American author Harold McGee became world famous with his book About food and cooking. This 600-page pill on chemistry and the history of cooking and eating dates from 1984. In 2004, it was reissued. Over the years, this encyclopedic book has really become a standard work. It has become so indispensable in many kitchens By Volkskrant wrote about it in 2004: “A McGee cookbookless kitchen shelf is like a wheelless bus.”
Now, seven years later, there is an almost as thick book on perfumes. Another investigation of a passionate man who has devoted himself to his subject for years. Will it become as essential / popular as About food and cooking? In any case, there are enough parallels to be drawn between the two works. For example, in addition to the scope, which again reflects the rigor of McGee’s research, there is a clear setup. As McGee writes in the introduction, his book can be used in two ways. When browsing, searching for a specific topic, or systematically reading. Is also The scents of the world written in an equally pleasant way. McGee’s style can be characterized as fresh, meticulous and yet also sharp. He understands the art of making complex processes, such as chemistry, understandable, which plays an important role in both books. Many parts of the book are narrative and anecdotal (by design), but they never elaborate unnecessarily. Plus, McGee is clearly very excited about anything he finds out that splashes the pages.
Whether this book (after all) can attract fewer readers will largely depend on the topic itself. In About cooking and food there was a translation on our plate for each food (discussed). What we love to do every day: eat. In The scents of the world is it slightly different. It also covers topics that will not be (also) close to home for everyone. Such as: the smell of mushrooms, or how it should smell in the universe.
McGee’s discussion of the precise structure and function of the released molecules (volatiles) that determine these odors can then remain somewhat abstract. Therefore, this book requires more thought and sometimes a little more patience. However, both are richly rewarded. Slowly, as the reader, you are drawn into a world that is unknown to many of us, or where we (at least often) don’t think much about it. That of osmocosm – the thousands and thousands, maybe millions of molecules that we and other beings can smell. And what effect all these different smells have on behavior.
The scents of the world is not ordered by specific scents and the names that we have invented for them, but by common things that we can smell. Such as: odors of bodies, animals and people, odors of nature in and on the earth, and of food. And McGee wouldn’t be McGee if he didn’t include our evolution, psychology, and history in how we experience smells. And in the way scents direct us. Often completely unconscious. (And unknown).
Because in the cleaned homes we live in today, masking our body odor with deodorant and soap, we often forget how much knowledge we still acquire through the nose. Not only knowledge about, for example, the edibility of food, but also about our peers. For example, experiments show that we can feel the difference between daily armpit sweating and the sweat of volunteers manipulated to feel stress, fear, worry, or sadness. Perhaps in the old days, armpit scent was (even) a way to determine your dominance within a group and therefore the scent version of a peacock tail, lion’s mane, or crimson monkey butt. .
A taboo has arisen, says McGee, about loving our body odor. But we still sniff each other through all kinds of detours. For example through the lively aroma of certain cheeses. McGee (now) presents an imaginative theory. Some cheeses contain the same fatty proteins and bacteria that live on our skin. We once developed needlessly laborious ripening methods for these cheeses. For example, by administering a sweat-like brine. Why? Maybe because the cheese will smell like toe cheese, he suggests. And therefore to ourselves. Because by nature we love it. What is striking in this context, says McGee, is that many Chinese do not tolerate Western cheese. They think these cheeses smell like ‘goat’, just like / after the foreigners who make them.
The scents of the world
Green. Jacques Meerman.
New Amsterdam; 624 pages € 49.99