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I'll Be Sending the Smells Along With That Photo

When sending or receiving photos or vivid descriptions of appealing food, I have often wished for a way to send the aromas along with the visual images. The closest I've seen, until today, was the machine Maude showed Harold in their eponymous movie. Maude enchanted Harold by offering stored whiffs of daily life, including, most memorably, "Snow on 42nd Street."

We know smell connects powerfully to memory. And we know food photography and videography seem suddenly unidimensional when one imagines how much better it would be if one could add smell to the images of (probably) delicious foods. Yes, I would like to send food scents as well as images over long distances. I have wished for what I have called (incorrectly, it turns out) Smell-O-Vision. But Smell-O-Vision, like the more recent Scentees (scents from a canister attached to smartphones), involves pre-determined scents. That can be wonderful, too, especially if the scent is, say, morel mushrooms frying in country butter, or the sweet fragrance I associate with my first Sunday School teacher.

But even more, I have wished to communicate what I smell right now across distances, just as sound and images of what I am doing, seeing, and hearing right now can travel across space nearly instantly. I'm not even imagining, yet, that a blog post could come with a scent option, although perhaps that will happen. I am thinking of small group communication, an analogue of phone or texting. As a small example, let's say I tried a new winter vegetable recipe, perhaps Sweet Potatoes Anna with Prunes, and could send along its aromas as well as its picture to the cooks in my family. I'd like that.

Someone's working on it. reported on January 20, 2014 that David Edwards of the Paris innovation tank Le Laboratoire has developed an oPhone, which aims "to make olfactory communication commonplace by transmitting odors much in the same way you send text messages." So I assume that soon, when a son makes a perfect cup of coffee or a particularly succulent roast pork shoulder, I can share the wonderful smells, too. 

Two recent events restated for me the power of smell. First, holidays. When I smell a certain set of savory, aromatic, pungent and meaty scents, I know Steve's Chicken Liver Paté will appear shortly. I also know it must be the holidays, since Chicken Liver Paté typically appears in our lives only a couple of times a year, usually between December 15 and January 1. I delight in this wondrous dish, beloved in both my husband's New England mill town Jewish Democratic family and my rural south central Kentucky Southern Baptist Republican one—dear people all. And I delight in this special feature of the year-end holidays, with all their scent richness.

Recently I spent a few days in the wobbly world of inner ear imbalance. On about day 3, I stood at the kitchen sink eating a fragrant bite of grapefruit. Suddenly, Proust-ily, I took an unexpected ride on a swirling Smell-mobile directly to the kitchen and sink of my childhood. The smell and taste of grapefruit anchored me not to 2014 but to a winter when I stood among parents and siblings much taller than I as they laughed and enjoyed the specific bitter-sour-refreshing bite of grapefruit.

I think you will enjoy reading "Odorama," Liesl Schillinger's 2003 New York Times review of a book about a scent scientist. The review starts with Harold and Maude and then heads in directions that caused me to keep backing up to reread. I won't give away the plot of one of the most striking, interesting book reviews I have ever read. I'll just say that The Beach Boys and all counter-cultural lovers of good vibes may had insight into something with even more dimensions than they guessed.


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