the fine line between perfume and food
by, 16th August 2011 at 05:51 PM (9132 Views)
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?
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