The Scent Critic never takes her sense of smell for granted. For me, it’s the paramount sense: the one which is a source of endless indulgent pleasure – and has saved my life, on one occasion, when fire broke out in a spa I was visiting. Unlike sight or hearing, the sense of smell can be ‘exercised’ and enhanced – by strengthening the link between the nose and the brain. And I certainly never quite ‘get’ people who tell me they could easily do without this sense, rather than losing sight or hearing. (Not that sense loss is some kind of party game, mind.)
So I was keen to read Bonnie Blodgett’s slim book Remembering Smell, about her experiences after injudicious use of a cold remedy, Zicam – squirted up the nose – first gave her ‘phantosmia’ (a period of smelling heinous phantom burning-rubber-like smells), and then settled into ‘anosmia’ (total, nightmarish loss of the sense of smell). As a professional gardening writer, the only way Ms. Blodgett could handle her new condition was to set to, researching everything she could about the sense of smell, talking to geneticists, neurobiologists, chefs – you name it. And lest the book sounds over-technical, it’s not: she beautifully translates the science for those of us who flunked chemistry and physics ‘O’ Level (well, I’m speaking personally here) into lay-speak.
The chapters flip-flop between Bonnie’s personal experiences, and her research. I was fascinated to learn, for instance, that many women are ‘better’ at smelling than men: we’re more likely to take note of a passing scent, label it and file it away in our thinking brain for the future. Initially, the author lost weight – no smell, no appetite – but then piled on the pounds, because smell doesn’t just entice us to eat certain foods – the oregano and melting mozzarella on a pizza, the comforting vanilla-y warmth of custard - it’s an important part of feeling satiated by what we eat: no satiety mechanism, and you just keep on chowing down. The sense of smell doesn’t just prompt the saliva glands to prepare our digestion for turning food into fuel; ‘it also announces when the tank is full,’ the author observes.
Actually, I know a little bit about how the loss of this sense can devastate someone: I had a much-loved friend who lost his sense of smell after a bike accident (he wasn’t wearing a helmet), and it was a source of huge distress. My friend’s actually mentioned in the book (Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of INXS) – and in Remembering Smell, Bonnie Blodgett quotes a psychologist, Rachel Herz, who’s convinced that Michael’s loss of that sense contributed to his later emotional problems. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that his scent-loss really, really bothered Michael. (And because of the close links between taste and smell that may, who knows, have been a contributing factor in his somewhat unusual cuisine, which featured – among other innovative items in his repertoire – prawns with banana… Though unlike this author, Michael never piled on the pounds, and remained rock-star-slender right up until his untimely death.)
At times pretty bleak and distressing – if highly educational – this book does, at least, have a happy ending. But it’s certainly a lesson for all those of us who cherish our sense of smell. No matter how grim I feel, you won’t catch me squirting a cold medication in the direction of my olfactory nerves, at any point in the future. (And with the sneeze-season looming, don’t say you weren’t warned.) With its ability to Tardis me through time and space to cherished memories, and lead me – literally – by the nose, to new places and discoveries, I give renewed thanks after finishing this book to my nostrils and the little corner of the brain they’re so closely linked to, for all the pleasures I’ve enjoyed.
And all the glorious fragrances to come…