Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Incense Project and Lessons from Peruvian Myrrh

Abundancia by Gerasimo Sosa Alache from Chulucanas,
Piura Region, in Peru. Image by David Stanley on Flickr.


I started The Incense Project during the March 2020 pandemic lockdown. Cataloging aromas of plant resins and related incense materials was something I'd always wanted to do, but the idea was quashed by work and everyday responsibilities. In the silence of the lockdown The Incense Project took on the quality of a seed specimen trapped inside a glassine envelope, yearning for air, soil, light and water. It spoke in the silence, when I could listen without distraction and respond without weighing how much time I could spare against meaningless "to do" lists. 

Transforming the silence of isolation into creative gestation requires intention when the world around you is falling apart. In retrospect the need to survive in a climate of fear, shock and immitigable grief (a climate that makes wearing perfume seem frivolous) was malleable. The pandemic made me take stock of my professional sensory evaluation training. Incense was and remains the mother of perfume. I needed to see what was in front of my nose and reevaluate what I was taught in the past while experiencing the emotional dislocation of the pandemic. I was neither teacher nor student. I crossed the threshold and approached The Incense Project as an autodidact with a tabula rasa mindset. 

The Aymara people of the Andes highlands have an interesting perspective when it comes to physical orientation of the past and the future. They see the past positioned in front of them and the future behind them. The framework for the Aymara concept of time revolves around the fact that the past is known because it was experienced, and you can't know something that hasn't occurred, which makes the future moot in the absence of prophecy and magic. The Aymara point of view is similar to the "present moment" consciousness of Buddhism, which is easier for Westerners to integrate versus a reverse concept of time based on physical orientation.

Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain, Cordillera de Vilcononta, Cusco, Peru.
Image by Federico Scarionati via Unsplash.
I considered the Aymara way of looking at time and wondered how it influenced personal and collective nostalgia in their culture. If the past is physically in front of the Aymara do they long to return to the past as Westerners do, or is the past better integrated in a well-rooted present? Contemplating this reminded me to avoid attachment to “good old days” thinking with respect to exploring incense resins infused with a rich past that includes elements of medicine, myth, magic, and religion. I used my nose to evaluate incense ingredients the same way I evaluate flavors and fragrances, which is the same way humans have smelled for centuries. I purchased materials from fair trade vendors with short supply chains out of respect for cultures that own these incense traditions. 

I couldn't transport myself into the locus of the past, but I could release the habit of smelling plant materials in solution on a perfume blotter for the first half of the The Incense Project, and interact with plant materials in their natural state that were ethically grown and harvested. Plant resins from Africa, Asia, India, the Middle East, as well as Central and South America, arrived by post every six weeks. I listened to plants tell their aromas stories on an incense heater and conducted research on their organoleptic properties after experiencing materials on their own and in simple combinations. 

Hymenea Coubaril resin from Mexico before and after use on
an incense heater. Burning incense on charcoal removes this
sensory aspect from the experience of incense appreciation.
Image © Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.
Incense resins smell better when you use temperature control versus burning them in a censor using charcoal. Combustion destroys delicate aromas and creates burnt odors, which interfere with appreciating a resin's character. This doesn't mean that everything you smell on an incense heater will be pleasant. That's dependent on the chemistry of the resin when it's heated. If you study Sumatra Benzoin (Styrax benzoin) on an incense heater you learn that it melts quickly and goes through a short acrid phase before releasing a warm, sweet, penetrating balsamic, vanilla-like odor. This is not true for Siam Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis), which also melts quickly, but retains a sweeter balsamic character and possesses more vanillic tenacity than Sumatra Benzoin (Styrax benzoin). This quality is noticeable in the spent resin, something you wouldn't know if you burned Siam Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis) on charcoal.

Consumers are familiar with commercially traded incense resins, which omits incense resins deemed less appealing and profitable. Commodification of incense materials used in perfumes and burned as incense changes the way we relate to incense bearing plants and the people who work the land where these plants grow. Ingredient stories are re-written by marketers, sublimating and negating native scent cultures, in addition to replacing fact with myth, fetish and taboo in the name of commerce. This is ironic, but not surprising when one considers the fact that colonialist patterns of co-opting cultures and resources in the name of "luxury" has been going on for centuries. How far back in time can we go to find genuine incense resin stories related to use and origin? The answer is as far back as scholarship across disciplines can take us along a chain of ancestral incense resin use.

If one delves into incense materials related to personal ancestry the idea of shared generational olfactory experience melts the fabric of time. This is especially poignant if your ancestors experienced conflict, persecution and oppression. Smelling incense is a lived experience that connects you to people in your family you've never met and some you'll never know by name. This is Proust's madeleine at an inhalable DNA level and it's why people from cultures with ancestral connections to incense materials are needed to pursue scholarship on the subject of incense. Add the fact that some of these plants can and will disappear and you have a compelling reason for generating knowledge via research.

Styrax weberbaueri resin aka Peruvian Myrrh
Image © Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.










                  Research is rooted in asking questions and relentlessly pursuing answers even if some of the questions don't yield any answers. Answers result in more questions and that's what makes inquiry interesting and addictive. Take Styrax weberbaueri and its commodified name; Peruvian Myrrh. Styrax weberbaueri is the same genus as Styrax benzoin and Styrax tonkinensis, but it's not a type of myrrh. You wouldn't know it from commodified language used on various online incense shops, which causes confusion. True myrrh is categorized in the Commiphora genus. So how did Peruvian Myrrh get its name? 

Fragrant gifts of frankincense and myrrh were given to the Christ child and are widely known by name. Perhaps Styrax weberbaueri is called Peruvian Myrrh because the name myrrh implies pre-Christian and post-Christian ritual use (the belief systems commingle in Peruvian culture, a quality described as syncretic). How do Peruvians use Styrax weberbaueri? Are there pictures of the plant and resin harvesting available? I haven't found answers to either question, but it doesn't mean the answers don't exist. Peruvian Myrrh (Styrax weberbaueri) hasn't been thoroughly researched and documented as a source of incense resin. 

Peruvian Myrrh is a type of styrax so if you've familiar with Styrax benzoin and Styrax tonkinensis anticipating vanilla aromas with a twist is a way to set expectations for what Styrax weberbaueri smells like on an incense heater. Or is it?  Warming resin on an incense heater allows you to smell your way through aroma development, much like ethanol supports the evaporation of top, middle and base notes on a perfume blotter over time. Top notes are fleeting, middle notes have a characteristic linger, and base notes persist over time. 

Engler, H.G.A. Pflantzenreich (1900-1968), Pflanzener.
It's possible to anticipate what Styrax weberbaueri smells like using all of our senses, which reflects a way of scientifically interacting with plants promoted by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe refers to this as utilizing "exact sensorial imagination." The color of Styrax weberbaueri resin nuggets varies, which indicates the potential for differences in smell (darker resins may have more or less intensity of odor than lighter ones). Some pieces of Peruvian Myrrh are a pale yellow while others are golden yellow, orange yellow and sand muted beige. The appearance of the resin's surface area varies and seems brittle where tiny open pockets once containing air appear. Peruvian Myrrh (Styrax weberbaueri) exhibits a variety of hues, which is also true of Commiphora myrrha from Somalia, and looks like myrrh when it becomes a toasty amber color on an incense heater.

Styrax weberbaueri resin feels light in the hand. Past experience with heating Styrax benzoin and Styrax tonkinensis resins suggested utilizing a setting of 180 degrees, which proved optimal. Peruvian Myrrh resin isn't prone to melting like its two relatives, so turning pieces over from time to time and moving them to different locations on the incense heater plate supported aroma development and balanced heat distribution. A pair of incense tongs that resemble elongated tweezers is used for this task, which resembles meditative cooking in miniature. 

Kouign-Amann by Stijn Nieuwendijk-CC-Via Flickr








Peruvian Myrrh is full of surprises as it's heated. A creamy milky coconut character (described as "lactonic" in the parlance of perfumers and flavorists) arrives after a fleeting fusty eau-de-souk aroma fades, and is followed by gourmand notes of vanilla, cinnamon and toasted coconut. If Proust were alive Peruvian Myrrh would be his incense resin of choice. The smell of it would bring him back from the dead and we'd have an eighth volume of In Search of Lost Time in our hands.

The cakey aroma of Peruvian Myrrh is transporting, especially when you split a heated resin nugget between your fingers and smell it (the Lilliputian pieces deliver a measure of scent that defies their size). Fresh brioche mingles with the scent of Kouign-amann, the beloved Breton pastry redolent of French butter and caramelized sugar. Styrax weberbaueri deserves to be as widely known and appreciated as it's botanical cousins in genus. It's a delicious mouthwatering shapeshifter. Just don't confuse it with true myrrh or eat it.

Notes & Curiosities:

Spent Boswellia rivae, a species of Frankincense. 
Image © Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.









I've evaluated over half a periodic table's worth of plant materials used in incense and perfumery (66 ingredients) since I began The Incense Project. The results inform three Smell & Tell classes I'm teaching at the University of Michigan this spring: Scenting Abrahamic Masculinities, Scriptural Scents and Rite Smells. The classes deliver multisensory experiences in virtual classroom environments.

Peruvian Myrrh (Styrax weberbaueri) used in The Incense Project was purchased from Apothecary's Garden shop on Etsy. It is native to Piura, Peru, which supports a vibrant arts community. Apothecary's Garden website is an informative resource on incense that’s worth exploring. Proprietor Dan Riegler is a respected, knowledgeable and ethical purveyor of incense materials and alchemistic maker of artisan products derived from them.

Styrax weberbaueri aka Peruvian Myrrh is named after Augusto Weberbauer (1871-1948) a German naturalist, botanist and university professor who explored Peru in search of new plant species. 

Siam Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis) is native to Southeast Asia via Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand). It shares organoleptic qualities with Sumatra Benzoin (Styrax benzoin), which is native to East Asia via Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. If you are interested in developing a vocabulary for smells to describe raw materials used in incense and perfumery you should learn more about Steffen Arctander and his book, Perfume Materials of Natural Origin. It's a dictionary of smells.

If you want to know more about using an incense heater watch Incense Dragon's YouTube video.

The word perfume is derived from per fumus in Latin, which means "through smoke". The etymology harkens back to perfumery's origins as incense. 

French publisher Gallimard has announced a new book of unseen work by Marcel Proust, Les Soixante-quinze feuillets (The Seventy-Five Pages). There's no news regarding if and when it will be published in English.

Native Americans in the United States and Indigenous peoples in Canada have compelling scent cultures inclusive of incense. Where do their stories live and what can these stories tell us about their ancestral scent traditions before colonialism? This is a subject of inquiry that deserves more attention. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Steffen Arctander: Fragrance Expert and Game Show Contestant



Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin by Steffen Arctander is the go-to source for flavor and fragrance descriptions related to natural materials. Arctander described his book as "a one-volume dictionary form of [a] practical handbook", but Arctander's book is more than that; it's a dictionary of smells that accounts for a posthumous cult following among perfumers, flavorists, chefs and fragrance fans. So who was Steffen Arctander?

Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin was written to address needs that weren't met by existing trade publications of its time. Arctander was uniquely qualified to write the book as he was an authority on perfume and flavor chemistry and travelled all over the globe in search of new scents and aromas. Steffen Arctander was a man of firsts. His accomplishments include teaching the first college course on perfume at Rutgers University in 1965. Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin was inspired by the needs of students studying perfume and flavor chemistry. Arctander articulates this in the book's preface:

During three years of lecturing at the University Extension Division, the author became aware of the fact that the perfumery and flavor literature does not include any work that describes the odor and flavor of the raw materials from nature in everyday words. There is no recent or up-to-date handbook of raw materials suggesting the use of the materials, the replacement of one material for another, the proportional strength of flavor materials, etc. Furthermore, there was no up-to-date work which gave any practical indication of availability and present world production of these materials. Export figures are obviously not always indicative of the true production. 

There's more to Steffen Arctander's history than admirers of Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin know. An article in the January 4, 1970 edition of The Central New Jersey Home News states; "At the start of WWII he [Steffen Arctander] joined the British Intelligence Service and did underground work while continuing to live a normal life during working hours. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, but escaped and continued his intelligence work until the German surrender." 

Roger Moore aka James Bond, 007












                            What kind of intelligence work did Steffen Arctander do? He was an instructor in high explosives and incendiary bombs for the British Intelligence Service. Steffen Arctander was a chemist, perfumer and man of intrigue on the right side of history. It's enough to make anyone read his dictionary of smells from cover to cover looking for clues related to Arctander's life off of the lab bench.

Anyone who worked in intelligence would be a natural fit for a secretive industry like flavors and fragrances. Arctander calls out the industry's hush-hush quality as fact in his book, "The perfume and flavor trade has been veiled and concealed for decades, if not for centuries." Perfume is a commodity subject to strict confidentiality. It still is, with one exception; the identity of perfumers is no longer hidden. This wasn't the case when Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin was written.

Today's fans of Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origins are familiar with Steffen Arctander's body of work, but there's little in the way of media that gives us a sense of who he was as a living breathing human being. I did a little research and came across something I did not expect to find. On June 22, 1964 Steffen Arctander was a contestant on a game show called To Tell the Truth. 

Arctander's appearance on To Tell the Truth was a surprising find, but it makes sense. His reputation in the industry was tied to stellar academic chops, so his appearance as a "perfume expert" wasn't a threat to industry confidentiality agreements. Steffen Arctander had the kind of cachet that gets a person invited to parties. It's easy to imagine someone inviting him to be a guest on a popular 1960s game show.

What did it take for Steffen Arctander to get "approval" from his employer to be on national television? Did producers of the show or one of the celebrity panelists know or hear about him? We may never know the answer to these questions, but we do know what questions were asked of Steffen Arctander on June 22, 1964 when he was a guest on To Tell the Truth








The formula for To Tell the Truth is simple. Four celebrity panelists interview three contestants, two of whom are imposters. The host of the show moderates a conversation between panelists and contestants so the person who isn't an imposter can be identified. Questions informed by the identity of the true contestant enliven the conversation. There are 16 questions in this episode, but only 15 were answered. The panelists were Orson Bean, Kitty Carlisle, Tom Poston and Phyllis Newman. 

Orson Bean asks: How many musk seeds would it take to make a jar of perfume? I mean, how do you crush those little things down? What do you do with them? Tell me about the citronella grass? Is that the same stuff you use to keep bugs away? Why does it suddenly smell good when you put it into perfume? Evening in Weinspar. That’s a perfume not too well known. Do you know which company makes it? 

Kitty Carlisle inquires: 
Where does Attar of Roses come from? Where does ambergris come from? Can you tell me what happens in Grasse, in France? Can you tell me what flower has never been approximated in a perfume? Can you tell me what kind of a fixative creates the longevity of a perfume? 

Tom Poston asks: What’s the origin of your name, Arctander? Is yours a United States Company? What is the largest...? [The query is cut as Poston is out of time.] 

Phyllis Newman probes: What is your company? What are some of the brand names it makes? Who makes L'Interdit? Do you want to plug anybody? [One of the contestants would rather not say due to ethical concerns, which prompts Newman's interrogation.] Why ethical? It’s something that’s sold, you know, over the counter.

Listening to To Tell the Truth contestants attempt to convince celebrity panelists that they're the real Steffen Arctander is theater for perfume lovers and fragrance trivia buffs. His appearance on a game show offers something his book does not: a sing-song Danish accent that colors his speech, a reserved manner with a penchant for precision, and mischievous micro expressions when he answers questions about perfumery that are definitely tells. 

Watching Steffen Arctander on a game show like To Tell the Truth is the closest fans of Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin will get to experiencing Arctander's humanity. Though his earthly journey ended in 1982, he continues to answer our questions every time we consult his dictionary of smells. It's an incredible legacy.

Research Notes

If you're an astrology aficionado you're probably not surprised to discover that Steffen Arctander, fragrance expert, man of intrigue and To Tell the Truth game show contestant was a Virgo (a man of nines, born in Denmark on September 9, 1919 who died in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 29, 1982). Virgo's characteristic qualities of curiosity, attention to detail, and keen powers of observation characterize his book. You can practically smell them. 

The official biography for Steffen Arctander as read by host Bob Collyer on To Tell the Truth reads:   

I, Steffen Arctander am an authority on perfume. My company supplies the basic essences to many of the great perfume houses both here and abroad. I travel all over the world in search of new scents and aromas. The musk seed from the West Indies, oakmoss from the Mediterranean, cognac oil from the Rhine and citronella grass from Indonesia. As a perfumer I can create a scent which will project a specific image whether it be sophisticated, innocent or mysterious. Next fall I will be teaching the only college course in the world on perfume. 

Steffen Arctander was working for International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) when he appeared on To Tell the Truth. His work history includes the Colgate-Palmolive Company and a successful independent consultancy.

Steffen Arctander's brother was a Danish architect Phillip Arctander (1916-1994) who is known for designing the Clam Chair (Muslingestol). Phillip was Director of the Danish Building Research Institute from 1968 to 1981 and worked with the United Nations on initiatives to support affordable housing.    

Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin is free to download in multiple formats on the Internet Archive. If you're a researcher conducting text searches on the book HathiTrust might be a better option, but you can't download the book in its entirety.

The orange To Tell the Truth GIF is designed by BuddyBoy600 on Deviant Art. It's fan art.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Love Potion No. 99: An Aphrodisiac Elixir for the Senses

Love potion. The very notion tastes like alchemy, dry ice and witchery. The concept of food as a talisman isn't new, but when it's attached to love there seems to be an unending string of incarnations.    

Every act of coupling has a unique quality and whether or not it is intended, the potential for creating new life is written into the physical expression of affection. In that tide of energy, identities are exchanged, traded and temporarily obliterated. 

Each person emerges slightly different, yet more themselves than they were before. How could one not try to pierce that mystery by engaging the sense of taste?

Say the phrase “love potion” to Chef Susan Baldassano and she recollects her days at Angelica Kitchen, where the staff and the patrons partook of a mysterious brew called Love Potion No. 99. 

The name pays tribute to aphrodisiac elixirs and brews with flavors shaped by warm spices, as well as fruits, herbs and spices with hints of aldehydic qualities. 

It isn't difficult to imagine perfumer Ernest Beaux taking a break from playing with aldehyde molecules while formulating Chanel No. 5, and partaking of Love Potion No. 99 when he was off the lab bench. 

The intention of the elixir has nothing to do with the scent of freshly scrubbed skin that inspired Chanel No. 5. It's a complementary contrast, which is as it should be. 

Ingredients
  • 6 cups apple or pomegranate juice 
  • 2 cups water 2 tablespoons sugar/honey 
  • 1 oz. (30g) rose petals (food grade) or 1-2 tsp rosewater 
  • 1 stick Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum vera)
  • ¼ oz. (7g) lavender blossoms (food grade) 
  • ¼ oz. (7g) whole nutmeg 
  • ¼ oz. (7g) whole Ceylon cloves  
  • ¼ oz. (7g) candied ginger 
Optional additions (highly recommended): 
  • 2 whole star anise 
  • ¼ tsp. orange peel 
  • ¼ vanilla bean or 1 tsp vanilla extract 
Instructions:
  • Simmer juice, water and sweetener. Do not boil as this will produce cloudiness. 
  • Put all herbs and spices in a cheesecloth and steep for seven minutes. 
  • Remove from heat. 
  • Strain liquid from the cheesecloth to extract the flavors. 
  • Serve warm or refrigerate. 
Notes: 
Chef Susan Baldassano, a graduate of the New York Institute for Culinary Education, has been a cooking instructor for over 30 years. She also served as Director of Education at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts, in New York City. 

Chanel No. 5 is famous for its sparkling aldehydic qualities. If you're a Chanel No. 5 fan you'll want to read these popular posts on Glass Petal Smoke:  Why Chanel No. 5 Smells like Babies, Perfume Memories: Chanel No. 5, and Smell & Tell Lectures: Three Years and Counting (2015) (this article includes a video presentation of a beloved Smell & Tell titled Chanel No. 5: The Art and Science of a Timeless Perfume)

Painting of Odalisque with an Orange by Angélique Bègue (2014).

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Use of Frankincense in Aesop's Fables


A handful of large frankincense tears from Oman by Michelle Krell Kydd 















Aesop was an ancient Greek slave and storyteller who lived between 620 and 560 BC, so it isn't surprising that frankincense appears in two of his fables; “The Crow and Mercury” and “The Mole and His Mother." Incense is deeply embedded in ancient Greek scent culture. It's the difference in how the aromatic resin is used in each of the fables attributed to Aesop that makes their inclusion interesting. 

In “The Crow and Mercury,” an ensnared crow prays to Apollo for help and promises to leave an offering of frankincense at the god’s shrine if he rescues him. The crow reneges on his promise after he’s freed, but soon finds himself ensnared a second time. 

A contemplative black crow by by Carl T. Bergstrom 
















 The bird makes the same petition, but this time he directs his prayer to the god Mercury, who responds by reminding the crow of the unfulfilled promise he made to Apollo, ensnaring the crow in his false promise. It’s a befitting touché:  
A crow caught in a snare prayed to Apollo to release him, making a vow to offer some frankincense at his shrine. But when rescued from his danger, he forgot his promise. Shortly afterwards, again caught in a snare, he passed by Apollo and made the same promise to offer frankincense to Mercury. Mercury soon appeared and said to him, “O thou most base fellow? How can I believe thee, who hast disowned and wronged thy former patron?“ 
“The Mole and His Mother,” like “The Crow and Mercury,” is informed by ancient Greek scent culture. In this fable frankincense is used as a smell test versus a religious offering. 

The hand/paw of a European mole by Didier Descouens













When a young mole “insists he can see though blind from birth” his mother tests his sense of smell (as opposed to vision). The young mole identifies a few grains of frankincense as a single pebble, proving he can neither see nor smell: 
A mole, a creature blind from birth, once said to his Mother: "I am sure than I can see, Mother!" In the desire to prove to him his mistake, his Mother placed before him a few grains of frankincense, and asked, "What is it?' The young Mole said, "It is a pebble." His Mother exclaimed: "My son, I am afraid that you are not only blind, but that you have lost your sense of smell." 
Each fable features a protagonist that lies. A desperate crow makes false promises to gain freedom from a snare—he does this twice. A young mole exaggerates his visual aptitude and inadvertently conflates his inability to see or smell. 

When “The Crow and Mercury” and “The Mole and His Mother” are considered together, we learn that the promise of frankincense attracts the divine and its aroma exposes the truth. Consider this the next time you hold a few pieces of frankincense in your hand before setting them down on incense charcoal or an electric incense heater. 

Notes & Curiosities: 
Apollonius of Tyana threw frankincense into a fire as an offering accompanied by this prayer: "O thou Sun, send me as far over the earth as is my pleasure and thine, and may I make the acquaintance of good men, but never hear anything of bad ones, nor they of me." Apollonius engages in libanomancy, a method of divination using incense smoke (text from Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus). Learn more about frankincense as it relates to ancient Greek religion on Hellenic Gods

Aesop’s Fables Online Collection includes a search engine that allows users to find content based on specific words, themes or terms. The list of Aesop's fables is alphabetically sorted (in four sections) which isn't the case on many sites focused on Aesop’s Fables. The site lists 655+ fables and is regularly updated. 

English translation of the two fables referenced in this article by Reverend George Fyler Townsend. 

Glass Petal Smoke highly recommends purchasing incense resins from Katlyn Breen of Mermade Magickal Arts and Dan Riegler of Apothecary's Garden. Both vendors sell quality incense materials and make their own aromatic products. 

Image of Frankincense (Boswellia sacra) from Dhofar by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved. 

Image of "Portrait of a Crow" by Carl T. Bergstrom via Flicker Creative Commons, some rights reserved. 

Image of a anterior leg - mole hand of a European mole (Talpa europaea) by Didier Descouens - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.