Thursday, August 23, 2012

Smell & Tell: Olfactory Writing Workshops

The neon sign at Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches in Ann Arbor, Michigan invites quizzical stares and laughter, but it gets to the point. Nothing seduces appetite like the aroma of food. It doesn't matter if you aren't hungry. The monkey mind will hone in on the smell of food until it finds the source. That is why appetite is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Though she realized her fragrant calling in Berkeley, California, perfumer Mandy Aftel attended the University of Michigan and has roots in Ann Arbor. The city has the flavor of Europe, the intellectual horsepower of an Ivy League community and an honest Midwestern spirit that is reflected in hyperactive volunteering and a boundless local food movement as intense as California's (the state of Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country). A pattern was forming in my mind as I connected the dots. The idea of olfactory writing workshops began to gestate. It was obvious that Ann Arbor was hip to smell.

Having read the olfactory signs I decided to conduct two "Smell and Tell Olfactory Workshops". One was designed for students at 826Michigan. The other was created for adults who frequent events at the Ann Arbor District Library. Selling the concept of smell is not an easy task, but when you are in a curious college community the barriers are nearly non-existent because those who choose to live here are, for the most part, on a lifelong learning path. When librarian Erin Helmrich* related anosmia stories in our first conversation I knew Ann Arbor wasn't your average college town. Loss of the sense of smell is an invisible disability that is rarely acknowledged.

Both "Smell and Tell" workshops involved smelling a variety of raw materials and writing about the sensations that the aromas evoked. Attendees utilized "smell mapping" as a way to access words that described their experience (a technique I developed to help people translate feelings and memories evoked by the sense of smell into words and phrases). What transpired was unique for each individual as the sense of smell is autobiographical and therefore not subject to judgement regarding what is right or wrong.

Angeline smelled orange, lemon, vanilla, cinnamon, peppermint, and lavender on perfume blotters before selecting an aroma for the writing exercise at the 826Michigan Smell and Tell. What she had to say about lemon is a lesson in olfactory objectivity, something adults have a hard embracing as the years shape likes, dislikes and memories associated with personal preferences. Angeline's favorite smells are lavender, candy and flowers. Her least favorite smells are lemons, paint and wet dog. Interestingly enough, Angeline chose to write about her least favorite fragrance which makes this ten-year-old girl a terrific fragrance evaluator!

The Smell and Tell at the Ann Arbor District Library drew an interesting crowd that included University of Michigan medical researchers, students, artisans, food lovers and some of Glass Petal Smoke's followers on Twitter. From the dais I could see that Sharon was entranced by the raw materials smelled in class, especially Tahitian Vanilla and Rice Paddy Herb (the later was especially true for every member of the workshop as it is a dynamic, multifaceted and synesthesia-invoking scent).

Sharon's eyes were closed for a long time as she smelled a fragrant blotter and she appeared to have been catapulted between a waking state and a dream state. When she opened her eyes her lips parted in a smile. This illustrated story is what she created at the Ann Arbor District Library Smell and Tell. It includes the memory of a chemist who worked as a type of evaluator for a flavor and fragrance company in New Jersey (right click on the picture and save it to read all of the details).

Two more Smell and Tell Workshops are scheduled for the fall of 2012. "Sacred Scents and Aphrodisiacs" will take place at the Ann Arbor District Library on Tuesday, October 30th at 6:30pm. Children at 826MIchigan will experience the thrill of retronasal olfaction when the flavor of bubblegum is dissected in class. The date for this workshop is pending, but Glass Petal Smoke will let you in on a secret; a famous flavorist at Givaudan designed the aromas for this 826Michigan Smell and Tell (she was featured on CBS and in The New Yorker).

Glass Petal Smoke is working with Erin Helmrich and the podcasting team at The Ann Arbor District Library to produce programs on the subject of taste and smell. Information will be posted on Glass Petal Smoke and the blog's Twitter page once the schedule is in place.

Kudos to Givaudan who supplied perfumer Yann Vasnier's Le Flacon (a perfume inspired by Baudelaire) and have always supported my educational initiatives. I never asked permission to print the formula for the fragrance in 2008 because it was a radical move to go open source with it; so my gratitude is immense as it won a FiFi nomination and Givaudan embraced it with open arms. Kate Greene, you are truly a gem!

Special thanks go out to Dream Air (Christophe Laudamiel and Christoph Hornetz) and their supplier Firmenich for providing the scents for the Ann Arbor District Library Smell and Tell. Msr. Laudamiel always answers my perfume history/chemistry questions in beautiful detail and I am most thankful for our professional friendship.

Additional thanks to Laurie Harrsen of the McCormick Corporation who supplied the flavor extracts used at the 826Michigan Smell and Tell. Your flavors led to the students requesting a more "food-oriented" class which I plan on delivering in the fall. Rhodia pencils were supplied by Karen Doherty of Exaclair and turned the experience of writing into a multisensory adventure. Copies of The Name of this Book is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch were generous donated by Lisa Moraleda at Little Brown Books for Young Readers, for which the children were most grateful.

Olfactory curriculum helps children connect their feelings to their thoughts, and teaches them to trust the invisible and seek out story in smell. When a child learns how to make something tangible out of an abstract sense like smell they become "makers" of things. Makers of things learn to develop intuition and are less likely to be passive in life and learning. This is the diamond in olfactory curriculum and was the catalyst for the creation of the Smell and Tell workshop for 8-10 year olds that premiered at 826Michigan in Ann Arbor on June 6, 2012. It is also something that resonated with Maria Montessori‘s approach to sensorial education.

826Michigan is one of eight satellite tutoring centers connected to 826National. The centers are designed to help children develop expository writing skills. 826National was founded by award-winning author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari (they started the first chapter,  826Valencia in San Francisco). Each outpost offers free tutoring which is camouflaged by a storefront with a particular theme. The storefront takes the stigma out of receiving tutoring and generates revenue that goes back into overhead expenses. Glass Petal Smoke recommends visiting the various online storefronts for holiday shopping as proceeds are directed to a terrific cause.

Laura Rose Vlahovich was born without a sense of smell, a condition known as congenital anosmia. She is a talented artist and designed the graphic of the aromas used in the children's Smell and Tell at 826Michigan. Check out Thrift Score, Ms. Vlahovich's Esty shop, for cleverly curated vintage housewares and home decor.

Mandy Aftel single-handedly catapulted the artisan perfumery trend with her book, Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. Aftel is currently working on her second book. Some of her food-grade essential oils (in the pantries of many famous chefs) are available at William Sonoma. The full line of "Chef's Essences" is available at the Aftelier Perfumes website. Mixologists are not strangers to these delightful ingredients, as evidenced in a recent New York Times article.

Rice Paddy Herb is available at Enfleurage. It is a "bucket list" aroma that should be experienced more than once in a lifetime. It evaporates in a brilliant flash of freshness that is sunny, verdant, ozonic and earthy; like standing on a dew-dappled grassy mountain under a blue sky on a perfect summer day. Rice Paddy Herb possesses an addictive cuminesque element minus the funk that reminds cumin haters of body odor. It smells fresh in both senses of the word which is, perhaps, its subconscious power.

Jimmy John's apparel offerings include men's boxer shorts with their "Free Smells" tagline. Smellculturists may infer/gift as they wish. [This product is no longer offered.]

The "Olfactory" graphic was designed by Jennifer Orkin Lewis and is used with permission. Rights revert back to the artist.

Photos of student work and associated images used with permission. Rights revert back to the image holders.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Olfactory Ephemera: The Scent of Dandelions

This summer the aroma of dandelions has eluded lawn mower blades and long stretches of land where wild plants cover the earth with slender blades of grass, spiraling tendrils and radiant flowers. The ground is carpeted by dry grass that crackles like straw underfoot. The smell of cut grass, evocative of cucumber and watermelon, the quintessential fruits of summer, is gone.

In the early evening I seek the aroma of oakmoss, a type of lichen that grows on oak and conifer trees, in a nearby preserve. The thick sappy facet is so faint it feels desiccant, but some hay and tobacco notes still shine through. I pray for rain and spot a pair of dandelions, the circumference of their seed heads uninterrupted by wind or the underside of a human foot.

The next morning I get up early and head for the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market at Kerrytown. I look for dandelions in side streets, lawns bereft of weed killer (not uncommon in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan) and cracks in the sidewalk. I find them and wish I could bottle their tenacious fragile beauty. I walk past tables of fruit, pickles, vegetables and pies and stumble upon Down on the Farm, an Amish farmers cooperative based in Homer, Michigan.

The stand is covered in a red and white checkered tablecloth and is topped with tomatoes, cucumbers and jars of homemade jam. I spot a single jar of dandelion jelly and the woman behind the table tells me her mother-in-law made it. I buy it without asking what it tastes like. Her cerulean blue eyes evoke clarity and honesty; they match her dress and bonnet. I am reminded of their color when I gaze skyward at a hawk after leaving the market.

I slowly turn the key in the cylinder of the apartment door when I notice a package to my left. I bring it inside and forget about it until the next day. My mind is peppered with thoughts of  dandelions. The next morning I open the jar of jelly and taste it. The flavor reminds me of smooth black tea with honey and lemon. There's a hint of warm spiciness in the finish that is comforting and mysterious.

I see the box from the previous day's mail delivery next to the kitchen table. I take a knife to it and remove the contents. Inside is bottle of Dandelion perfume by Demeter. It smells like cut grass, creamy musk and yellow flowers. A fantasy of the colors one associates with dandelions. I spray it on my wrists and inhale. It is olfactory ephemera. I am reminded of the smells I miss most this summer...