Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Does Your Sense of Smell Mean to You?


















Many people feel self-conscious when it comes to talking about their sense of smell.  Though objectivity is highly valued in our culture the realm of the senses is subjective.  There are no wrong answers when it comes to personal sensory impressions; feelings and emotions count.  It's easy to understand this concept in principal, but until you experience it for yourself what you've just read is simply a notion.

Glass Petal Smoke has designed a sensory questionnaire to help readers get more comfortable talking about their sense of taste and smell.   It is posted on Scribd and can be uploaded by clicking here.  In the spirit of good fun (and fairness) I've answered the questions myself and have included them in this post.

The beauty of the exercise is that you can take it as far as you like.  Skim the surface of your sensory memories or dig deeply.  Take the questionnaire alone or share it with a friend.   Whatever you choose the result of taking the sensory questionnaire provides an interesting perk; you inevitably discover more about yourself. 

Sensory Questionnaire Results for Michelle Krell Kydd, Editor of Glass Petal Smoke

1.  What does your sense of smell mean to you?
I consciously catalog scents wherever I am; walking to work, inside the Metro North rail car, in supermarket aisles, restaurants, elevators, gardens and libraries.  There is never a moment when I'm not aware of the smells in my environment.  My senses are always full-on. When I cook, I have a habit of using my nose to evaluate whether or not a dish has balanced flavors as opposed to relying on exact weights and measures.  My sense of smell tells me more about things I can't reckon through vision.  That's key for me.  I don’t favor vision over my sense of smell; they are equally important to me and closely linked with an abiding passion for food and fragrance.  The eyes can lie, but the nose never does.

2.  What are some of your strongest scent memories?
My strongest scent memories are connected to pivotal life events or moments when I was totally immersed in something without distraction.  Kindergarten is a smell to me, a mixture of finger paint, glue paste, grape juice and the generic smell of a school lunch room. The scents I’ve encountered while lake fishing resonate deeply.  The clean smell of freshly caught fish, the smell of minnows swimming in a metal bait pail, the smell of lake water, the aroma of wet earth mingled with aquatic lake life, and the scent of sun-warmed rocks on the shoreline; all of this is deeply ingrained in my memory.

My father was a weekend fisherman and developed a recipe for bait that was a magnet for carp.  It was a mixture of cornmeal, water and vanilla extract.  He would cook the cornmeal down until it had a texture like an al dente polenta and could be molded by hand on a fish hook.  The cornmeal bait smelled amazing when he was whipping it up in the kitchen.  My mother would scold him when he used the “good vanilla” so he took to using vanillin powder, which is much stronger.  That tweak made the bait more potent as a lure and there was more work for my mother in the kitchen as a result.

3.   What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking &/or your environment)?
I love flowers, particularly the narcotic scent of freshly cut tuberose flowers.  Tuberose, like many heady white flowers, gives off more scent at night.  Night pollinators decipher the olfactive code and can be seen flitting around the flowers in the evening.  This is a good example of nature as a metaphor for the effects of wearing perfume.

Pipe tobacco also intrigues my nose; it is a kind of incense to me. When I was a child my pediatrician smoked a pipe at his desk.  The tobacco had a sweet cherry vanilla aroma that was gentle and syrupy.  The doctor was a friendly fellow and the aroma of his pipe added an element of intrigue to his “healer” persona; just like his stethoscope.

Vetiver, a type of aromatic grass, has an intense affect on me.  It is as if I was wired to detect it and it was configured to render me powerless to its charm.  If a man is wearing Vetiver by Guerlain I will smell him instantly and feel the need to ferret him out of a crowd. When I was dating my husband he accidentally spilled some of the eau de toilette on his carpet before I arrived for dinner.  The carpet was next to a radiator so the fragrance inadvertently perfumed the living room.  I had to gather my wits about me when I walked into the apartment because I didn’t want him to know I had a weakness for vetiver.

Kalijira rice is a miniature basmati rise that has an extraordinary perfume.  Prior to cooking, it emits notes of bran, popped corn and blond wood, qualities that are common to its basmati cousin. When the kalijira grains begin to cook creamy aromas of coconut, jasmine and sweet grass fill the entire house with a compelling fragrance that can last up to half a day.  If I am ever asked to give an example of “food as perfume” kalijira always comes to mind.

4.  Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?
I love the smell of phosphorus when a match is struck and the smell of burning wood that you get when the flame winds its way down a match stick.  I also enjoy the smell of roll caps used in toy guns after they've been ignited.  They smell like matches mixed with a metallic burnt paper odor.  The smell of a burning fireplace is also quite lovely.  I enjoy the way the aroma of a fireplace perfumes your hair and your clothes; it is a way to wear fire without getting burned.

5.  Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
The smell of sofrito intoxicates my senses.  Sofrito is a Spanish mirepoix of garlic, peppers and culantro (an herb similar to cilantro), olive oil and other ingredients based on the Latin culture it is inspired by.  It transforms whatever it touches with a savory quality that tastes delicious.  Sofrito recipes are highly guarded secrets in Spanish cooking, similar to family recipes for tomato sauces in Italian culture.  Because sofrito can be used as a base in so many dishes it becomes the signature of the cook.  The parallel with perfumery is amazing.  There are some perfumers whose work has a distinctive style that can be smelled immediately; just like cooking.

6.  What smells do you most dislike?
I have disdain for cloying volatile odors and the smell of decay. Gasoline, lawn fertilizer, sardines, and pungent cheeses immediately come to mind.  The Canal Street subway station in New York City has the rankest odor I have ever encountered, especially during the summer months.  Olfactively speaking, it is an architectural durian; a mixture of urine, decaying fish, vomit and fecal matter.

7.  What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?
I never liked the smell or taste of cumin, especially when it is highly pronounced in a dish. It smelled dirty and sweaty to me.  As I cooked more Indian food at home I learned to appreciate spice mixtures that utilize the spice and fell in love with Kala Masala, which utilizes intense spices like black cumin and black cardamom.  I finally woke up to cumin after I spent a week in perfumery school at Givaudan.  I was given a blotter dipped in diluted essential oil of cumin to smell and could detect a refreshing anise-like quality that was addictive and cooling, a quality in cumin I never noticed before.  I distracted myself from my surroundings by repeatedly bringing the blotter to my nose and had to make a conscious decision to stop smelling.  It was as if I was hypnotized by cumin.  I used to despise cumin, but I love it now.  Funny how it can be that way with people too; you can learn to love the difficult ones.

8.  What mundane smells inspire you?
Petrichor is a word for the fluid flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.  It is also the word for the smell of rain on dry earth, which I adore.  I live near the historic Old Croton Aqueduct and take walks there regularly.  I consciously key into the way the dirt feels under my feet and enjoy the variety of soft, moist and unyielding textures.  There is this moment, just before the rain falls, when you can smell something changing in the air.  The dirt on the Old Croton Aqueduct path is usually dry because the path is embraced by tall trees. When raindrops start to fall you smell earth and water as two distinct entities because they haven’t had a chance to mingle. I love that smell and the alchemical moment that exists before the two disparate elements combine.

I'm in love with the smell of Pierepont Morgan’s Library in the East Room of the Morgan Library.  So many scents mingle there.  The aroma of leather-bound books with yellowed paper, the scent of antique wood bookshelves and furniture, the dusty dry lanolin smell of old wool carpets; all of these mix together with the olfactive quality of heaviness that a room with little sunlight possesses.  Mr. Morgan’s study has a perfume that is typical of antique libraries and a touch of something that is unique to the architecture of the room.  I haven't returned to the library since the McKim building was renovated.  I'm afraid that the smell of the library will have changed and don't want to replace my memory of it with something new. 

9.  What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
The smell of oven roasted chicken lingering in the hallway of an apartment building reminds me of my childhood.  Each floor in an apartment building has its own olfactive personality at dinner time.  It is a kind of enchantment, a time when the scent of various cultures begins to mingle, something that is uniquely American.  My mother was a stay-at-home-mom and dinner was an extension of her desire to nurture the family.  She seasoned chicken with two simple ingredients: Sweet Hungarian paprika and garlic salt. When the chicken was done roasting the spices would lilt above the aroma of crisped chicken skin.  That smell is ingrained in my memory.  The fact that the aromatic experience can be resurrected by cooking makes it transcendent.

10.  What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?
Before my father went to work, he would come into the room where my sister and I slept and give each of us a kiss.  He was a loyal user of Vitalis®, a hair tonic that was popular in the 60's and 70’s.  Some of it would linger in the room after he left and it was his little gift to us. Vitalis® has a fresh, masculine smell, a bit like an eau de cologne with a pleasant oiliness that magnifies the clean scent of human hair. I would often pretend to be asleep when he came into the room because I could smell him more with my eyes closed; I was a budding smellist then.

My father worked in the garment district and when he came home he brought the smell of the leather shop with him; it perfumed his clothes, his skin and his hair.  Leather was my father’s second skin and it greeted  my sister and me when we welcomed him home with hugs.  It's why I love the vintage formulation of Cuir de Russie by Chanel.  The leatheric aspect of the perfume—which is tannic, smoky, and sharp—is enveloped in florals.  This gives the leather an impression of sweetness, a quality that my father was known for throughout his life.

11.  What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?
The scents that remind me of home are associated with housekeeping, beauty products and cooking. There are functional smells from my childhood, like Lemon Pledge® Furniture Polish, Joy® Dish Detergent, Adorn® Hairspray, Ponds® Cold Cream, Jergen’s® Hand Lotion, Cashmere Bouquet® Soap, Bain de Soleil® Orange Gelee and ChapStick® Lip Balm.  Then there are foods that remind me of childhood, like the savory smell of onions caramelizing in a pan, the scent of percolating coffee and the proverbial aroma of an American breakfast; complete with buttered toast, eggs-over-easy and bacon. Butter was the honey of my childhood.  I put it on everything, even peanut butter sandwiches.

The smell of mimeographs also reminds me of growing up.  Mimeographs preceded today’s copier machines and paper copies made in this fashion had a trace of solvent on them that smelled like violets.  When teachers passed out mimeographs kids would often hold them up to their noses and smell them.  It's a classic baby boomer memory.

12.  What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
The smell of grass reminds me of family trips to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.  The grass was always covered with dew in the morning and had a distinctive smell that was sweeter than freshly cut grass. The green blades would squeak under my feet and were slightly slippery, leaving chlorophyll marks on my canvas sneakers.

I visited Cape Cod for the first time last year and have a distinct fragrance memory from that trip.  It is the scent of sea grass mingling with the clean briny smell of the ocean in North Truro. The smell of sea grass is fresh, verdant, salty and a bit hay-like.  I remember walking in the dunes and the way the aromas of the landscape would mingle there.  That smell is tattooed in my mind.

13.  Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.
 “[this] is amchur. Made from black salt and mangoes dried and pounded, to heal the taste buds, to bring back love of  life.”       -- The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (p.72)
In the early days of the spice trade properties of health and magic were ascribed to spices.  This was largely due to the fact that spices were used as medicine and many were cultivated in exotic lands with polytheistic cultures.  In The Mistress of Spices, author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni gives voice to the healing power of spices in the hands of a kindly sorceress who is disguised as a spice shop keeper.  Tilo tends to the psychic and physical wounds of her customers under the guise of selling ingredients for cooking.

There is something magical about the notion of ingesting something that has the ability to both heal and transform us.  Whether we realize it or not, every single one of us needs this kind of experience in order to transcend the parts of ourselves that are ego-driven and attached to material things.  It's an archetypal need.  At its core The Mistress of Spices emphasizes the the power of affecting another's well-being through intention.  That's a magical concept, whether you're standing over a hot stove or not.

Update:
Several bloggers have taken the Glass Petal Smoke "Sensory Questionnaire" and posted their responses online. A big thanks to everyone who has participated (and those who have promised to let me know when they've posted in the future so I can add their link).
Yesterday's Perfume
Scentless Sensibilities
The French Exit
Scentsate
Redolent of Spices
Shimmu
Scent of the Day
Eau MG
Scent You Say
Olenska Parfumieren
Eyeliner on a Cat
Olfactaria's Travels
Scratch and Sniff Events
Personal Odour
Caput Mundi Cibus 
Plume Perfume