Sunday, April 01, 2012

Smelly things

More than half my life was spent evaluating foods and beverages while developing food products; a good deal of that time was spent training my nose. A flavor vial sat on my desk and changed every week, giving me time to sniff and memorize every day - to really imprint the aroma on my brain. If there was an easily available food counterpart I'd try to concentrate on that particular food for the week. It was the only way I was able to learn new aromas - by isolating them and then recognizing them blended together in a compounded food. I think I peaked out at about 50. Now, I can still learn to recognize and identify new aromas but it's harder and harder to retain the information. 'Specially if I don't use it.  

I used to get asked this question frequently: What are your five favorite aromas/smells? The favorites change regularly but for now my five are bacon cooking, roses, coffee, rosemary, citrus.  Close seconds are freshly mown grass, sweet peas, mint, grilled onions, cilantro, bbq grilling.

In the LA Times Magazine today, writer Denise Hamilton writes sublimely about aromas. She  describes the perfume Caron's Narcisse Noir -  "a narcotic blend of dark florals limned with civet, a dirty animalic note that evokes tangles sheets and illicit love - the perfect scent for a 1940's bombshell".  I don't like this kind of writing about wine because most people cannot sense the notes that wine critics/evaluators say are present, nor does analysis prove them to be present. With perfume when they say the perfume contains galbanum and sweet does. The perfumer has put those notes in the mix...and most of the time you can be trained to recognize them.  Flowery romantic writing is perfect for perfume.

The Grueneberg ganglion is a recently discovered ball of olfactory nerve cells found at the tip of the noses of mammals. Our noses are mighty handy for warning us about emergencies. For instance, we can detect smoke at incredibly low levels of concentration.

Now for the bad stuff. Smoke scares me but the worst smell of all for me is vomit -which makes me (and most people) feel immediately sick. Many feel that this"sympathetic" response is an instinctive and protective reaction. If you live in a tribe and you all eat the same things - if one person has food poisoning, it's likely everyone consumed the offending substance and could be in danger. The brain recognizes a warning sign when someone nearby starts vomiting and sends a message to the stomach - disgorge!! Like many other bodily functions there are many alias for vomiting (because the very word disturbs some people - instead they say: tossing your cookies, upchucking. Here's 363 synonyms:
In Australia on a ferry ride out to the Great Barrier Reef, I was aboard a boat on a roiling lurching sea where everyone was sick. Once it starts, it spreads fast. With every muscle in my body clenched and my sea sicknesses patches pasted to my wrists, I sat next to a stoical Japanese man and his young son. The three of us staring straight ahead managed to endure it all, retaining both our composure and the contents of our stomachs. Once we landed the heretofore silent man turned to me with a slight smile and said, "You didn't womit!" One of the best compliments I've ever had.


  1. Well, that sure made me laugh. But I had to wait til the very last sentence. The whole rest of the time I was worried about my "cat smelly" house. And that you might womit the next time you come over. But I see that you're really good at controlling that urge.

  2. I had a similar travel/vomit experience. It was on one of those rickety old busses careening down steep mountainsides in peru. The bus was packed to the overflowing with Indians and the 11 of us gringos. They were literally screaming at every hairpin turn we took. They they all started vomiting all over the bus. Like you on the boat, non of us gringos vomited. But wouldn't you think the Indians would have been used to that bus ride? I guess not.