The ‘foodie‘ focus of modern perfume started in the late 19th century, coincidentally at the start of chemically synthetic perfumery. We tend to highlight the abstract perfumes from this era, such as the fougère, the chypre and the oriental. The fougère has long been defined by its lack of food scent and proudly accepts “soapy” jibes. But the chypre contains citrus, albeit the rarely eaten bergamot orange, in it’s basic composition. More than the fougère, the chypre at least leans toward the notion of food. The Oriental dives headfirst into food territory, particularly sweets, and plays vanilla from its resinous basso profundo to its sweet coloratura soprano.
The senses of smell and taste are closely bound both neurologically and in the experience of food consumption. The problem of disconnecting sustenance from finding and preparing food has been a problem for so long that it is neither contemporary nor modern in origin. I don’t mean milking your own goats and growing your own kale. Amazingly complex food products are offered to us as packaged commodities to us at every turn. The science and business of food production have worked hard to define their concept of food as commodity and have taught us their world view.
The manipulation of our desire for food takes place both at periphery of our senses and deep in our reptile brains, the areas of the brain and mind that exert the least logical control of our decisions. While we see food everywhere and spend inordinate amounts of time discussing it, we don’t consider it critically. We don’t question Super-Sizing and bizarrely baroque distinctions in such basic commodities as coffee and vodka, yet we have no idea where food comes from. Then in a final act of systematically refusing to consider our food, we lock ourselves in small rooms, shit, and then use 2 to 3 products with masking fragrance before we leave the crime scene.
Our soft spots are saturated with prompts and goads. We’re victims of an incredibly complex sensory trickery that manipulates the parts of us that we think of as instinctual and therefore untouchable. Innate. Right. How can what I want be bad?
Here’s where we’re fucked: Our species has found itself in a position where our bodies have been shown to suffer from long-term nutritional imbalances in ways we never imagined at the same time that our neurologies are conditioned to guarantee them. We used to say we were brainwashed. Now the responsibility for the plight has been removed and we’re simply enacting memes.
With Pavlov, it was food and a bell. The targeting of the primitive brain means the ideas don’t need to be sophisticated, or logical, or understandable. They just need to be situated properly in our lives and in our society. Basic operant conditioning and patterns of procreation take care of the rest. We all understand “in our gut” the meaning and value of the big Mac, and you can pry it from our cold dead hands. The metabolic shit storm of generations of imbalanced nutrition has embedded itself, step by cultural step.
A fascinating thing, though, is the streamlining and efficiency that has resulted. As nutritional science has broken down production to the molecular level (that is to say, maximum complexity) and despite the appearance of endless choices, decision-making at the consumption level has been made as rudimentary as possible. At the production stage, flavors, consistencies and packaging are easily manipulated modifiers at the end of a long production chain that starts with a small set of component ingredients. The food/flavor choices we make, and assumedly then feel satisfaction with, are just an easy set variables for producers.
After all of this groundwork laid by the Industrial nutrition complex, the task of the fruity floral producers is easy. Our palates have been honed by low levels of culinary discretion and our senses of smell follow similarly. Despite a great degree of complexity in the food and fragrance industries (just read the label of a can of soup or a bottle of body wash) the training of the consumers’ senses happens quite simply. We are taught a simple set of variables, and learn to respond strongly to a number of binary influences: up/down, high/low, acidic/alkaline, bitter/sweet, bland/salted. Adding the the opiates of the industry, sucrose, sodium chloride, monosodium glutamate… makes it simple. The complexity of thousands of such binary variables stands in for richness, and 10,000 identical Big Macs later, we wonder why changing our diets is so hard.
The real motherfucker of the gourmand is that it both demonstrates and predates groovy meme theory.
Enter the gourmand fragrance, and simultaneously, the greatest Cassandra in perfumery, Thierry Mugler Angel. Arguably, perfume wearers should have known better with a perfume whose pattern is not merely top/heart/basenotes, but the use/euphoria/crash/use cycle aptly called “chasing the dragon”. We’ve learned to consume things daily that can only vaguely be considered food from a nutritional or an environmental standpoint. We were built for Angel. How could we resist her? Angel was the warning: not ‘don’t eat sweets’, but, ‘don’t eat a box of Twinkies every day of your life because there are consequences.’ We either didn’t hear through the sound of the sirens calling to us or we didn’t listen.
I know that my monologue here is in fact a screed, but I find the notion that we actively participate so fully in such detrimental patterns both fascinating and horrifying. I don’t exclude myself here. I simultaneously need to lose 30 pounds and could sit down at any given moment and eat a cake. But that’s food. Somehow a baptism with Patou Joy and Lanvin Arpège has protected me from the fruity-floral-induced type-two diabetes of the soul that seems to have affected whole generations of people.
I don’t argue for embracing a tofu sensibility of perfume use. Quite the opposite, perfume teaches me that portion control and moderation are of little value, that salaciousness has enormous advantages and that extravagance feeds the soul by fostering the contemplation of aesthetics. Perfume enriches my life. It encourages me to think about how and why I like the things I do. The absence of this consideration is what led our species into its sickened state of nutrition in the first place.
Fuck, man. Perfume is salvation.