Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Sensory Training: Making Friends with Devil's Dung

Opening a container of asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida) will clear out a room. The ground gum oleoresin, which is used as a spice, has a nose wrinkling smell that resembles mercaptan, the rotten cabbage-like odorant used to scent natural gas. Mercaptan and asafoetida contain sulfur compounds associated with decomposition, so why would anyone want to make friends with a spice that's earned the nickname "Devil's Dung"?

Asafoetida is an alliaceous substitute for onions and garlic in Jain cooking. It's also used as an umami flavor enhancer in Indian cuisine and acts as an antiflatulent, which is ironic when one considers how asafoetida smells before it mellows during the cooking process. 

There are aesthetically pleasant things one can study when training their sense of smell, but asafoetida is one of the best because it's a catalyst for discovery when confronting sensory bias. Humans are hardwired to escape dangerous smells, but not all unpleasant smells are dangerous. The challenge in sensory evaluation, inclusive of taste and smell, is the fact that most of us would rather experience something we like and avoid anything we find unpleasant.

When you're going through sensory training you learn to let go of personal preferences and aversions. The goal isn't to become objective because sensory perception is subjective. You learn to become more evaluative in sensory training, which is to say that you assess something for its character—whether you like it or not.

Smelling tincture of asafoetida as it evaporates on a perfume blotter is a revelation. The hellish brimstone odor is transformed as sulfur compounds evaporate and sweet balsamic notes redolent of vanilla emerge in the drydown. The heavenly transformation is striking, counterintuitive and unforgettable. 

Making friends with Devil's Dung (asafoetida) is a catalyst for self-discovery and a great way to conquer sensory bias. It teaches us that something we find unappealing can become a gateway for beauty over time. That's something worth lingering over.

Sulfur compounds aren't found in the non-volatile constituents of asafoetida—they're only present in the essential oil. Once the sulfur evaporates from the oil other constituents such as vanillin and ferulic acid in ester form (the later related to ferulaldehyde found in maple syrup) can be detected. Ferulic acid is also related to isoeugenol (found in clove and other plants) and vanillin (found in vanilla). You don't have to be a chemist to recognize the inter-relational quality in plant volatiles on a molecular level. You can smell it.

To make an asafoetida tincture for smelling combine 1.42 grams (1/4 teaspoon) of asafoetida with 4ml of ethanol (high proof vodka) in a 5ml amber glass vial. Keep the tincture in a cool dark place and allow to age for one month. Shake the tincture daily during maceration.

Asafoetida resin sold in spice shops is ground into a powder with gum arabic and neutral materials such as wheat or rice flour. Turmeric is sometimes added to boost health benefits of asafoetida.

I'll be sharing tincture of asafoetida at The Storytelling Secrets of Optimus Yarnspinner, a Smell & Tell program that takes place tonight at the Ann Arbor District Library (downtown branch), from 6:30-8:45pm. This unique Smell & Tell focuses on an apothecary cabinet of inspirational smells that belongs to Optimus Yarnspinner, a beloved character in the Zamonia series of books by German author Walter Moers.

Spoiler Alert: Yarnspinner uses asafoetida when he's writing horror stories. The German word for asafoetida is stinkasant. Right up there with Devil's Dung.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Transcending the Boundaries of Live Television with Scent

Talking about scent on live television is a challenge that has nothing to do with the absence of Smell-O-Vision. Sight dominates the Western hierarchy of the senses, which is odd considering that shutting your eyes doesn't make you blind for life, but shutting off your nose could leave you quite dead.

So how does one scaffold a smelling experience on live television that doesn't make viewers feel awkward when listening to conversations about smell? After being interviewed on Live in the D, I think I have the answer. Talk about how to buy perfume and deliberately punk Western sensory hierarchy with smells that are novel, nostalgic and free of taboo.

Perfume is a tangible product with a rich history that evokes memory, emotion and conversation. Flavor (the intersection of smell and taste) also triggers emotion and memory, but it lacks the taboo that's implied by the word "smell". When we say something "smells" it can mean one of two things; the object has a smell or it stinks. Vision lacks this nuance of reek.

Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms, 
Antonyms & Prepositions, by James C. Fernald (1947)

I shared tips on how to buy perfume on Live in the D, a lifestyle show broadcast on WDIV Local 4, an NBC-affiliate in Detroit, Michigan. The program, which took place on December 12, 2018, took an interesting turn at the 3:45 minute mark.

All About Ann Arbor community news producer Meredith Bruckner was transported by the smell of incense cedar pencil shavings. Live in the D host Tati Amari cross-sensed the smell of incense cedar pencil shavings with the sound of a pencil sharpener. It happened in nine seconds.

The transporting sensorial moment was a natural extension of authentic conversation captured on live television. This proves that context and curiosity can set the stage for talking about smell without awkwardness or Emperor's New Clothes hyperbole.

Tati Amari, Meredith Bruckner, & Michelle Krell Kydd
on the set of Live in the D

Smell is a subjective sense, but sharing sensory impressions and stories makes subjective experiences universal. That's the hallmark of Smell & Tell programming, which builds community through interactions with flavor, fragrance and storytelling. It's also the essence of this television interview, which didn't need Smell-O-Vision.


Thanks go out to Meredith Bruckner, who interviewed me for All About Ann Arbor in June; Tati Amare who said yes to the "How to Buy Perfume" pitch; anchor Jason Colthorp who made me laugh in the green room and let me smell his signature Banana Republic cologne; and the camera crew at Live in the D (especially the gentleman who rocked a spicy eau de cologne scent).

Smell & Tell: The Storytelling Secrets of Optimus Yarnspinner takes place on Wednesday, December 19, 2018 at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, from 6:30-8:45pm. The event is inspired by the Zamonia series of books by Walter Moers. It will mark the 80th Smell & Tell presentation I've given to date. Admission is free. P.S. There will be incense cedar pencils and everyone will be smellmatized.

A review of Smell & Tell written by arwulf arwulf appears in the December 2018 edition of the Ann Arbor Observer. I can now add "olfactory humanitarian" to a list of endearing nicknames that include: high priestess of smells, olfactress, nose of Ann Arbor, scientualist, walking smellopedia, etc.

Tati Amare articulated an interesting experience when she wore a perfume that smelled great on her mother and aunt, but evoked the smell of a "barn animal" when she wore it (1:45 minutes into the program). Ms. Amare's perfume may have included a highly indolic Jasmine. Two types of Jasmine are commonly used in perfume; Jasminum grandiflorum and Jasminum sambac. Grandiflorum is a clean, lush and expansive Jasmine. Sambac has a hint of the barnyard in the bouquet due to the presence of indole molecules, which smell fecal and horsey.