As I was walking into my house last night I smelled the bagels. The Lender Bagel factory is a few blocks from my house. More than once I have been tricked into thinking that Jie was baking something good...or the neighbors were at it...only to realize that the olfactory pleasures were wafting from half a mile away. It turns out that a bagel factory in your neighborhood is harder on your diet than watching food commercials. Every time Lenders is doing a bagel I like, I head straight for my kitchen and whip up some treat to satisfy the pleasure impulses going off in my brain.
I have not always lived in such pleasant...or fattening neighborhoods. My first parsonage...a three-room house in Olney that the congregation rented for me...was smack between a chicken processing plant and a vinegar factory. Some days the whole house smelled like wet chicken feathers. Other days it was vinegar.
My Granite City parsonage was plopped in the middle of the worst stink I've endured. The blast furnace was just across a toxic lot from where we lived. It had a peppery smell. AND it was a smell you could see...an oily film all over the neighborhood. Alison was born while we lived there...and she had constant respiratory infections until we moved away right before she turned four.
Most of my growing up years were out in the country...or in very small towns. The smell of the milk house on a dairy farm, the scent of mowed hay, the proximity of a pig farm, the prelude to a rainstorm, and road-kill of skunk are still vivid emanations from decades ago.
And then there are the indoor smells that have lived on in my memory for more than half a century. When I was 6 or 7 we had a wood floor put in the upper story of our house. I can still smell the sawdust. I also wax nostalgic over fragrance of a fresh Christmas tree, my dad's coffee breath, and sun drenched bed-sheets newly dried on the backyard clothesline.
Early vacations and church camps also left triggers in several of my brain cells: the smell of woods on a hike, a campfire at night, kerosene for the lantern, and the stale canvas from those old timey tents.
Grandparents are matched with smells. There was Grandpa Haworth's deodorant when he snuggled me, Grandma Haworth's perfume when I sat with her in church, Grandma Smith's hog jowls frying in the skillet, and Grandpa Smith's tobacco (before he quit smoking.)
I'm sitting here trying to think what age I was: when I no longer took the risk after a teenage boy would say, "Hey, smell this!"
Given the powerful effect of smell on the human brain, I am surprised that we haven't made more progress in the area of aromatherapy. I'm thinking of concocting an array of those pleasant smells from my childhood and surrounding myself with them every time I read the news these days. Perhaps it will keep me from going stark crazy.
And while we're thinking about the power of scent, whenever are we Protestants going to bring back incense...or find a suitable replacement in order to attain the full experience of holistic worship?
And however can I write an article on smell without gracing you with some idle gossip? Did you know that eating asparagus causes us to emit a peculiar odor...but that only 22% of the population has the genetic capability to smell that emission? It also turns out that East Asians have less body odor than Americans. (Although I will have to follow through on my suspicion that this factoid might have been just another one of those things made in China.) And did you ever wonder why coffee smells better than it tastes? According to the internet, of the 631 chemicals in coffee, over 300 are neutralized by saliva: thus we never get the full taste of what we smell.
It turns out that the human nose has the capacity to distinguish 10,000 different smells. This of course is larger than the vocabulary possessed by many. If we knew more words, perhaps we'd pay more nuanced attention to the odors around us.
But we've a long way to go to catch the capability of a dog. According to my sources, the average dog brain is 1/10 the size of a human brain. But the part of the dog brain that processes smell is 40 times larger than the equivalent space devoted to smell in humans. We're not totally helpless, however. According to another source I've tracked, humans are capable of following a scent...same as a bloodhound...providing that the scent is...chocolate.
Some research scientists have determined that there are 10 basic smells:
- fragrant (e.g. florals and perfumes),
- fruity (non-citrus fruits),
- citrus (e.g. lemon, orange),
- woody and resinous (e.g. pine or fresh cut grass),
- chemical (e.g. ammonia, bleach),
- sweet (e.g. chocolate, vanilla),
- minty (e.g. eucalyptus, camphor),
- toasted and nutty (e.g. popcorn, peanut butter),
- pungent (e.g. blue cheese cigar smoke), and
- decayed (e.g. rotting meat, sour milk).
It also seems that women have a better sense of smell than men and the young have a better sense of smell than the old...(except for the middle school years I'm supposing.) So remind me not to get in any arguments on this subject with my daughters.
And finally this: even though both the human body AND beer evidently experience the same type of chemical breakdown as they age, humans can (fortunately) compensate with graciousness and character that can make us a pleasing fragrance to God and our neighbors...whatever our condition. Plus there is always body lotion and toothpaste. Lord have mercy! --Mike