Something Smelly

As recently reported in the New York Times, researchers and artists at the New York Academy of Sciences are meeting to embark on a series of stimulating and highly recommended talks devoted to the Science of the Five Senses. The central idea is that if we had a better understanding of the signals our bodies send to our brains, might we take more pleasure from them?

The December program will be on smell, which can signal not just the presence of food and potential loved ones and cherished memories but also of predators and, well, yes, sewage. Rockefeller University olfactory researcher Leslie B. Vossall will join scientist Avery Gilbert, who, as consultant for the perfume industry and author of What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, appears to qualify for the role of artist. Among the topics they will cover: can smells trigger memories; does body odor really attract mates, and if so, why do we cover it with perfume? What makes some of us insensible to certain scents?

Here’s something to remember. In the brain, the centers of memory and the location of the genes that translate smell sit side-by-side like two peas in a pod.

Do you remember that story of Proust and his little cake? He wrote, “As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening onto the garden which has been built out behind it for my parents.”

I mention this as a serious warning. If your beloved, knowing how you love to cook, begs you to make some lasagna just like Mom’s, you must, (I absolutely emphasize must), refuse to do so. No matter how insistent the pleading.

The reason is, no matter how well you prepare the dish, it will never be right. This is not because it doesn’t taste fabulous, but because the total memory can never be conjured into reality.

You’ll never ever be able to match the way the light streamed through Mom’s kitchen window and bathed the lasagna in sunlight. Nor will you be able to serve it on that old yellow plate with a daisy in the center. Your version will always be judged inferior.

Suggest a bowl of spaghetti instead. You’ll be glad you did.