Friday, May 19, 2017

Archy Stillman and the Perfume of Commes des Garçons 2

When a human nose bends sinister there is more than reek to deal with. This is foreshadowed in an excerpt from A Double Barrelled Detective Story by Mark Twain. Five-year-old Archy Stillman's sense of smell is a superpower. Guided by his mother's counsel, he agrees to keep his talent a secret. The young man is on the receiving end of manipulation that has a foul air, but things aren't quite so black and white.
During his absence she had stepped to the bookcase, taken several books from the bottom shelf, opened each, passed her hand over a page, noting its number in her memory, then restored them to their places. Now she said:
"I have been doing something while you have been gone, Archy. Do you think you can find out what it was? 
The boy went to the bookcase and got out the books that had been touched, and opened them at pages which had been stroked. 
The mother took him in her lap and said, 
"I will answer your question now dear. I have found out that in one way you are quite different from other people. You can see in the dark, you can smell what other people cannot, you have the talents of a bloodhound. They are good an valuable things to have, but you must keep the matter a secret. If people found out, they would speak of you as an odd child, a strange child, and children would be disagreeable to you, and give you  nicknames. In this world one must be like everybody else if he doesn't want to provoke scorn or envy or jealousy. It is a great and fine distinction which has been born to you, and I am glad: but you will keep it a secret for mamma's sake, won't you?" 
The child promised without understanding.
A Double Barrelled Detective Story by Mark Twain

The sense of smell isn't good or bad on its own. How the nose is put to use determines how it will be judged. If this sounds like the beginning of a sermon you are hearing the echoes of an olfactory artifact whispering in your ear. The belief that the human sense of smell is inferior to that of animals was perpetuated by fear-based interpretations of religion and old science, each of which imposed a moral yardstick on the sense of smell.

A Double Barrelled Detective Story was written towards the end of the Victorian period and published in 1902. This period in England's history emphasized a refinement of the senses that traveled across the Atlantic to the United States accompanied by vestiges of Puritanism.

Nose-averse moralists believed that smells possessed one of two natures—good or evil. Scientists dismissed human olfactory prowess, emphasizing that the sense of smell became less important to humans when they abandoned their nose-to-the-ground ways and began walking upright. These former cultural norms encouraged keeping one's civilized nose to the grindstone above the olfactory business in which animal noses trade.

Physical uprightness is a metaphor for moralism as it devalues four-legged creatures that have no problem sticking their nose in anything as long as it satisfies their curiosity and leads to a desired outcome related to survival (food, a mate, devastation of a predator, etc.). A third reality exists in the duality of moral contrast, but it takes a really good nose to sniff out what an artist's eyes see quite clearly; black and white make gray and gray, though a combination of two colors, is a color in its own right.

Commes des Garçons 2 perfume was launched in 1999 and formulated for designer Rei Kawakubo by perfumer Mark Buxton. The fragrance—housed in a bottle with the number two drawn in a child-like hand—is inspired by Japanese Sumi ink used by temple monks in calligraphic painting. Sumi ink is made from the ashes of pine trees, mixed with binding agents (including aromatics) and molded into bars. The aesthetics of Sumi-e rely on capturing the "spirit of a thing" while painting it—whether the subject is real or imagined. This unseen element exists between complements and contrasts. It is the gray matter between darkness and light.

The candle version of Commes des Garçons 2 is an olfactory representation of the duality embedded in Archy Stillman's innocence and his superhuman sense of smell. Experience has yet to teach him that a gift, inborn or material, can be used against him. The reek of scheming cloaked as maternal concern is lost on him because the flame of the candle is his mother's love.

Archy Stillman's innocence floats above a circular pool of melting candle wax perfumed with white magnolia flowers and black Sumi ink. In his mind's eye Archy sees a temple monk forming the crescent of a watery moon with the tip of his paintbrush. The flower's fragrance masks the "spirit of a thing" that is beyond Archy's sense of smell—the colorless arc of duplicity that lives in the shadows.

This is the second in a series of posts about interesting literary passages with an olfactory twist. The first can be found here. Each post includes a recommended perfume and/or raw material for smelling that resonates with the text. Glass Petal Smoke recommends experiencing the fragrance while reading the text associated with it. Get your nose inside a book. The hashtag for these posts is #SmellLiterature.

Modern interpretations of the value of the sense of smell are shifting. Scientific studies continue to debunk myths that characterize the human sense of smell as inferior to that of animals. This isn't news to the gaming community where possessing an enhanced sense of smell is revered as a superpower. You may actually know what a dog's nose knows. You may also be able to smell like one according to a recent study led by Dr. John McGann of the McGann Lab, but you'll have to get over multiple meanings attached to the word "smell" and get your nose out of your armpit.

Ingredients that comprise the aroma of Commes des Garçons 2 perfume includeInk, Incense, Amber, Labdanum, Patchouli, Chinese Cedarwood, New Aldehydes, Cumin, Angelica Root, Vetiver, Cade Oil, Absolute Mate, Magnolia Flower and Leaf Absolute.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Snork Maiden and Ombre Rose Perfume

There's a wonderful passage in Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson that illustrates how descriptions of smells can draw us inside our imagination. This is interesting when one considers that much of what's been written about the transporting power of scent is related to the context of our own memories. 

Let's drop the Proustian madeleine for a moment. What happens when we smell something and forget ourselves? Wonderful things. Magical things. Things we don't want to admit to ourselves or show the world because we are too embarrassed to dream in front of others. Want to know more? Just ask Snork Maiden. 

The following passage is from the fourth chapter of Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson. It's about an adventure that Snork Maiden has when she sets foot on a floating theater with an adventurous family of gentle creatures called the Moomins: 
She went instead a bit further along the passage, sniffing the air. She had noticed an enticing and very interesting scent, a scent of face powder. The small round spot from her flashlight wandered along the walls and finally caught the magic word "Costumes" on a door. "Dresses" whispered the Snork Maiden to herself. "Frocks!" She turned the door handle and stepped in.  
"Oh how wonderful," she panted. "Oh how beautiful."  
Robes, dresses, frocks. They hung in endless rows, in hundreds, one beside the other all around the room—gleaming brocade, fluffy clouds of tulle and swansdown, flowery silk, night-black velvet with glittering spangles, everywhere like small, many colored blinker beacons. 
The Snork Maiden drew closer, overwhelmed. She fingered the dresses. She seized an armful of them and pressed them to her nose, to her heart. The frocks rustled and swished, they smelled of dust and old perfume, they buried her in rich softness. Suddenly the Snork Maiden released them all and stood on her head for a few minutes.  
"To calm myself," she whispered. I'll have to calm down a bit or else I'll burst with happiness. There's too many of them...
What would the world be like if we responded to beauty by standing on our head rather than seizing what beckoned us? It would be a very different world indeed. If we stood on our head and felt everything that Snork Maiden did what would that moment smell like? The moment would be redolent of Ombre Rose L'Original (1981) by Jean Charles Brousseau. 

Ombre Rose has an interesting history. Perfumer Francois Caron included a premixed fragrance base that was used to scent vintage face powder in the formula for Ombre Rose. Madam Caron did this to shape the perfume's olfactory character as this introduced a timeless quality associated with glamour that several generations could relate to. 

Author Barbara Herman elaborates on this effect in Yesterday's Perfume, "That re-used base was itself being self-reflexive: by reproducing the scent of face powder (rather than a flower or something "natural") it's commenting on its own status as a cosmetic, but also on itself as an aesthetic medium. It reflects; it doesn't merely reproduce." 

And to that I would add that like Snork Maiden, Ombre Rose stands on its head. It's perfumed with glamorous actresses of the past modeling the aspirations of a young girl who will one day be a woman. Smell it as you read the passage and you can simultaneously dream in the present, past and future for yourself. 

This is the first in a series of posts about interesting literary passages with an olfactory twist. Each post will include a recommended perfume and/or raw material for smelling that resonates with the text. Glass Petal Smoke recommends experiencing the fragrance while reading the text associated with it. Get your nose inside a book. The hashtag for these posts is #SmellLiterature.

Demeter, a fragrance company known for its library of smells, sells a representation of snow as perfume. It was inspired by a passage in Moominland Midwinter. Snow perfume was formulated by Christopher Brosius when he worked for Demeter. Brosius is an independent perfumer and continues to create interesting olfactory portraits at CB I Hate Perfume

The image of Snork Maiden is from Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson. The book is one of eight in the Moomin series. Jansson created the illustrations that accompany the stories in her books, which were written for children. There's a Wiki for all of the Moomin characters. Reading through the character descriptions makes it clear why Moomin stories aren't just for children. Character descriptions of Moomin characters on the official Moomin website are playful, informative and highly entertaining.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

Baking with Flavor: Spiced Pear Clafoutis Made with Kefir

Spiced Pear Clafoutis is a delicious French pastry that is charmingly rustic and easy to make. The classic version of clafoutis has a firm custard or flan-like texture that enrobes the fruit (typically firm summer cherries). In France the term flaugnarde is used to denote clafoutis made fruits other than cherries, but the designation isn’t strictly adhered to.

Glass Petal Smoke’s recipe for Spiced Pear Clafoutis was designed with flavor and good health in mind. It utilizes less fat and sugar than traditional clafoutis, favoring coconut sugar for the caramel nuance it imparts to the pastry. The combination of almond and vanilla extracts with dark rum is otherworldly—and you can smell it as the clafoutis bakes in the oven and the butter sizzles on the sides of the ceramic dish.

The amount of Penzeys Cake Spice used in the recipe for Spiced Pear Clafoutis is minimal and that’s deliberate. A teaspoon and a half adds just enough warmth to inspire perfect alchemy between the extracts and the rum. Reduced fat doesn’t mean reduced flavor if you combine complementary ingredients together. Penzeys Cake Spice contains China cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, allspice, ginger and cloves—flavors that marry well with vanilla, almond, pear and rum.

In baking, small adjustments for the purpose of creating flavor with less fat and sugar can tantalize taste buds. The beurre noisette (brown butter) crust that forms on Spiced Pear Clafoutis tastes like a financier when it breaks on the tongue—a flavor experience that is decadent and unexpected. This is accomplished with the addition of unblanched almond flour, organic wheat pastry flour and unsalted pasture butter.

Spiced Pear Clafoutis can be eaten for dessert or as a breakfast pastry. Feel free to add a touch of whipped cream or non-fat Greek yogurt and fresh fruit. If you wish to experiment with other flavors to make your own version of clafoutis use firm fruit and complementary flavor combinations of your choice. The possibilities are endlessly delicious.

Spiced Pear Clafoutis
(Serves 8)
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 
  • Combine pastry flour, cake spice, salt and almond flour in a large mixing bowl. Set aside. 
  • Mix kefir, vanilla extract, almond extract and dark rum in a separate bowl (or pourable measuring cup). Using a fork, stir ingredients until they’re well blended. 
  • In a separate bowl beat the eggs with a whisk. Add sugar and whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved. 
  • Add the kefir mixture to the egg mixture and whisk until thoroughly combined. 
  • Cut the pears into quarters, removing stems, seeds and blemishes (skin stays on). Roughly chop the fruit forming small rustic-shaped cubes. 
  • Add liquid ingredients to dry ingredients and combine using a large silicone spatula. 
  • Add pears and use the silicone spatula to fold the fruit into the batter, making sure that all the pieces are well coated. Set aside to rest for five minutes. 
  • Butter the pie dish. 
  • Pour the batter into the dish, using the silicone spatula to spread the batter evenly so the pears are evenly distributed in the plate. 
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick placed in the center is dry when removed. 
  • Allow the clafoutis to cool on a rack while it’s in the ceramic plate. Serve slightly warm or refrigerate.
Glass Petal Smoke recommends keeping a sealed two-cup jar of dark rum mixed with raisins in your refrigerator (enough dark rum to cover the raisins). The raisins will infuse the rum with flavor over time and you can use the infused rum in many pastry applications. You can use the raisins in Glass Petal Smoke's recipe for Rum Raisin Scones, which freeze well and are made with butter and heavy cream.

Invest in a 9-inch ceramic pie dish. It distributes heat evenly and you'll find many uses for it. Stick with lighter colors to avoid overbaking.

Specific brands are used in Glass Petal Smoke's recipe for Spiced Pear Clafoutis because they perform well. You can use other brands if you like, but Penzeys Spices is highly recommended. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Smell of Vintage Pantene Shampoo

The smell of vintage Pantene shampoo is as dear to me as the smell of old books. Although they smell nothing alike, the two stand side by side in my olfactory mind and are linked by a teenage memory.

It's a sunny day in the late 1970's and I'm walking down Fordham Road past the Thom McCann shoe store in my neighborhood. I'm about to cross the street to get to the Bronx Central Library on Bainbridge Avenue. I see my ex-best friend from childhood with her new best friend as they are leaving Nardi Hair Salon. They've just gotten their hair done and the light from the sun makes their long hair (brown and red, respectively) look like rivers of color undulating in the sun.

I would always tell the redhead that her hair was orange and wasn't truly red. (Anyone who ever owned a box of crayons would know that.) I avoided both girls on my way to the library because seeing their carefree post-coif stroll reminded me that my family had less money. (As an adult I was informed that the fathers of both girls dabbled in graft and cronyism so who knows who really "paid" for those haircuts.)

Nardi used salon versions of Pantene shampoo and conditioner that they advertised in their second floor window which included generic headshots of tony models donning the latest hairstyles. I remember seeing giant gallon containers of Pantene shampoo and conditioner sitting next to the hair washing stations at Nardi when I met a friend who worked there on weekends (she and I took on summer jobs as soon as we turned 13).

The smell of Pantene that was sold in gold-topped bottles at the drugstore in the 1970's was out of this world. A blend of heliotrope, creamy sandalwood and musk perfumed every strand of hair in a hedonic afterglow diffused by body heat.

The salon versions of shampoo and conditioner had the same prestige scent, but they were more aldehydic which was in step with smelling like an expensive French perfume. (Prestige hairsprays also benefitted from this type of well-executed functional perfumery, which mimicked classic perfumes.)* I don't know why I remember this, but when I think about the shampoos of my youth I can remember all of their smells.
*Functional perfumery can be more challenging than traditional perfumery as functional perfumers, who are chemists, have to manage naturally occurring odors in personal and household products. They are the unsung heroes of the art of perfumery.

In the late 1990's, after jumping on the all-in-one shampoo and conditioner bandwagon, the scent of Pantene took a fruity turn and smelled like a collection of headdresses worn by Carmen Miranda that had been curated for an exhibition in an overripe fruit museum. I hated Pantene for doing this and started buying shampoo sold in salons.

I enjoyed reflecting on those two undulating rivers of brown and red hair that were etched into memory. I wanted to resurrect that remembrance with my sense of smell. Last year I bought a bottle of Pantene Pro-V Overnight Miracle Repair Serum that is formulated to condition hair as you sleep. The hair remedy is packaged in a pump dispenser that cannot be sniffed like other items in the hair care aisle. (The most public smelling you'll ever see happens in the hair care aisle because hair care aisles are veritable smell museums.) This serum had an interesting side effect after I put it on my hair that evening. Once the product was absorbed it began to react with the heat generated by my head, which was resting on a pillow.

An olfactory bouquet of vintage Pantene bloomed and resurrected memories in the dark. It was a powerful sensation that felt like dreaming with my eyes open. The smell of vintage Pantene allowed me to witness the past in the present, and was perfumed by the fact that how I felt about what I was sensing belonged to me and no one else. Not even a Faded Glory and Frye boot-wearing mirage that chose to be friends with an orange-haired girl instead of me.

Many people crave the scent of vintage Pantene shampoo. A post titled "That Old Pantene Smell" and others like it echo this nostalgic sentiment. Rumor has it that Infusium 23 elicits a Pantene flashback that goes back to the Hoffman-LaRoche formula. Pantene was purchased by Proctor and Gamble in 1985.

Shampoos of note from my childhood include: Body on Tap, Castile shampoo, Breck, Earthborn, Egg Shampoo, Flex, Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, Johnson's Baby Shampoo, Lemon Up, Pantene and Prell. It's not uncommon for popular scents to reappear in the formulas of other brands decades later. If you are bent on the smell of nostalgic shampoos visit the Vermont Country Store. They are currently offering versions of Lemon Up and Egg Shampoo.

Human hair retains scent longer than skin retains the smell of perfume. This is due to the layers of overlapping cells that form the cuticle, and heat generated by the scalp.

Faded Glory was a brand of designer jeans that were popular in the 1970's.

The Bronx Central Library was located in a building designed by McKim, Mead and White (they designed Columbia University and Pennsylvania Station in New York City). The Georgian revival style of the two-story structure and the inclusion of a wing along the rear facade provided a haven for inquiring minds and book lovers of all ages. You could feel history as soon as you walked inside and smell knowledge wafting out of the pages of books. The building, which was known as the Bronx Central Library when I was growing up, is no longer open to the public as the library has been relocated and is now the Bronx Library Center. The historic structure has been unoccupied since 2005.

Image of Hair Collage by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.