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The Power of Smell

by Albin Johnson

A smell can trigger a memory quicker and more reliable than any other sense. All living things have a sense of smell, even bacteria. The science of smell is "olfaction". Human noses possess a device called an Olfactory Epithelium, a "bulb" high in the nasal passage consisting of cells, nerves, and tiny cilia or hairs. This device can identify about 10,000 different odors. Of course, the smell must possess certain protein molecular properties, a high vapor pressure, low polarity, some surface ability, and an ability to dissolve in fat! That does sound important, no? Houseflies smell with their feet and wings. Snakes smell by flicking their tongue.

The French author Marcel Proust wrote several books of which 3 were his diary. It was called "The Remembrance of Things Past" A quote from one of these books reads, "When nothing else remains from the past, friends and things long gone, the odors from their living remain as tiny drops of their essence for you to remember". Poetic, no?

My son-in-law invited me on a fishing trip to Alaska last fall. I caught a ton of salmon! Actually 90 lbs of filleted Coho. I am not a great lover of fish and I must admit that after the excitement of the catch, I felt guilty for causing their death. But, one of the days, I took a long hike up a stream to waterfalls. Along the way, the streams were teeming with live salmon, half eaten ones, (bears), and dead fish far exceeding the ones I caught. These fish had really worked to get there.

Salmon use smell to return to their reproductive grounds after years and perhaps thousands of miles at sea. The Government, Sportsmen, and Environmentalists now know that the leeching of pesticides into the rivers and streams can affect the salmon's ability to smell thusly causing problems with their return and spawning.

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The Human sense of smell is said to be 10,000 times more sensitive than taste. Richard Gawel, an Australian, claims to be a connoisseur of "smells". He has identified hundreds of aromas and has been able to replicate many. He has invented a "sniff tablet" (pill) that can be scratched over and over to release a particular smell. Could he be the one responsible for those green pine trees you can buy at car washes and truck stops and hang on your mirror?

Smell, being the most primative of senses, is the quickest to elicit a powerful or attractive reaction. Smell will not bring pain, but some odors can bring a powerful reaction. My personal memories of distinctive odors from the past are: Boot Camp chow hall! that sour smell that could never be washed out of the garbage cans. I need only to be near a garbage truck to remember. Fried liver! Need I say more? Ether! 60+ years later after I had my tonsils out. Formaldehyde! High School and College science labs. Urine! As in port-a-potty. Stale cigarette smoke! I am a reformed smoker of 20 some years. PS: I was always told to hold my nose when mom administered a dose of cod-liver oil, it must have worked because I don't remember that smell.


Chanell No. 5 was advertised as the "First great perfume, which conjures up no precise scent, but survives the passing of mere trends because it is beyond them. (ooh) Another advertisement touted #5 as the fragrance that smelled like a woman. Now, what 21 year old, newly married, lonely sailor stationed in French Morocco, could resist buying that scent? Any French Parfum sold in a Casablanca shoppe would be expensive for a $32 a month paycheck. Love can cause strange behavior and if you need more proof, when asked by reporters what she wore to bed, Marilyn Monroe replied "Just a few drops of #5"

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The standard for aroma is the traditional apple pie cooling in a kitchen window. It is a staple for artists and writers to depict the typical American way of life. Can you smell it? My mom baked pies, just like all the moms in the 40's and 50's. My dad loved pie and if there were no leftovers, he would stop at Liners Chocolate Shop for pie and coffee on his afternoon stroll. Me, I prefer pumpkin. I still cherish that scent of cooked pumpkin and all those spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. I generally ate only the filling and left the crust except for a couple of pieces of crispy rim.

Moving along a few years, Capponi's and Mona's restaurants in Toluca introduced me to tortellini pasta. I love Italian food. In Europe, many restaurants permit you to visit their kitchens. Such smells!!! Mostly garlic. (Gilroy, CA is touted as the garlic capitol of the world) But, also a mixture of onion, tomato, sausage and herbs such as basil, parsley, thyme and bay leaf. I prefer my tortellini with meat sauce. Where I now live, Mario's is the place of choice. You can park a block away and still smell the garlic. Mario's open kitchen is just inside the front door where you experience hunger pangs (they are not really pains) before you are seated.

BEER What better drink to serve with pasta? We all have a favorite that is usually identified with some slick "manly" advertising. Taste has always been closely tied to smell. If you are a true aficionado of beer, try these suggestions: Before you chug, smell the product. Once you swallow the beer, the aroma will be diminished. My! Next after checking the aroma and pouring the beer, that's right, pouring your beer, watch for the "head to see if the foam is full bodied and bubbly, or "wimpy effervescence forming a ring down the glass to the table. (Table? glass?) Next use the tip of your tongue to detect if the brew is sweet or dry (dry is the absence of sweet) any acidity is good and can be identified by the taste in the back of your mouth as you swallow. Hops are the culprits here. Also, keep in mind that some brewers add their own "little spice" for that distinctive flavor. By practicing the aforementioned taste tests, you too may become a Certified Beer Tester, and be the life of the "After work, stop for a cool one, with the gang PARTY". If not, maybe some trivia will help. Who said, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning"? And this intriguing one, "Did you know that if you were way up in space, undressed, and floating in the rarefied air, that if you flatulated, there would be enough pressure to propel you forward? (I couldn't help it)

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MOVIES THAT STUNK! In 1906, a theatre in Forest City, PA used a fan to circulate a mixture of Rose essence throughout the audience who were watching a newsreel of the Pasadena Rose Parade. In 1929, a mixture called "Odor track" was added to the motion picture "Lilac Time" which included various aromas such as: ripe apples, bacon, roses, ether, and Lysol! In 1960, Mike Todd Jr unveiled a 2-million dollar motion picture, which introduced "Smell-o-vision". The movie was aptly titled "Scent of Mystery". Unfortunately the odors lingered too long in the theatres and people complained. Up to date, the Disney Theme Park in Anaheim has installed "Smell-a-rama" into its "Soaring Over California" ride. It provides aromatic effects to complement the various scenes the riders travel through. Another ride called "It's tough to be a Bug", introduced the smell of a Stink Bug. It seems reasonable that perfumed "Sniff Cards" can still be found in fashion magazines.

In conclusion, according to a January 7th, 2002 story found in "National Geographic Today" the US Military is seeking the ultimate "Stink Bomb". The pentagon challenged the scientists to develop an odor so universally repulsive that it would be considered unbearable by people of "all" cultures. The Government also funded experiments to develop products and methods to immunize soldiers against the smell of gun smoke and death on the battlefield.

PS because of the newest drugs designed to stimulate the male libido, I will put off my research into Pheromones, aphrodisiacs, hormones, and love potions except to remember the song hit by the Clovers:

I told her I was a flop with chics
I've been this way since 1956
She looked at my palm and she made a magic sign
She said, "What you need is LOVE POTION NUMBER 9"