The range of aromas around me is smaller now that I’m under a stay-at-home order to stop the spread of a respiratory virus that, coincidentally, often presents itself through the loss of smell.
I miss the earthy aroma of my neighborhood coffee shop, the clean fragrance of my local library, the slightly musty odor of the oldest files and books in my office storage area, and the spicy scent of my mother’s kitchen, which smells like curry powder and basmati rice. I have the same ingredients at home, but my kitchen doesn’t smell the same, and now that I spend so much time inside my house, I hardly notice any scent at all.
Two decades ago, a company called Digiscents, Inc., tried to bring smells to the internet, producing a prototype of a small device that could be connected to a computer to release scents. But the idea failed to gain a following. Its detractors said, “we can’t see why anyone would need one of these.”
Avery Gilbert, a “smell scientist” who was involved in Digiscents, asks in What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, “Why is it so difficult for critics to believe that people have a sincere interest in the possibilities of scented entertainment?”
I have a sincere interest in scented entertainment, especially these days, depending on how it’s done. I wouldn’t want to smell every pop-up advertisement, but I’d probably enjoy smelling realistic scents associated with certain virtual experiences.
In a nonfiction book full of literary references to olfactory-aware writers and characters, Gilbert asks and answers several questions about smell, including: How many smells are there? Are trained police officers better smellers than civilians, and if so, how good an ability does an officer need to have to assert probable cause for a drug search? Can a scent make us sick? Why are some writers and artists adept at describing smells when so many of us are so bad at it?
Gilbert also makes the case for preserving today’s smells:
High on the list of endangered smellscapes is the heartwarming aroma of Grandma’s kitchen. Fewer families eat dinner at home, and when they do, they don’t cook: they microwave frozen food, which doesn’t pack the same emotional punch. The aroma of a tomato sauce simmering all day? Fuhgetaboutit. Chicken roasting in the oven? No one has the time. Apple pie? Pick it up at A&P. Coffee aroma? Kiss it good-bye: half of Americans in their thirties get their hot java at a store; the proportion is even higher for those under thirty. Home-brewed coffee will soon be a game for the elderly.
During this pandemic, more of us are cooking at home, and we get to enjoy the smells that come with it. In addition to smelling the aroma of chicken in the oven–to the extent chicken is available these days–I’m also able to spend more time enjoying the scents in my yard.
Gilbert says, “we could fill an almanac with the site-specific scents of America,” before describing the characteristic smells of California, where he grew up.
I live on the other side of the country in suburban Philadelphia in a house a few streets away from my childhood home. I didn’t catalogue the scents of my childhood, but I think it’s largely the same now, depending on the season. In April, one of the most fragrant months, the air is heavy with the floral notes of arbutus blossoms, late daffodils, and viburnum, along with a minty scent of ground ivy and henbit leaves, crushed beneath my shoes. A trace of chimney smoke balances out the greener aromas, reminding me that frost is still possible. In a few days, we’ll have fragrant lilacs and peonies soon after that. I can’t wait!
What does it smell like where you live?