The New School of Haute Perfume A contemporary perfumer’s uncommon scents

January 15, 2010

story by Lucas Crawford and Carmen Ellison
illustration by Katherine Streeter
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Ten.

IN HIS SMALL BROOKLYN GALLERY, independent perfumer Christopher Brosius takes the production of scents neither lightly nor as a matter of elitist fashion. Lining his shop, CB I Hate Perfume, are hundreds of small opaque brown bottles adorned with handwritten labels from “Ocean — North Atlantic” to “Lipstick” and even “Baby Butt — Clean.” Brosius, who opened his Brooklyn store in 2004, began his work as a perfumer in the late 1980s at New York cosmetic company, Kiehl’s; after opening his first company in 1992, he became the first perfumer exhibited in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s Triennial. While Brosius’ current repertoire includes blended perfumes and home scents, the gallery’s fragrance collection is dominated by over 300 accords (scents comprising a series of fragrant notes that combine to create a harmonious whole), a number of which smell like food. On the savory side there are “Cucumber Roll,” “Tortilla Chip,” and “Pilau Rice,” while sweets include “Carrot Cake,” “Bananas Foster,” and “Viennese Pastry.” But only one accord comes with a warning: “Roast Beef.” “I confess that I have yet to find a way to make wearable perfume from Roast Beef,” cautions a small note affixed to the bottle.

A perfume that smells like meat and can’t be eaten seems counterintuitive. While we might enjoy a vanilla-scented bath or wash our hands with a lemony soap,the smell of meat is generally limited to the context of a meal. But Brosius’ unwearable “Roast Beef” suggests that we rethink how we understand our sense of smell. The perfumer reports in his online journal that the scent is not as unpopular as one might assume. People use it as a “modern-day smelling salt” — a way to pause and experience something sensual and unexpected. Perhaps more than any other scent in the unique space of his gallery, “Roast Beef” is an example of the act of smell providing an entryway to memory, place, and nostalgia as much as to a taste of fat and flesh. Brosius has captured roast beef with impressive complexity and nuance: The uncanny strength with which the scent hits the nose is not dissimilar to the feeling of arriving at your grandmother’s house to the smell of a perhaps slightly overdone roast. It is not just a simulation of how the beef itself smells, but an invocation of memory.

In this way, Brosius’ “Roast Beef” is less about cleverly mimicking the smell of the roast beef we could eat tomorrow and more about archiving the cultural history (not to mention individual memories) of the dish through smell — a medium seldom regarded as philosophical, historical, or artistic. By refusing to reduce food’s function to taste alone, Brosius reminds us that our own concepts of “roast beef” have always relied on aromatics. If this scent is indeed a “modern-day smelling salt,” the new state of awareness into which it rouses us is one in which the sense of smell will no longer be taken for granted, left to lie dormant, or be seen as secondary to sight and taste.

“I confess that I have yet to find a way to make wearable perfume from Roast Beef,” cautions a small note affixed to the bottle.

The boundaries between senses are not new ones, and neither is Brosius’ imperative to question them. All of our senses, philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty reminds us, are actually varieties of touch: light touching the eyes, food touching the tongue, and so on. We have defined them as discrete senses only by extracting them from the body as a single unit, by dividing and naming the kinds of experiences of which our bodies are capable. In doing so, we unfortunately come to associate certain smells with cosmetics (to go on our bodies) and other smells with foods (to go in our bodies). After we’ve memorized these habits through years and years of cultural experience, roast beef becomes disgusting as a perfume, and rose or lavender (for instance) taste far too fragrant to eat if we’ve spent our lives washing with their scents.

Beyond an evolutionary biology argument that humans are somehow hard-wired to avoid eating things that smell as if they might make us sick, there is nothing inherently better or worse about the smell of rotting meat versus the smell of, say, rotting cucumbers (and cucumber scent is prevalent in beauty products).

Writing in the collection Bathroom Unplugged: Architecture and Intimacy, critics Ilka and Andreas Ruby relate a short historical anecdote that underlines the randomness by which some matters are relegated to the outside of our bodies and some permitted inside. In the 18th century, a mixture of essential oils of citrus, rosemary, and lavender, when dissolved in high-proof alcohol and left to mature, was swallowed (with water or wine) to remedy heart palpitations, and inhaled through the nose to remedy headaches. Just as soon as the recipe landed in the hands of an eager-to-profit merchant, however, Napoleon made it unlawful (in 1810) to harbour any secret medicinal recipes. The owner of the recipe, one Wilhelm Mulhens, claimed his “miracle water” was actually a perfume — and since then, that is precisely how it has been used. Given the serendipitous political process by which this internal medical solution became an external cosmetic one, perhaps it should not seem so surprising for Brosius’ scent of roast beef to take its place alongside the taste.

Indeed, this valuation of smell might be more of a return than a drastic change. British chef Heston Blumenthal, famous for his “molecular gastronomy” cooking, which uses complex scientific techniques, notes that smell and taste are merely two sides of the same delicious coin: “We detect smells as we breathe in,” and “the odour of food, on the other hand, goes from the mouth to the nose as we breathe out.” This tenuous division between taste and smell, as fragile as half a breath, is changing — and there are more than a few people who advocate Brosius’ approach. In his three- Michelin-star restaurant, the Fat Duck, Blumenthal collaborates with perfumer Christophe Laudamiel (of New York’s International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.). A “lime grove” scent is sprayed alongside a green tea and lime mousse, and a “smoky whisky aroma” is swirled into the dry ice used to prepare a flaming sorbet. Laudamiel prophesies that soon many chefs will hire full-time perfumers, and that we will see the development of “salons, dining galleries, artistic restaurants” in which food no longer serves merely to alleviate hunger but is elevated to an art that addresses ideas, history, and everyday practice just as do other forms of art.

With deft attention to the phenomenon of smell, Brosius has created a space that has already gone further than Laudamiel’s prediction. Brosius has removed real food from the equation entirely. Setting the smell of meat into a milieu of art and beside so many other beautiful olfactory offerings, Brosius’ “Roast Beef” meat perfume is far from a precious gimmick. Without being eaten, food serves a critical function in his gallery: to render unfamiliar the cultural habits we have learned and to ask us to revalue smell in our dominantly visual culture. In other words: to undertake the hard work of forgetting our intuition and to follow our noses instead. 

We have come to associate certain smells with cosmetics (to go on our bodies) and other smells with foods (to go in our bodies).

LUCAS CRAWFORD is a Phd student in English and film studies at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada. His academic and poetic work can be found in Women’s Studies Quarterly, Other Voices, the Nashwaak Review, and the Journal of Gender Studies. He is just beginning a monograph about scent.

CARMEN ELLISON is a PhD student in English and film studies at the University of Alberta, where she is writing her dissertation on 19th-century poetry. She is co-writing a book with Lucas Crawford that puts eating practices in conversation with critical theories and histories of embodiment.

KATHERINE STREETER resides in downtown New York City. Her mixed media collages can be seen in many publications worldwide, and she is also involved with various projects for books and gallery walls. Not all of her creative adventures are meat related.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Ten.

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