Saturday, April 30, 2011

National Sense of Smell Day: A Time to Reflect

Today is National Sense of Smell Day. It was established in 1993 by The Sense of Smell Institute, the educational arm of The Fragrance Foundation. Though efforts on the part of both nonprofit institutions to promote National Sense of Smell Day have dwindled, interest in the subject of olfaction has grown. A large part of this is due to the link between flavor and fragrance which makes the sense of smell more tangible. Say the word “smell” and noses turn away. Say the word “aroma” and suddenly you have everyone’s attention. There’s another reason why the sense of smell is beginning to resonate in the culture; people are losing it.

Anosmia is the loss of the sense of smell. It collaborates with tongue cancer as a protagonist In Grant Achatz’ memoir “A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat.” Anosmia visits writer Molly Birnbaum who was preparing for classes at The Culinary Institute of America when she was injured in an automobile accident that affected her sense of smell. “Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way” tells the story of Birnbaum’s encounter with anosmia and her efforts to regain her sense of smell (which included an immersion in the perfume arts). Gardener Bonnie Blodgett used Zicam® Nasal Gel and soon found herself with a case of anosmia, (the product was removed from store shelves after a warning issued by the FDA in 2009). Ms. Blodgett shares her odyssey in “Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing – and Discovering – the Primal Sense.”

Anosmia is linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and is thought to be an early indicator of both degenerative diseases. This fact pushes anosmia into the spotlight. Still, there is something taboo about the sense of smell. Let’s face it, everything that falls under our nose isn't pleasant. Imagine if you never had a sense of smell. Would you feel like you lost anything? In an upcoming post  Glass Petal Smoke will interview a woman who was born with anosmia. What you find out will change the way you think about the sense of smell. 

Further Reading/Notes:

Anosmia from the point of view of The Moody Blues' Justin Hayward. The musician talks about his bout of temporary anosmia, caused by sinus problems. From the Wimbledon Clinic.

Anosmia on Wikipedia (includes a list of causes).

National Sense of Smell Day is celebrated on the last Saturday of April every calendar year.  

Photo of researcher Florence Negre smelling snapdragons in the Purdue greenhouse by Tom Campbell of Purdue Agricultural Communications.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Inside the Olfactory Mind of Trygve Harris

Trygve Harris is the owner of Enfleurage, a haven for natural perfumers and fragrance enthusiasts. The store specializes in essential oils, frankincense, agarwood (oudh) and aromatic materials from around the world. Ms. Harris divides her time between New York City and a home in Salalah, Oman. She travels frequently, visiting suppliers in locations where ingredients are cultivated, harvested and distilled.

1.  What does your sense of smell mean to you?
It means so much that I don’t really think about it. It’s a way of perceiving the world and adds dimension, texture, resonance and meaning in the same way that sound and vision do. It’s part of the tapestry of perception. If I try to imagine existing without my sense of smell, the world would appear flat, colorless, uninspired and not at all interesting. It would be like television which doesn’t engage me at all. Without a sense of smell I imagine life to be more watched than lived.

2.  What are some of your strongest scent memories?

The best one is that smell you get in the San Fernando Valley in the late afternoon and early evening, with the sprinklers on everywhere and the water evaporating on the driveways. I just love that and I rarely get to smell it now. It even had a little audio soundtrack; the tick-tick-tick of the sprinklers.

Gasoline, of course, and junkyards! I loved those. There were a bunch of really cool giant junkyards in southern Los Angeles County that we’d drive past whenever we went somewhere, with crushed cars by the hundreds. You could smell the fierceness and violence of all those destroyed automobiles and there was an undertone of oil refinery that accompanied it. I can’t remember where the refinery was except that it was near the junkyards.

When I was very young we had a house in Palm Springs, in the Movie Colony, where we would go on weekends. The way it smelled when we arrived was unforgettable: the dry crisp desert air, the oleanders, the baked clay and stone outside, the breath-holding expectation and stuffiness of the house, the way the shag carpet and rice paper doors were impregnated with something of the recesses of earth, the huge beetles that swarmed out of the drains when you opened the taps, and the metallic smell of the water. All of these sensations combined could be described as the smell of the California desert.

When I was growing up my mother wore Chanel N°5 but that’s strange for me because what I see today on the duty free shelf is not the Chanel N°5 I remember. My father always wore wonderful cologne but I have no idea what it was named. I also recall the smell of cigarettes because both of my parents smoked Camel® non-filters. There are some cooking smells: sopa de fideo, marinara sauce, Bertolli® olive oil, garlic and tomatoes.

Oh, and brush fires. It must have been 1968 or so and the whole San Fernando Valley was burning. It was the Chatsworth Fire. There was so much smoke it was hard to breathe and you could see flames in every direction tearing up the hills. You could hear the roar and smell chaparral, eucalyptus, sage and whole hills erupting. Then there’s Agree® shampoo. The first guy I lost my mind over used it. That formula is being used by another company today, and I don’t know which company or what it’s used in, but it’s sold in Salalah. Occasionally I get a whiff and nearly give myself whiplash. 

3.  What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking &/or your environment)?

Mysore sandalwood has no peer in this world; glorious. My house! I love the way my house smells! I burn a lot of a bakhoor, Oudh Mubakhar from Ajmal, as well as agarwood (oudh) and frankincense; that’s an ever-present undertone that has seeped into the porous material of my house. I really love the smells of the structure itself, particularly of my home in Salalah. I can’t tell you what it is exactly, other than the way my house smells and I don’t want to know, actually. It might be something I’m better off not knowing.

I love the way fires smell in the fall. Even in Salalah, which really has no fall, you can still smell these lovely wood fires. I love flowers, of course: acacia, jasmine, tuberose, quisqualis, citrus blossoms and roses (those crazy powdery red ones in Salalah). While I love the smells of the tropics in general, wet and heavily loaded, I am excited and thrilled by drier places: clean desert air and sand, sagebrush and chaparral, wild mountain herbs and valleys, the Santa Ana winds, the Salalah winter wind. I also love how it smells when someone I love is cooking for me; never mind what they’re cooking. A large part of what I love is how an intention smells. There’s also the impression that smells make. The sea smells like calm. (I love the smell of the sea and am partial to the Pacific and Indian Ocean.) Then there is the smell of home; home smells like everything’s going to be all right.

4.  Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?

I like the smell of gasoline and used to think that was strange, but many people like it. I like the smell of the steam that comes out of manhole covers in New York City. It’s stronger in the summer, and it probably smells like crap, but I love it. I also like the way the Doha Airport smells. Many people would consider my love of oudh strange. Let’s face it: its animal, sex, shit and a whole host of unnamed emotions right up in your face. I assume that most people hate it, unless they're aroma geeks or Arabs. That's the big bonus of living in the Middle East—everyone loves oudh.

5.  Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.

Vanilla! Although I am not a baker, it’s exciting for me to smell it; it’s warm and cozy yet has some kind of erotic promise. It has a kind of central bloom and generates a living heat. It’s soft and very nurturing. There is much I don’t understand about vanilla and I am ready to find out more about it. Coffee, of course, a smell so intractable that a day without it beckons cold, gray and bleak. I can remember all the days of my life when coffee did not materialize.

6.  What smells do you most dislike?

It’s a horrible thing to think about! Decay is what I most dislike. Between 1996 and 1997 my old Jones Street store in New York City was situated in a building with a terrible rat problem. Even though the store was sealed and we didn’t get rats inside, they died everywhere: in the hallways, in the basement, in front of the store, on the steps—everywhere. The superintendent didn’t clean up the mess until the carcasses were in an advanced state of decay. As a result, I am better versed in death smells than I want to be. I can tell how long rats have been dead and how the smell changes when they start to liquefy in the summer heat. I used to patrol the outside of the store with a super-sized spray bottle of water and peppermint oil, and ambush the (living) rats with it. I am hyper-attuned to death smells and will catch the tiniest whiff of them as I walk through any city and am usually the first (and sometimes only one) to notice them. Fermenting garbage, like the kind you find in New York or Mumbai, has this decay smell too.

I also dislike the smell of processed food like McDonald’s®. Getting into the elevator with someone who has a bag of that makes me gag; it’s hideous. Processed cheese, old frying oil, margarine, there are bunch of chemicals that go into corporate food and if you can’t smell them as you’re eating them, you can sure smell them coming out of your pores later. When I was a kid I loved McDonald’s® and Doritos® and all that stuff as much as the next kid, but I think that my body just rebelled on an organic level. Processed food doesn’t smell like food, it smells ugly. It smells like chaos.

The way the World Trade Center smelled as it burned was horrible: unknowable plastics, molten steel and barbecued flesh. There was an acridity that wove in and out of the already hideous mix of melting things you were never supposed to smell burning, and then the burnt flesh poked through every so often, making its point again and again. The visuals went along with it; little green fires, melted building faces, a shower of unknown lethal flakes—everything.

7.  What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?

It was the smell of my dojang. When I first started martial arts I can’t say that I hated the smell of my school, but it was a little strong. It smelled like a gym; something I despise the smell of. It quickly became a smell of home, escape and serenity. Even the locker room was wonderful, although it was rarely cleaned and the showers were moldy and some people just left their uniforms there for weeks. When I entered that front door it was like sinking into a bed of bliss. Objectively speaking, I knew from the reaction of my friends (who I would force to come and visit) that the smell there never actually improved.

8.  What mundane smells inspire you?

Cedar as in cedar pencils; there’s a quick flash of wanting to start something fresh. The aroma of coffee inspires me too, though there is nothing mundane about that smell. Citrus blossoms awaken my senses, but they don’t motivate me in the direction of starting a project or working, they affect me in a more languid and sensual way.

9.  What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?

I love the way horses smell. Even though I grew up in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, both of those neighborhoods had horses. I had my own horse for some time when I was 10 or so. I always think of him and the time we spent ambling in the foothills whenever I smell horses. We were both babies then so our relationship was rather stormy, but we lived though it and enjoyed our times together, at least I know I did.

10.  What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?

That’s interesting to think about. I started out digging through my familial past, but that’s not the only place to find memories of loved ones. I’ll take “loved ones” in another sense. Everyone has their own scent, as we all know. Even though I think many, if not most people are driven by this, my entire love life has been run by my sense of smell. It’s not only chemistry. I have known a few men whose smell was enough to make me behave in ways I still can’t believe. So, if I get a whiff of something like that smell, something similar, then it’s like a whole china cabinet has crashed on my head.

Those smells are beyond explanation. They are the ones you just react to, the ones that make your hair stand on end, and get your heart racing and your blood rushing like thunder. Those are the smells you can’t even talk about, but they are terrifying and addictive and delicious and you can take a bath in them. Smells like this feel like plugging yourself into a live socket. When they disappear from your life it’s like someone has taken away your bones; you have nothing to stand with, no support and are missing something integral.

11.  What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?

A whole stream of things; chlorine, swimming pools in the sun, water splashing out on the hot pavement, Camel® cigarette smoke, instant coffee, fried potatoes in the morning, gasoline, my mother’s skin, cut grass, Primo® Incense, davana flower, lotus flower, Indian perfume oils you find in head shops, pot, cinnamon toast and Chanel N°5 from Paris.

12.  What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
The scent of pikake and tuberose flowers, night blooming jasmine, the Pacific Ocean, and humid Hawaiian breezes with indecipherable sweet floral aromas racing through them are all reminiscent of vacation. My family visited Hawaii a few times when I was a kid. Later, I went to school on the Big Island for a short time. That’s where these olfactory memories come from.

My father’s best friend was a French sports writer and we visited him at his farmhouse in Moissac, in the south of France. The hotel where we stayed (an old mill) made excellent croissants and hot chocolate in the mornings. The dry fields of late summer, ripe plums and roasting lamb. Everything was so fresh, so tempting, so sensual and so heady: the landscape, the roasting lamb, the salads, the olives and the vinegar; the smells wafting through the farmhouse “Fabel,” the smell of the river Tarn which ran past the hotel—all of it.

We went to Las Vegas quite a bit as my father worked there often. Remember, these were the days when Las Vegas was not a “family” or “shopping” destination. In the late 60’s and 70’s it was still a gambling and entertainment destination for adults. We weren’t even allowed in the casinos except to pass though. It was the Circus Circus for us! I remember the smell of stale cigarettes, coins and spilled drinks in the casinos. In fact, the casino cocktail of smells is actually one of my favorites. It smells like a mixture of anticipation, hope and disappointment for sure. It’s so intense! The blip-blop-ping of sirens and bells and the little flashing lights added a great sub-soundtrack to the experience.

13.  Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.

That would have to be Thousand Nights and One Night. In 1989 I bought the 4-volume set of the Mardrus and Mathers translation in Cairo. It’s the only book of its kind I’ve ever come across. I suspect that has a lot to do with my attraction to the Middle East. You would not believe the utter delicious decadence and lascivious sensuality, a complete merging of sexual delights, exquisite perfumes, delicious foods, labyrinthine deceit, Byzantine plotting, true love, thrilling adventures—and it  never lets up! Each story is a sumptuous feast that excites and delights every desire you never knew you had. These are not the pale and simple versions of Scheherazade, Sinbad, Aladdin, Harun al-Rashid and Ali Baba we are familiar with; they are huge and brilliant. It is totally worth seeking out.

Enfleurage is located at 237 West 13th Street,  New York, New York 10011. To call the store phone: 212-691-1610 / 888-387-0300. Enfleurage is open from 12-8, Monday thru Saturday and 12-6 on Sunday.

Fans of Agree® Shampoo had a Facebook page titled "Remembering Agree® Shampoo from the 1980's: We Want it Back!"  Its not uncommon to find this kind of passion when it comes to the sense of smell.

Photo Credits:
Photo of Trygve Harris and a marigold wallah among the flowers. Rights reserved by Trygve Harris. Used with permission.

Photo of crushed cars by Chris Jordan. Licensed under Creative Commons. Some rights reserved. Please visit his website; the images are powerful.

Photo of white oleander bud by Joaquim Alves Gaspar. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Photo of Audrey Tatou asleep in a train car with the shadow of Chanel N°5 on the wall by Chanel.

Photo of brush fire from the Los Angeles Fire Department's Brush Clearance Unit.  

Photo of Moroccan incense bowl by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.

Photo of coffee beans by Mark Sweep. Public Domain. Creative Commons.

Photo of steaming manhole cover by Lisa Lubin. Licensed under Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Photo of Oman Desert Rose (OAenium obesum) by Ross Hayden. All rights reserved.

Photo of dead rat by Box Chain. Licensed under Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Photo at the World Trade Center on 9/11 by U.S. Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Preston Keres. Public domain.

Photo of dojang by Scott Feldstein. Licensed under Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Photo of orange blossom by Ellen Levy Finch. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Cedar pencil form Pencil Revolution (one of the coolest pencil blogs on the web!).

Photo of horses from the U.S. Government. Public domain.

Photo of cinnamon toast from Little House in the Suburbs, copyright Deanna Caswell. Her blog post is charming and memorable.

Photo of home fries from The French Fry Diaries.  Some rights reserved.

Photo of night blooming jasmine by Asit K. Ghosh. Licenced under Creative Commons.

Photo of Gorges du Tarn by Benh Lieu Song. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Photo of Circus Circus Hotel Casino by D. Sharon Pruitt. Some rights reserved.

Photo of Scheherazade Arabian Nights by Kay Nielsen. Public domain. More of this artists beautiful images are available for viewing on Artsy Craftsy.