Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Food Memories: Red Shoes and the Art of Cookie Face

I was five years old when I received a pair of red shoes the color of candy apples. The undyed leather soles were perfectly stitched and smelled like singed salt on a hot pretzel from a food cart vendor on Fordham Road. Inside each shoe was a rubber arch called a cookie that the salesman at Foot Adductor glued beneath the insole. The cookie was the same color as a pencil eraser, but it wasn't as soft. I didn't know what flat feet were and remember feeling somewhat perplexed because ducks had flat feet and I wasn't a duck. I also wondered why someone would put something called a "cookie" inside your shoe that you couldn't eat.

I must have looked at a lot of sidewalks when I was five because whenever I recall this time in my life, all I can see are those new red shoes. One foot in front of the other, moving slowly at first, then picking up the pace while holding hands with a grown up. I remember the asphalt blurring beneath my feet when Dad and I had to run under the elevated train tracks to cross the street in order to make the light or avoid pigeon dropings on our weekly trips to Weber's Bakery.

There were times the sidewalk seemed to move like a conveyor belt. When you're little you can't look over the crowds and figure out how you're going to get where you're going. That's a grownup's job. I'd look left and right when something caught my eye, but most of the time I marveled at my feet and the magic of walking. From 191st Street to Jerome Avenue, under the IRT past Tru-Form Shoes and the florist. I skipped over sidewalk cracks and random black patches of old gum until the smell of Weber's Bakery stopped me in my tracks.

Once inside the bakery, a distinct mix of anise, cinnamon, lemon, orange and vanilla left me in a condition that is best described as "smellmatized." Loaves of fresh bread with light and dark caramel colored crusts were stacked behind the counter by the cash register. You could smell an occasional burst of caraway when a seeded loaf of rye bread was being sliced, but the aroma never asserted itself into the perfume of the bakery. It hovered over the bread slicer and quickly disappeared.

Each loaf of bread sold at Weber's was had a white piece of paper the size of a postage stamp affixed at the heel. It was marked with the symbol of the New York City bakers union. If you were ravenous when you arrived home and were quick to make a sandwich there was a good chance you'd eat the thin paper stamp without a care in the world (they were impossible to remove completely). One day archeologists will discover these stamps inside the stomachs of some of the biggest bread eaters in New York City.

There were four triple shelved cases of pastry that contained desserts inspired by France, Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, including a few cognates that made sense to bakers whose families had been in America long enough to assimilate new traditions. If you were a little kid you were surrounded by delicious at eye level. The experience was torture or resulted in a treat. The outcome depended on your parents.

It was Dad, me, my new red shoes and a scam I ran every time the two of us went to Weber's Bakery. I called it cookie face. It was a fun-loving game of food mischief with eleven distinct steps.

Step One:
Inhale at arrival.

Step Two:
Let Dad take a number so he can get a loaf of rye bread.

Step Three:
Smile at the mean looking lady with the hairnet who is wresting red and white striped bakery string to secure a box of pastry for a customer.

Step Four:
Look at shoes.

Step Five:
Walk up to cookie case.

Step Six:
Take a long deep breath.

Step Seven:
Look at cookies and then look at Dad (who always winks on cue at step seven).

Step Eight:
Look at mean lady with the hairnet and smile a little even though she scares you because her stone-faced demeanor makes it look like she doesn't have any lips.

Step Nine:
Look at cookie case and be sad.

Step Ten:
Look at the mean lady with the hairnet and smile a little longer even if she scares you more than the horror movies you watch on television despite being told not to do so.

Step Eleven:
There's no step eleven unless you goofed somewhere between one and ten. You receive a handful of colorful cookies wrapped in bakery tissue as a reward for being cute.

If the mean lady with the hairnet was extra careful when handing over the cookies it meant a rainbow bar or petit four was tucked inside. You'd smile, show the loot to your Dad, and say thank you to the scary lady who wasn't so scary when she smiled and gave you cookies.

We left the bakery with our respective edibles in tow. I skipped and stepped on cracks as I ate my reward, sharing some with my co-conspirator. When we were done Dad opened up the white wax paper bag with the sliced rye bread and we'd each take an end piece and gobble it up gleefully. Sometimes we didn't stop at the end piece and had a lot of explaining to do when we got home. It was funny for us, but not so funny for anyone who thought they were going to get a whole loaf of rye bread when we got home from Weber's.

This story is dedicated to the memory of my father, Paul Krell, who taught me everything I know about how to enjoy life and food. He was born on May 1, 1927 in Brzeziny, Poland and died on May 30, 2009, in Bronx, New York. He was a Holocaust survivor and U.S. Army veteran.

Norm Berg was the head baker at Weber's Bakery in the Bronx when I was growing up. He and Stanley Ginsberg co-wrote Inside the Jewish Bakery just before Norm passed away. The book and errata are highly recommended as this is an historic account of bakery culture in New York. Stanley Ginsberg, a passionate baker, has authored a new book titled The Rye Baker: Classic Breads from Europe and America. It will be released in September 2016.

Norm Berg's son, Nathan Berg, was the baker at Vandaag in NYC. I tasted breads he baked before the combination bakery and cafe closed in 2012. Some of the best bread I have ever tasted was made with Nathan's hands.

If you want to understand the role that bakeries played in Bronx culture (and NYC for that matter) pick up a copy of Inside My Father's Bakery by Marvin Korman. It should be a movie (note to Steven Spielberg and Dustin Hoffman).

Sidewalk Flowers is a wordless picture book for children by poet JohnArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith. One of the most charming things about Sidewalk Flowers is how it illustrates father and daughter relationships. The image of the book cover accompanies this post. You don't have to be a kid to read this book. It's timeless and highly recommended, as is this promotional video for the book.

Image of needle tatted flower garland made from bakery twine by Jenny Doh. Used with permission.

Monday, April 18, 2016

A Message from Michelle Krell Kydd: Editor of Glass Petal Smoke

I was inspired to launch Glass Petal Smoke in 2007 after receiving training and education in perfumery at Givaudan and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).  I'd been working as a marketing and communications consultant in the fragrance industry and fell in love with the art+science connection in perfumery. The world of scent, with its strong connection to memory and emotion, opened my eyes to a world of possibilities beyond sight.

Most of what I learned about the perfume arts was derived from the vantage point of an insider positioned in a highly secretive industry. Access serves as a starting point when one is intensely driven by curiosity. Where one arrives depends on how deeply one wants to explore the terrain, which itself depends upon the willingness to ask questions. The more I learned about aromatic materials and the people who shaped them as perfumes and flavors, the more questions I had.

I taught myself how to read science papers and developed a passion for inquiry. With this came a strong desire to share what I learned. Blogging has allowed me to do this, but getting out in the world and teaching others how to describe smells using the method I was taught in perfumery school has allowed me to transform knowledge into multisensory experiences. This is what Smell and Tell lectures are all about.

Describing a smell requires that you decode the invisible. What I find most striking about this process is how it brings people together by generating respect and understanding in the face of different points of view. A side effect of olfactory training in perfumery is that it is powerfully self-authenticating. Because perception is filtered through autobiographical memory, differences of opinion are not about right or wrong; they are about experience and one's personal story. This allows diverse observations regarding what something smells like to be contained in the same space; just like complementary and contrasting ingredients used in combination to create a perfume or a delicious dish.

Education is just as important to me now as it was nine years ago, if not more so. The sense of smell is least explored in classroom settings and this has always puzzled me in spite of everything I've experienced as a public speaker who creates multisensory experiences for the purpose of exploring the sense of smell and building community. Education as we know it simply doesn't offer enough opportunities to learn in non-judgmental settings. Students are educated to make the grade, which is rooted in whether or not they have assimilated material to the point of being right or wrong. This kills curiosity. 

The need for inclusion of olfaction as a legitimate sensory modality in K-12 and higher education is both a scientific and cultural imperative. I've worked to affect this at Smell and Tell lectures; at the University of Michigan; at TEDxUofM, and by creating the #AromaBox, an analog scent device that can be used in classroom settings and beyond. I believe that what I've learned via The Jean Carles Method of olfactory training, as well as conversations with scientists and perfumers, inspires curiosity of the highest order and is worthy of inquiry at all levels.

Without curiosity we cannot cultivate the kind of creativity that leads to understanding and problem solving. At best we engage with trends, entrepreneurial jingoism and what others decide is important to us as a culture. Remove curiosity and our internal compass falls into a heap of shards. Who we are and who we are meant to be suffers dearly because we not only lose direction; we lose time. Being human is inclusive of integrated sensory experiences and if we are going to develop technology that incorporates sensors, especially those that address assistive and safety needs, we must get better at including all of the senses; hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell.

To stay curious we need to pay attention. Digital life can remove us from face-to-face interaction with others outside of routines like shopping, commuting and work. It also removes us from nature as we more commonly inhabit indoor and mental spaces daily. This was recently illustrated in "That Strange Country Smell," an article that appeared in the New York Times' Metropolitan Diary on March 26, 2016, and was inspired by a four-year-old child who was offended by the smell of cut grass. Materials in perfumery are a gift from nature whose design lives in all of us at a cellular level. Nature feeds us, clothes us and provides us with shelter. We need to know her. Intimately.

This is not to say that we are in dire straights because connecting with nature is a choice. We know who we are and who we are becoming through our memories, dreams and reflections. Smell is memory's sense and memory is identity. In a world fraught with misunderstanding and clashes of culture we need to connect with others who may or may not be like us. Nothing does this better than interacting with the sense of smell, and the intersection of smell plus taste, which is flavor. We need to face each other, break bread with each other, and delight in the garden that is life as we share stories of our common humanity.

Think of this when you indulge in Ma'amoul Tea Cake and the accompanying stories that inspired last week’s nine-year anniversary post. The recipe was enkindled by everything you've read thus far and its spirit will ignite future stories on Glass Petal Smoke.

P.S. If you live in or near Ann Arbor I encourage you to get inside your olfactory mind at a Smell and Tell event. These talks take place at the Ann Arbor District Library in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. I created the Smell and Tell series in 2012 and demand for programming continues to grow.

Research is catching up with the sense of smell and its importance in the human organism. The driving force in all of this is the rise of incurable neurodegenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's and Dementia, which dissolve patients' memories (smell loss is the first symptom). More research is being conducted on the absence of smell at birth (congenital anosmia) and future findings will allow researchers to dig more deeply into the genetics of olfaction so they can solve problems beyond anosmia. In addition, olfaction is not limited to the human nose; it takes place on a cellular level in other parts of the body that are dependent on chemical communication.

Better ways of managing neurodegenerative brain disease will arrive in the coming years, benefiting everyone on the planet. It's an exciting time to get to know your sense of smell, and what it means in your life and the lives of those you love. Glass Petal Smoke  looks forward to serving curious minds and serendipitous guests so each of you may discover that getting in touch with the sense of smell is the best way to discover who you really are.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Glass Petal Smoke Celebrates Its Ninth Anniversary with Ma'amoul Tea Cake

The recipe for Ma'amoul Tea Cake is offered to aficionados of Glass Petal Smoke as a token of appreciation in honor of the blog's ninth anniversary. Ma'amoul Tea Cake is fashioned after a Middle Eastern cookie of the same name, which inspired a story published in 2007; the same year Glass Petal Smoke was launched.

"In Search of a Cookie (Part One): Ma'amoul" is the first of two posts that tell the story of a pair of friends on a cookie quest inspired by remembrance. "In Search of a Cookie (Part Two): Cuccidati Revealed" follows the quest to conclusion, illustrating the need to commune with lost loved ones via sweet morsels from childhood that erase the bitterness of their absence. 

Ma'amoul Tea Cake
(Yield: 10-12 Servings)

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup golden flaxseed meal
  • ½ cup natural cane sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder (non-aluminum)
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt (non-iodized)
  • 5-6 ounces chopped medjool dates
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 large eggs (slightly beaten, room temperature)
  • ⅓ cup sweet unsalted butter (melted and cooled)
  • 1 cup low-fat, low-sodium buttermilk (room temperature)
  • 1 ½ teaspoon of grated organic orange zest
  • 6-8 saffron threads (infused by soaking in 2 tbsp warm water for 10 minutes)
  • 4 drops food grade essential oil of Neroli (can substitute 1½ tbsp orange blossom water)
  • 1 teaspoon Madagascar vanilla extract 

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Grease one 9 x 5 x 3 inch loaf pan (or three 5.75 x 3 inch loaf pans) with cooking spray.
  • In a large bowl sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add infused sugar and flaxseed meal, blending well.
  • In a medium-size bowl, mix eggs, melted butter, saffron infusion, vanilla extract, food grade Neroli (or orange blossom water) and orange zest. Add buttermilk and incorporate. Add chopped medjool dates and walnuts to the wet mixture.
  • Make a well in the center of the bowl with the dry ingredients and add wet ones. Combine wet and dry ingredients together, folding gently with a silicone spatula. Be careful not to overmix.
  • Pour batter into prepared pans and spread evenly. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes (30 to 35 minutes for smaller loads), or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean.
  • Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Remove from pans and place on a wire rack to continue cooling.
  • Refrigerate or freeze for future use. The large loaf yields 10 to 12 slices; the smaller loaf yields 5 to 6 slices.
Glass Petal Smoke is an award-winning blog designed to inform those who are led by inspiration, joy and wonder when it comes to the world of flavor and fragrance. Its mission, vision and values haven't changed over the years. Glass Petal Smoke remains a vibrant educational vehicle maintaining the integrity upon which its reputation rests.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Nose: An Interdisciplinary Art+Science Collaboration

"The Nose" is an art and science collaboration featuring animation by Seán Vicary. "Nose Song," the soundtrack that accompanies the video, was written by Sam Lee and Llywelyn ap Myrddin. Vicary used the experience of coping with his mother's dementia to explore the sense of smell in a surreal olfactory landscape inspired by science. Smell is memory's sense and one of the first senses to dissolve when neurodegenerative diseases of the brain like dementia take hold. It's not hard to imagine the role catharsis played in Vicary's creative process, which has the visual sillage of a neuroscientist asleep on a surrealistic pillow.

Art and science are equally elevated in the video for "The Nose" and multiple arts at that. This is a natural extension of artist-animators, musicians and scientists combining disciplines in order to solve a problem. How does one communicate the sense of smell when smells are invisible along with the wiring for olfactory perception, which cannot be seen?  An interdisciplinary approach answers this as multiple ways of seeing and being in the world create an integrated point of view that speaks to more than one audience.

There is a genuine need to know more about who we are and how we're made when it comes to the reality of being a human organism. Stories that feed the desire to understand one's physiology and chemosensory system cannot be found in the pages of academic journals and textbooks alone; we need artists of all kinds to bring the unseen and seemingly inexplicable to life in meaningful ways that can be understood by everyone.

Songwriter Sam Lee drew on the expertise of pathologist Dr. Laura Casey and Dr. Simon Gane (both of University College London Hospital), Dr. Darren Logan (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge) and fragrance expert Nick Gilbert in order to write "Nose Song" with Llywelyn ap Myrddin.  Seán Vicary added the medium of animation to bridge sight with sound. The only thing missing in the video experience is scent, which must be imagined.

Labdanum and Ambergris are mentioned in the soundtrack for "The Nose" which uses footage from 8mm film taken when the videographer's mother spent time in India as a child, surrounded by aromas of Balsam and Jasmine. Imagine what it would be like if one could smell the scents inferred and declared in "The Nose" while the video was being played. The experience isn't currently available, but research will ensure that it lives in the not-too-distant future. Glass Petal Smoke predicts that digital scent delivery will first be implemented in virtual environments and migrate to other platforms afterward. Until then we can depend on a method used in the perfume arts; smelling essence-dipped fragrance blotters.

The world needs to experience more art and science collaborations like "The Nose" in order to transform the sense of smell from its status as the bastard stepchild of the senses into a legitimate sensory modality that is valued and understood. Art and science collaborations will flourish as research into neurodegenerative diseases of the brain reveals findings that allow us to inhibit and potentially eradicate memory-destroying diseases for good.

The video of "The Nose" is one of several songs inspired by body organs that can be found on Body of Songs. The Body of Songs project is supported by Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England.

Sam Lee talks about the sense of smell and songwriting as it relates to "The Nose" on Soundcloud. You can listen to it here