Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tomorrow’s Perfume Reviews Today: Chandler Burr on BK’s Flame

A friend who’s fallen on hard times found this crumpled document while dumpster-diving near the New York Times building. It appears to be a discarded draft of Chandler Burr’s upcoming review of Flame, the new Burger King fragrance. We present it here as a public service.

When Coco Chanel asked Edmond Roudnitska to capture the essence of masculinity for her new men’s cologne, he knew he would have to transcend the contemporary clichés of French perfumery. Chanel would not be satisfied with the Gallic banalities of acrid armpit, garlic breath, and the portable toilet on Pier 6 of the Marseille docks. Roudnitska needed to create something revolutionary and by loading the formula with dimethoxypenisone—the olfactory equivalent of taut foreskin—he succeeded. Viande d’Homme redefined how a man should smell in the 1960s. With its sharp top note of fresh beard clippings and warm drydown—the comforting muskiness of Tuesday’s briefs on a Thursday evening—Viande d’Homme established a new family of fragrance.

Viande types such as Tronc d’Abre by Hugo Boss, and Thierry Mugler’s Testicule were wildly popular in Europe but less so here. Mass market abominations—Fabergé’s Wanker and Spume by Quintessence—left American consumers with a bad taste. Then, in 1992, perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena gave the viande type a new introverted minimalism and rectangularity. His Après le Boeuf for Hermes has a tender, yet joyful meatiness, the olfactory equivalent of Caravaggio’s Armor Vincet Omnia.

Now Burger King has launched Flame, its own take on the viande theme. The fragrance was creative-directed by José Montoya, whose previous work (Chalupa Hombre for Taco Belle and Acqua di Scampi for Sean Jean Silver) set a bold new direction for culinary cologne. The perfumer behind Flame is Olivier Boisdur, a talented newcomer with a gift for enlivening traditional accords with exotic elements.

Flame’s topnote unfolds like a prepubescent Asian contortionist climbing out of a crate of overripe Algerian pears. The bold viande accord in the heart introduces itself with solid, yet suave confidence—it’s Richard Gere on steroids. Boisdur delivers a signature touch with a trace of instantly recognizable isopropylparabenzyldicaproic acetate. The effect is stunning: like spare ribs slow-cooking on a Weber E-210 at a Section C tailgate party in the Meadowlands. The drydown is long and satisfying.

Flame combines the virile patience of an Argentine gaucho with the American genius for cuisine rapide. It’s a magical blend—enigmatic yet approachable, radiant yet abstract. A Mark Rothko done medium rare. Awesome.

(Four stars, delicious.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Speed Smells

In many states, the legal doctrine of “in plain smell” allows a police officer who smells pot smoke during a traffic stop to search the vehicle for marijuana. Pot smoke is strong and distinctive—it doesn’t take much training to recognize and it can be detected at quite a distance. But, as I describe in What the Nose Knows, identifying the faint, vaguely vegetative scent of a fresh marijuana plant is a different matter. Scientists have recreated the conditions of actual criminal arrests, and find that it’s unlikely police could, as claimed, pick up the scent of pot plants in a distant grow house, or of bricks of marijuana wrapped in plastic and hidden in the trunk of a car.

Smell can be an early clue in drug busts of another kind. Yesterday, for example, neighbors in Hartselle, Alabama, called the sheriff’s department to complain of a bad smell coming from a nearby home. According to News Channel 19 in Huntsville, officers discovered a methamphetamine lab in the house. They arrested the three occupants (pictured above) and charged them with unlawful manufacturing of methamphetamine.

There was a bumper crop of stinky meth lab stories in the media this summer. In July, in suburban Houston, neighbors reported a foul odor.  Firefighters tracked it to the detached garage of a nearby house where they found a big meth lab.

Around the same time, a lady living on Pine Island, near Ft. Myers, Florida, thought she had been smelling burning garbage for the past week. Then sheriff’s deputies busted a couple living two doors down from her for having a meth-making operation in their living room.

Also in July, a lady in Mitchell, Illinois—across the river from St. Louis, Missouri—found a smell from down the block so offensive that she couldn’t stand to stay outdoors and barbecue. A month later U.S. Marshals and the Illinois State Police raided three adjacent houses in the neighborhood and found meth labs in each.

And then there were the folks in Casa Grande, Arizon, just south of Phoenix, who told a reporter how bad-smelling houses with blacked out windows were making people in the neighborhood very nervous.

Cooking meth in a makeshift lab generates lots of intense, unpleasant odor. I’ve been told, by a person whose family lived downwind from a rural meth house, that it resembles burning insulation or plastic. Other people describe it as smelling like ammonia, which can lead to some unexpected results. Again in July, police got a call from residents of an apartment complex in Charlotte, North Carolina complaining of a bad smell from an empty apartment. A haz mat crew arrived expecting to dismantle a meth lab—instead they found boxes of kitty litter soaked with cat urine and feces.

Oh well.  Better safe than sorry.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Annals of Anosmia

In yesterday’s New York Times, Molly Birnbaum reflects on life without a sense of smell. She became anosmic following a head injury—she was hit by car while jogging. At the time she was training to become a chef. But after finding that without smell “taste is a mere whisper,” she gave up that career for a less nasal-intensive job in publishing. Over the next couple of years she gradually regained some limited smell function: first the aroma of sliced cucumber, later the smell of garlic. Now she can pick up the scent of a bagel shop a block away.

Birnbaum is fortunate: even such mildly happy endings are rare for people who suddenly lose their ability to smell. I know this because I’m a smell scientist and I read the medical journals. But you probably know it too—because not a year goes by without someone, somewhere, publishing a first-person essay on smell loss. Welcome to the annals of anosmia: the formerly obscure malady that has taken the feature pages by storm.

Why are essays about this particular medical misfortune so popular? One explanation is that we take smell for granted and therefore its sudden loss brings home in dramatic fashion all the subtle but important things it does for us. But we also take hearing for granted; where are the comparable essays on mid-life deafness? Frustration is another possible motivator: the scent-deprived are justifiably angry that so little is known about the causes—much less the cure—of their condition.

Molly Birnbaum’s first-person essay is not the first one to appear in the Times.  In 2003, they ran “I was a Middle-Aged Anosmic” by Tom Miller, a fellow left with no sense of smell after a respiratory virus. Importantly, for the future of the genre, he listed the succession of doctors he consulted in an effort to find a cure: a dentist, a chiropractor, a homeopath, and an ear, nose, and throat specialist. This troph effectively conveys how little doctors can do for such patients.

After a fallow period in 2004, first-person anosmics really took off. In June, 2005, Matthew Kaminski, an American living in Paris, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about a cold that took down his sense of smell the summer before. He amusingly described the shrugs and indifference of his French physicians, and weighed the drawbacks and possible benefits of his newly reduced condition.

When Barbara Lantin tried to serve her children spoiled fish for dinner she realized that her sense of smell had quietly vanished. The cause turned out to be nasal polyps blocking airflow to the olfactory nerve endings high in her nasal passages. Once these growths were removed her smell ability was substantially restored, leaving her a ready-made premise for an August, 2005, feature in London’s Telegraph, “Scent is not to be sniffed at.”

The following month, Mick O’Hare wrote in New Scientist about his attempts to cure a smell loss that arrived with a head cold and never left. Like Lantin, O’Hare quotes smell experts on the causes and prevalence of anosmia. True to the genre, he lists the doctors consulted on his case: a GP, various ENTs, and a neurologist. Then he introduces what will become another classic element of the first-person anosmic: an obligatory mention of the 2004 Nobel Prize in medicine awarded to Linda Buck and Richard Axel for discovering the olfactory receptors. It’s timely, fascinating, and accurate, but of only glancing relevance to the clinical issues at hand. This major advance in basic science has yet to translate into new treatments for anosmia.

Next up, in January, 2006, was Anita Chang’s personal account, “The Scent of a Woman—Lost.” Her anosmia resulted from head trauma when she was hit by a car five months earlier. Life for her is now “like living behind a film of Saran Wrap.” Chang’s tone is upbeat, even though there was no evidence at press time that her smell abilities would ever return. While short on essential genre elements (she sees only one neurologist and doesn’t mention the Nobel Prize) she offers one uniquely distressing observation: “Not having my sense of smell has made kissing quite dull.”

By April, 2006, the anosmia trend had trickled all the way down to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Bryan David Finlayson relates how he lost his sense of smell eight years earlier after taking a tumble from a speeding skateboard in Santa Barbara. He’s bummed because he can’t smell the ocean anymore and frustrated that so little is known about his condition. Succession of doctors: one neurologist. Nobel Prize mention: absent.

Sometimes, as with Hayden’s late quartets, the greatest works appear when an art form is so well established no one expects anything further from it. So it is with Elizabeth Zierah, who wrote a genre masterpiece for Slate.com in June, 2008. A head cold three years earlier left her without a sense of smell, and the results were devastating: worse, she says, than the lingering sensorimotor aftereffects of a mild stroke suffered years before. “As the scentless and flavorless days passed, I felt trapped inside my own head, a kind of bodily claustrophobia, disassociated.” She has to force herself to eat and worries about personal hygiene. For one tantalizing week her smell ability returns and her spirits soar; but the reprieve proves temporary. Succession of doctors: internists, allergists, otolaryngologists, acupuncturists. Nobel Prize: yes. All genre elements present and accounted for.

All of which brings us back to Molly Birnbaum’s essay on Sunday. It lacks the key elements of the genre: no succession of doctors, no Nobel Prize. But her story—running under the slug “New York Observed”—is adorned with local scents: West Village coffee shops, public restrooms in Penn Station, containers of Chinese take-out going bad in the fridge. What’s remarkable is that these odors figure in her story because she is unable to smell them. It's a most post-modern literary achievement.

Where do we go from here? Clearly, we can expect first-person anosmics by celebrities to appear in People or even Vanity Fair. But I predict that the next big thing will be soul-searching essays by physicians who have labored in vain to help the victims of anosmia. Prediction number two: these first-person diagnostics will be accompanied by selfless pleas for more Federal research dollars.

So, who will be first? Jerome Groopman? Oliver Sacks? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Senator Reid's Wrinkled Nostril

At this morning’s official opening of the new Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) offered this olfactory appraisal of his fellow citizens:
My staff tells me not to say this, but I’m going to say it
anyway. In the summer because of the heat and high
humidity, you could literally smell the tourists coming
into the Capitol. It may be descriptive but it’s true.
Reid’s remarks, given by way of praising the Center's air conditioning, reflect a certain distance from and, shall we say, disdain for the common man.  Quite a contrast to the words found on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Sen. Reid’s response to the tired, huddled mass of tourists is to lift high his can of air freshener.

Stay classy, dude.