eau de cologne from Spain in the changing room. The soap was different from the one we used at home and smelled of citrus, cinnamon, and white flowers.














One of the women who worked in the shop was from Cuba and her name was Dulce. I remember how hard she worked and how beautiful she was. The sound of machines and hands working inside Brand X Fashions never leaves my memory. The video "Soul of a Shirt" captures the spirit of what I remember even though it's modern and related to shirt production (my father made coats, dresses, and suits in leather and suede).  



















The building that housed Brand X Fashions now includes the Fashion Institute of Technology The 12-story deco sandstone building is across the street from the fragrance lab on 27th Street where I studied perfumery with Virginia Bonofiglio of FITOn the first day of perfumery class I met Dulce Urquiza of Givaudan. We became fast friends and no matter how much time goes by she always reminds me of the Dulce I knew in my childhood. Both are of Cuban heritage and have an interesting blend of strength and sweetness; just like a perfect café cubano...













Notes:
The aroma of Swedish Dream Sunflower Facial Soap inspired this story; it smells exactly like the soap that sat on the porcelain sink in the women's changing room at Brand X Fashions.

The video that accompanies this post is curated by The Skyscraper Museum of NYC and can be found on their YouTube channel. My experience in the Garment District took place in the early 1970's. Though the video was shot from footage in the 1950's it affords an interesting historical perspective.  

The image of my father's business card is embellished with the wooden portion of a garment rack that was used to walk finished product to a contractor or distributor. I took a few rides in these, as a kid as did my sister. 

The picture of a vintage Singer
® sewing machine was taken by Jorge Royan and was used with permission. It was remixed with an image my cousin took of the building where my father grew up. The building is in Brzeziny, Poland.

Image of "Leather Bouquet" featuring bolts of leather skins in bright colors taken by Michelle Krell Kydd.


Dulce Urquiza is Senior Creative Fragrance Development Manager at Givaudan and a chemical engineer; she puts the flower in STEM. A future story about her journey as a woman in science is planned. It is a precious story that has never been told before.

The Annette Green Fragrance Foundation Studio at The Fashion Institute of Technology is modeled on professional facilities and is the only fragrance lab on a U.S. college campus.  

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Flavor Stories: Dr. Roman Kaiser on Saffron's Affinity for Mullet and Shellfish












Shellfish and saffron have a natural affinity for each other. For some, the experience of savoring the flavor of a delicious paella is proof enough. Still, the desire to know why and certain flavors work so well together is enough to keep a curious cook up all night, or in some cases, inspire in a 2438 page corpus on molecular gastronomy.













Dr. Roman Kaiser is a renowned flavor and fragrance chemist who has dedicated his life to analyzing scents emitted by plants in their natural setting. Respectful of plant life and the environment he is known for utilizing dirigibles to conduct fragrance studies in locations including: Lower Amazonia, Papua New Guinea, India, and rainforest biotopes.

These days Dr. Kaiser can be found with both feet on the ground. He retired from Givaudan in 2011 and lectures at European universities. He spends more time doing things that he loves including foraging, canning and cooking; something he did in his youth as he spent a good part of that time in the hills and forests of Switzerland.













It isn't difficult to imagine a curious flavor story Kaiser shares from his childhood. As a young boy he added a few petals of Rosa centifolia from his father's nursery to a batch of homemade raspberry marmalade. The result was a memorable flavor pairing that inspired his pursuit of sensory science as an adult.

Last month I shared a recipe for parsley pesto with Dr. Kaiser via email and confessed that its success was the result of two unplanned events; accidentally buying parsley for a cilantro-based sofrito recipe and deciding to build a dairy-free pesto using the parsley as a flavor base.













I discovered that lemon zest and ground sumac temper garlic and parsley's assertiveness, creating multiple flavor complements. What I knew in the creation process as "instinct" is something I can now share as experience as there are clear reasons why this flavor experiment worked.

Lemon rind is not juicy, but if you add an umami enhancer like ground sumac berry you receive an added benefit; malic acid. Malic acid gives fruit a pleasant tart quality. In adding ground sumac berries to lemon zest one returns a sensory quality to lemon that is associated with a part of fruit that isn't present in the recipe; the juice-filled pulp. The effect is, in essence, a reconstitution of lemon's juicy character without the addition of water. The water forms in the mouth from the savory umami effect.













After sharing the recipe for parsley pesto with Dr. Kaiser he responded with a flavor story of his own. The event took place while he was dining at a restaurant on the Ligurian coast with colleagues (a story he relates on page 150 of his book Meaningful Scents from Around the World). If you're a home cook with a penchant for seafood and saffron you'll appreciate what Dr. Kaiser has to say about science and the role of a cook's instinct in the kitchen:

"...I would also like to describe a culinary insight. I was always wondering how the idea developed to add saffron to shrimps, prawns and red mullet. During a project at the Ligurian coast we once had lunch in a very simple but culinary-wise, wonderful restaurant where we could even see how the dishes were prepared. We had red mullet (rouget, Mullus barbatus) very delicately enhanced in its flavor with saffron, and I suddenly understood why they did this. 
The fresh red mullet itself already has a very faint saffron smell due to minute amounts of safranal and related compounds formed by degradation of carotenoids which gives the typical color to this and some other marine species, including shrimps. In fact, this faint saffron note is also perceivable in fresh shrimps and prawns, in which I have been able to demonstrate the presence of safranal by headspace trapping. 
Another fascinating example illustrating of how people are often able to do the right thing intuitively, in this case to support a very faintly present, but desirable olfactory note with a suitable spice.  












Dr. Kaiser's capacity for discovery defines him as a person and a scientist. These qualities make it a pleasure and privilege to know him. When I returned to read the passage about saffron and shellfish in his book, I found a note from Kate Greene, Vice President of Marketing at Givaudan. The note, written on July 1, 2008, was situated on page 152; one page ahead of the one Dr. Kaiser cited in his email to me. I must have used the note as a bookmark when I was writing about geosmin, a molecule that smells of freshly turned earth. Kate's note read, "On behalf of Roman, please enjoy his amazing book- it has given all of us much inspiration."












Meaningful Scents from Around the World has the approachable tone of an observational diary with a provocative scholarly flavor. It continues to attract readers because the human element in Dr. Kaiser's work, which is as much about curiosity as it is about science, is timeless. September 16th marks the eighth year since the book was published. Meaningful Scents from Around the World continues to inspire me. I have a feeling it always will...

Notes:
Details regarding Dr. Roman Kaiser's childhood discovery of rose-raspberry flavor pairing can be found in an interview conducted by Dyptique.

Dr. Roman Kaiser pioneered an aroma capturing technique in the 70's referred to as "headspace" trapping. This technique allows scent samples to be collected in the field without harming the plant.

Image of a dirigible from a ScentTrek® in Madagascar's Masaola Peninsula via Givaudan.

Image of a pint of red raspberries by Dan Klimke via Creative Commons.

Image of saffron threads by David Hawkins-Weeks via Creative Commons.

A big thanks to my husband, A.J. Kydd, who encouraged me to invent something new when I bought the wrong herb at the grocery store. It's nice to be reminded that mistakes and inconveniences are often opportunities in disguise.

"Inside the Olfactory Mind of Dr. Roman Kaiser" continues to be the most popular post on Glass Petal Smoke to date. It is part of a series of interviews regarding the sense of smell and memory.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Unstoppered Bottle of Perfume











A perfume is known by its name, smell, shape and sometimes, its color. These attributes influence expectations in a perfume encounter. The unstoppered bottle is an invitation, a provocation, a dare, the gaze of a beautiful stranger that playfully intimates, "Would you like to get to know me?"  

Saying "yes" to the unstoppered bottle reveals an interconnected web of memories that belong to everyone and no one, intimate remembrances that reside in a compartment of the collective unconscious particular to smell. Scent can trill resonance, discord or a sense of the uncharted and does so against the backdrop of personal identity; it achieves this more affectively than any other sense.

Many hands are joined in the effort of making a perfume, but the terroir of human creativity is generally overlooked. This aspect rarely plays in the foreground because the eye's capacity for "knowing" is limited to what can be seen and we live in an occularcentric culture. The unstoppered bottle releases the invisible which begs the question; what if it were possible to connect with the memories of those involved in the production of a perfume?             

















Would the memories belong to the flower pickers whose fingers are capable of reading the coolness of dawn in the slip of a petal? Fingers that know the perfect tension in the snap of a bud plucked from its stem at exactly the right moment? Maybe the memories belong to the distillers who gather the flower pickers' handiwork and are incidentally perfumed by the essences they labor to extract. 

Perhaps the memories in the unstoppered bottle belong to a less agrarian figure, a technician whose hands rest in the pockets of his lab coat after he's carefully weighed and measured the ingredients for a new perfume. He stands at the lab bench reviewing a formula written by la maître perfumeur who is in the habit of composing immediately after she dreams. The technician knows the rich persimmon ink that never bleeds through the pages of the mauveine notebook to which she commits her formulas. The flourish of her cursive inspires contemplation and the sense that one is viewing an autobiographical dossier.














It is the memories of la maître perfumeur that infuse the formula most. Using aroma she regularly transforms the linear notion of time by fashioning a galaxy orbited by timelessness. This is most evident in her classic compositions, many of which shook off their dust decades after they were launched and were not touched by poor reformulation when their bouquets were reborn. 

Each of la maître perfumeur's fragrances is marked by a floral signature free of the pantomimes of nature one finds in modern perfumes that are designed to appeal to the many under the guise of the impeccable taste of the few. To smell them is to know her most intimate memories without the benefit of words. It is in this intuitive milieu that timelessness abides and it's as real to the technician as the logic of precision that guides his hands as he works.

La maître perfumeur has her peccadillos, one of which is that she is occasionally discomforted by the use of mechanical automation that has become de rigueur at fragrance houses. When she looks at the glass-enclosed lab that contains the compounding robot la maître perfumeur utters a soft curse under her breath. The curse reaches the technician's ears as he adds the final drops of jasmine absolute to a formula that won't need modification. He considers the word merde, which means "shit" in French, but it only fertilizes his efforts at the lab bench as he is working with an indolic jasmine.













Memory has yet to leave the flower picker, the lab technician, the distiller and the perfumer, but the day will arrive when time dissolves a few of their remembrances. Some will be spared significant loss of identity while others will have their essence extracted like a fine perfume absolute. The onset of memory's departure is unsettling and yet a shadow of its sunset is key to transforming the unstoppered bottle into a memory maker. One must be open to the "new" while forgetting preconceptions forecast by the experienced, the indifferent and the jaded. Detaching from likes, dislikes and odious comparisons paves the path of personal truth and it is to this experience that every unstoppered bottle is dedicated.

So the next time you encounter the unstoppered bottle, consider whether you will be the same person you were before you opened it, or if you will become a truer rendition of yourself in the hands of collective memory. 

Notes:
The first graphic that accompanies this post is a composite of two works from Wellcome Images: The first is of an illustration of a white magnolia blossom (Magnolia altifima) and its seed pod which was photographed by Mark Catesby. The second is an image of a model eye made by W. and S. Jones in London (1840-1900). The editor made additional embellishments.

The second graphic is an illustration fro m Hieronymus Burnschwig's Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis (Strassburg, 1512). It depicts distillation.

Other images created by Michelle Krell Kydd. 

La maître perfumeur means "master perfumer".