View RSS Feed


the fine line between perfume and food

Rate this Entry
A friend of mine recently asked me why I don’t like vanilla in perfume, even though it is one of the most universally-liked notes out there. Not liking it eliminates a staggering number of perfumes right off the bat. One of the fragrance wheel theories says it is the base for all orientals, so that is a whole class right there. Yet I love vanilla as a flavor (I will take vanilla ice cream or cake over chocolate any day.) But the question got me to thinking about the real why behind this.

On some very basic instinctual level, I do not want to smell like food.

Somewhere along the way, the boundaries between perfume and food got blurred. Now you can buy perfumes with chocolate, coffee, tea, vanilla, strawberry, peach, apple, cassis, berries (l’aritsan’s mure et musc,) honey, sugar, maple and even baked good like gingerbread and cinnamon rolls (Philosophy and Demter). Demeter, I see, even has a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup perfume. On the other side, people eat roses (in jam, ice cream, turkish delight and Moroccan cooking) and other flowers (like nasturtium, coriander flowers, hibiscus, orchids, violets (think of chowder’s mints) and lavender (in Herbes de Provence.) And then there is citrus- - bergamot (Earl Grey tea,) lemon, orange, mandarin, lime, petit grain (derived from the twigs,) etc. And I can’t leave out the alcohols, like bay rum. Some are old formulas in perfumery (like said bay rum, originally from the West Indies, according to Wikipedia) and old ingredients-- like vanilla. Vanilla is a new world orchid (Mexican, in fact) so it cannot have been used in Europe before the 1500s. But it was used by Guerlain in almost everything (or so it seems to me.) Shalimar is lousy with it—for me, in both senses of the word.

Then there is the herb/spice conundrum, which challenges my absolute dictum above. There are perfumes with bay leaves, nutmeg, licorice, star anise, cinnamon, clove, ginger, coriander, cardamom, myrtle (an under-utilized spice,) basil, artemesia (whence absinthe,) black pepper, lemon grass, mint, sage, thyme, rosemary … even salt (although salt might not properly be considered a spice by everybody). Strangely enough, these I find acceptable in perfumes and mostly like! Huh.

So where is that line? And how fluid is it? And what happens if we cross it?

Would you wear a peanut perfume? Yet almond and coconut are fairly common notes. Would you wear a steak and potatoes perfume? I bet Demeter will have something like that out soon, if it doesn’t exist already, or maybe one of those other avant garde lines. Bubble gum and incense exists, so why not steak and potatoes? There is a thread here on savory gourmands and a couple of possibles did, in fact, come up. Huh. Can the old saying be true that the way to a “man’s” heart is through his stomach? I asked my students if they thought chocolate was a sexy perfume scent or not. One brave soul raised his hand and said, “I guess it depends on how hungry you are!”

And where is the food line (as in, “I would never eat that!”)? In my house, we fry up banana flowers in sesame oil and eat rose ice cream. But maybe some people would never do it. And folks put fresh flowers on wedding cakes and in fancy salads and on everything in HI. You can buy packets of “edible flowers” in upscale grocery stores. And tiger lilies, lotus root and Asian lily bulbs are fair game in some cultures. I wonder what they think of us using their traditional food in our perfumes? Do they smell like food in those cultures?

It is all getting blurred. Or maybe it has really been blurred for a long time. Maybe I should modify my dictum to, “I do not want to smell like conventional western food.”

Perhaps not liking vanilla makes me an arch-conservative in the perfume world. Or maybe not. Afterall, “vanilla” as an adjective, when applied to terms like “taste” and “sex,” is usually synonymous with “conservative” or “boring.” Then there is “vanilla ice,” but that’s something else entirely. So why should “vanilla” have a different meaning here?

Or perhaps not wanting to smell like food is really a manifestation of the oldest primal fear we humans have…. the fear of being eaten by the monster under the bed, the wild animal or the opposite sex. Or maybe it is the manifestation of a childhood trauma. Does anybody remember the Marlo Thomas record from the 1970s, Free To Be You and Me, where she tells the story about the perfect little girl who put a dab of perfume behind each ear every morning? Well, the lion took one whiff of her and ate her right up—little patent leather pumps with bows and all. Uf! Scared me off perfume for years.

So what do you think? Do you want to smell like cookies fresh from the oven? Would you eat a rose? Where is that line for you?


  1. ECaruthers's Avatar
    In Perfumes The Guide, Tania Sanchez begines the section on Feminine Fragrance with
    'What scent drives men wild?' After years of intense research, we know the definitive answer. It is bacon. Now, on to the far more interesting subject of perfume.
    There is actually a baconfreak site which offers bacon themed scents. But the fine print says, they don't smell very strongly of bacon. And, much as I enjoy research, I've never bought one. So steak & potatoes probably wouldn't take the world by storm either.

    Besides not wanting to smell like vanilla, do you mind vanilla 'fumes on others - say the person beside you in an elevator?

    Do you also reject the whole range of gourmands - chocolates, coffees, pineapple upside down cake, etc?
  2. lisa16's Avatar
    Oh, I adore vanilla on others! But it always makes me hungry :-) For me, alas, the whole range of gourmands is not possible. But the bacon freak site sounds interesting, Ed! I am going to check it out.

    Maybe the world needs anchovy perfume! Can you imagine? Something like the fish sauce they sell in Asian Food markets. Now that would turn some heads!
  3. Foustie's Avatar
    I really enjoyed this blog Lisa16, Thanks.
  4. sherapop's Avatar
    This is a great question, Lisa16. I remember when I donned Comptoir Sud Pacifique Vanille Mokha for the first (and last) time. I immediatedly exclaimed: "Why would I want to smell as though I just spilled an entire cappuccino all over the front of my blouse?"

    On the other hand, why do we want to smell like anything? While watching the film "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky," I learned (I think--if it's actually true...) that during the process of creating Chanel No. 5, Coco told the perfumer that women shouldn't smell like flowers. Someone else took up that line more recently, and I have to say that it strikes me as bizarre--no matter who says it! Women do like to smell like flowers, as is evidenced by the many soliflores available today.

    Part of what seems acceptable to us is driven by what is available. There are lots of coffee perfumes around today, and also fig (and saffron, and licorice...). I like all of those notes in complex, well-composed blends, but smelling literally like an espresso or a Fig Newton or saffron rice or Panda nibs doesn't really appeal to me. :coolold:

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!
  5. Aiona's Avatar
    What a fun question! Lisa16, Vivienne Westwood's Boudoir smells like fish sauce to me and I don't really care for it. I do however like vanilla scents. I think it's very individual, what foods people do or don't care to smell like. Jasmine is a very popular scent in my parents' cultures -- jasmine tea, jasmine rice. People don't typically eat jasmine-flavored anything in my part of the U.S. (the South), but it is found in perfumes. I know my dad really doesn't like perfumes at all. But he tolerates Shalimar -- and I never really understand why. Cumin in a scent is odd, but I found I do like it in some compositions. In summary, perfume ingredients are like foods to me. I like brussel sprouts if done a certain way. I am sure I would like "fish sauce" in a perfume, if it is done a certain way. I just haven't met that way yet.
  6. odysseusm's Avatar
    Excellent blog, the "vanilla" aspect brought it to my attention. I certainly don't like vanilla and can detect even a small amount of it in a scent. I don't like it on myself and I don't like on others. "Yup, smells like a cookie" is my usual reaction. In part my aversion is due to the food aspect -- I really don't care for any so-called gourmand scents. And in part my dislike is due to my very low tolerance for sweet scents (as scents). Notes of sugar, intensely sweet florals, honey... I find these so tiring. Whereas I am convinced that I could never find a scent that would be too dry -- certainly I've tried many dry scents and it was never the dryness which put me off. So if herbs (usually dry) and spices (can be dry) are done right, I like them. If lavender is bracing and vital (rather than soft and pretty) I like it. If tea notes were very leafy I would like them. If coffee was very earthy I'd like it. I've never come across it, but if there was a very bitter dark chocolate note I'd probably like it. Can vanilla ever be NOT sweet? I don't know. Do you think sweetness plays a role for you?
  7. lisa16's Avatar
    Oh yes, absolutely! The sweetness really gets me. Smelling a perfume with vanilla goes something like this for me.... "bergamot, rose, jasmine, musk, patchouli and... what?? What is that doing in here? Vanilla??! Ugh! That doesn't belong there."

    All of my favorites are very dry (and spicy) scents too. And all of the gourmands are "off the table" for me (couldn't resist-- sorry.) I must say, I forgot saffron (far too sweet for me also) and the edible aspects of jasmine!

    Recently I read about the Guerlinade-- the "base" for most of the early guerlains-- and one blogger mentioned that one of the original guerlains was actually meant to be drunk as a tonic. I do not know if this is true or not, but all of a sudden, the addition of vanilla made a kind of perverse sense to me.

    Would anybody like a side of orris root butter to go with that?


Total Trackbacks 0
Trackback URL:

Loving perfume on the Internet since 2000