Scent | Basil

I recently joined a scent group that started up (we’re working on a name) and our last meeting was a potluck with a basil theme, perhaps in anticipation of summer. Basil is so ubiquitous in food today, but in the U.S. it was fairly exotic until the 80s. I remember reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in high school, in which a character grew basil in her garden, and our teacher had to explain to us that this was unusual for the time.

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Different kinds of basil at our scent group meeting.

Basil, a member of the mint family, was certainly also ubiquitous in Asian and Mediterranean cultures for thousands of years. It was grown in Egypt and possibly used for embalming, and in India it was considered sacred. In Ancient Greece and Rome it symbolized hatred and poverty—ironic given that basil is an essential element of regional cuisines in both countries today.

Today you probably most commonly come into contact with sweet basil, Genovese basil, and Thai basil, and you may even be attuned to their subtle differences. There are about perhaps up to 150 different cultivars of basil all together, including lemon basil, cinnamon basil, and licorice basil.

For my dish I decided to do something different than the usual tomato-basil pairing, so I made this lemon pudding with a basil custard. It was really delicious and a big hit, although fairly labor-intensive, especially with a hand mixer–it took forever to get both the pudding and the custard to thicken. I was trying to think of some other combinations with basil—maybe a basil-watermelon salad, a basil-blood orange salad, basil-yogurt smoothies? Part of the custard recipe involves simmering basil leaves in milk, which could be a treat on its own. Basil iced tea, basil margaritas–some people at dinner were putting basil leaves in white wine.

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My basil plant is desperate for summer.

In terms of perfumes, basil is a strong note in L’Eau du Sud by Annick Goutal, which is one of my go-to scents when it’s really hot out, as it reminds me of the smell of heat rising from the ground. I’d like to try Baime, described as basil combined with thyme and jasmine. Jo Malone, known for simple but very high-quality colognes, offers a lot of scents with basil, including Basil & Neroli and Lime Basil & Mandarin. If you just want a straight shot of basil, Demeter is the way to go. Or just rub some leaves on yourself!

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Scent | Monstera by Xinú

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I’ve been to the Yucatan Peninsula only a couple times, but enough to fall in love with the scents there. I became obsessed with the copal incense my hotel burned and the perfumes from Coqui Coqui incorporating elements from the area. As a result, my impression of fragrances from the area revolved around exotic woods and resins.

Monstera by Xinú is a little different. Its most obvious reference is the Monstera deliciosa plant native to the area. You’ve probably seen Monstera. We had one in my home growing up, and my mom used a leaf to make a print. Apparently they grow fruit, which perhaps account for a high, sweet note that reminds me of watermelon, or rather the sweetness of the artificial watermelon scents in gum and candy. That’s not to say it’s cloying, but there is a definite candylike character. Other reviewers have pointed out a pineapple note, but it’s more watermelon-y to me. Floral notes include datura, sacred ear flower, and bull horn orchid–none of which I am terribly familiar with scent-wise, to be honest, but surely they round off and soften the sweet notes of the Monstera.

Monstera is oddly both watery and lush–that high fruity note makes it seem basic, but then you smell the green complexity beneath it. The first time I tried this I thought I would buy it for sure. Now I don’t think I will. It arcs a little bit too much to the sweet, while my tastes run toward the earthy.  Perhaps it reflects an aspect of the Yucatan that I have not been lucky enough to experience yet. Smells tend to strike a chord with something deep within our brains–my mental file is only turning up Hubba Bubba on this one, sadly.

Regardless, I love the concept of this perfumer, which focuses on the scents and botanicals of the Americas, which symbolizevastness and exoticism, a permanent search and discovery.” I would almost buy a bottle just for the artwork and packaging. Check it out–maybe Monstera or one of the others will pluck one of the neurons deep within your brain case.

 

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Scent | Garden Tomato Toner by Burt’s Bees (RIP)

There are few things as frustrating, personal product-wise, than when a company discontinues a color, a scent, or a cosmetic you love. So I was dismayed to find out today that Burt’s Bees has discontinued the Garden Tomato TonerScreen Shot 2019-03-23 at 4.33.02 PM, a mainstay of my skincare regimen.

I loved this product because it worked well and was affordable–but it was the fragrance that made me a loyal consumer. A nice astringent tomato-leaf scent that was truly unusual and so refreshing in hot weather. I actually looked forward to using it just for the sensory experience.

I always bought it at Merz Apothecary. When a salesperson told me today it was no longer available, I checked online to see if I could find it there. I could–for about $50 a bottle. No thanks. I decided on a bottle of Alteya Organics Bulgarian Rose Water instead. It smells lovely and I was assured it is a good substitute, but–sigh. My nightly cleansing routine just won’t be the same without the sharp vegetal tang of tomato plants.

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Scent: Revolution by Cire Trudon and Coven by Andrea Maack

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There’s a revolution in the air. Old power structures are creaking and swaying.  More people are seeing the reality of systemic inequality and injustice in our country, as well as throughout the world. Ideas that just a few years ago would be dismissed as “too radical” are slowly becoming real possibilities.

What kind of revolution do you want? There’s the kind we know, the one with violence and weapons. Cire Trudon’s scent Revolution makes me think of the French Revolution—animalic notes of horses’ sweat, the leather of their bridles and the breeches of the rioters, a curl of smoke in the air from the fires burning across Paris. The tang of gunpowder hangs over it all. There is a palpable sense of political fervor and camaraderie—you sense banners waving in the wind and the songs sung by brothers in arms. This is a masculine scent on paper, but a unisex one in practice. (Many of the revolutionaries in France were women, after all.) This is definitely a scent for when you are in an anti-authoritarian mood, whether you are headed to a protest against government overreach or are chafing at the way your job exemplifies how capitalism renders us impotent in so many ways.

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But there’s another kind of revolution. This one is quieter and has less to do with sudden outward change than with transformation spurred by internal recalibration. This is a revolution that involves seeing the world in a new way—yet also one that’s very old. It’s a revolution led by women, who for thousands of years have seen their perspectives and experiences ignored, their knowledge and intuition written off as old wives’ tales or demonized as witchcraft. Our very reality has been denied and mocked.

Andrea Maack’s Coven suggests to me a revolution based on a connection with nature that has been lost and derided under patriarchy. It brings to mind a green, otherworldly forest hung with moss and lichen, light filtering through the branches to the green floor below. It’s rife with the plant life we understand as well as spirits that we don’t—not friendly fairies and sprites, but mystical and misunderstood forces. It opens with a bright and spicy green note that heralds a scent of depth and complexity–a wall of green, from the canopy of treetops down to the rich dark soil. Silent and still, yet suggestive of great power. And like women, this perfume endures–it lasts all day on my skin.

So which one will it be—to the barricades, citoyens? Or will we turn to our deeper selves, finally face our wounds and failings as individuals and as a culture, learn to build a society based on what we know is good and true rather than the empty words and tired tactics of the power hungry, and break the spell of the last few thousand years? I know which one I’m hoping for.

 

 

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Scent | The Lobster

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Yorgos Lanthimos makes some odd films. I was intrigued by his 2015 film The Lobster but waited to see it when it was available for streaming because I heard it was good, but very weird. (I tend to avoid movies with emotionally charged violence and extreme pathos, because FEELINGS.) I don’t know if I enjoyed it, exactly, but it was an interesting experience. (If you haven’t seen it, the plot is basically this: marriage is a requirement, to the point that single people have to go to a sort of hotel and find a mate within a certain period of time, or they will be turned into an animal of their choice; hence the title. The main character escapes the hotel and lives with rebels in the forest, who have gone the other way and banned any and all romantic intimacy.)

So last night it was appropriate for me to wear a perfume inspired by The Lobster to see Lanthimos’ latest movie, The Favourite. This one has less social horror in it, or shall we say the social horror is presented through a specific historical lens, that of the reign of Queen Anne of England in the early 1700s. Interestingly, both movies feature moments of animal cruelty, which I always find difficult to bear, even if I know it is only happening on a scree. And the one in The Favourite is not as bad as in The Lobster, but it still made me very uncomfortable.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that my overall impression of The Lobster (the perfume) is one of green harshness that barely abates through the dry down. The notes are listed as lily of the valley, leaves, cypriol, water, cedar wood, myrrh, arnica, fenugreek, animal notes, humus, and moss—this correlates with the action in the second half of the movie, which takes place in a forest. Yet while these scents would seem on paper to be soothing and earthy, my overall impression was one of an almost metallic artificiality—something that should be pleasant but for some reason, just isn’t.

I kept waiting for the scent to change into something more laid-back, but it never did. I didn’t even notice any change over time—it’s like all the notes are just blaring at you incessantly, losing only volume as it fades.

It’s an odd fragrance—very cerebral. This could be on purpose, in that the perfume makers (Folie a Plusieurs, who have series of scents based on cult, classic, independent, and contemporary movies) are making a statement that reflects the message of the movie—love, which is supposed to be enjoyable, or at least something that enriches life, isn’t when it is either artificially enforced or banned. The marriages that we see result from the required matchmaking in the hotel are awkward and unnatural—kind of like this perfume.

If this is in fact the concept of this fragrance, it seems to be a successful one, intellectually speaking. However, smells by their very nature appeal to an ancient and even primitive part of our brains—more so than any other sense. In this way, the perfume is a failure, because scents are at their best when they tap into those mysterious sources hidden in our neurons. When a scent only arouses thoughts in our conscious brain, it is something lesser. An amusing exercise, nothing more.

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Scent | Esenzialmente Laura (Rome)

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I went to Rome in October, and although I hadn’t been back for eight years, I instantly felt like I had arrived back home. I traced my steps back to some favorite spots, including the Galleria Borghese, where I gawped anew at Bernini’s sculptural genius, as well as some new-to-me spots, like the Palazzo Barberini, an often ignored museum that houses Raphael’s radiant La Fornarina. One of my favorite destinations was the Parco degli Acquedotti, a massive park with the crumbling remains of some of the giant acqueducts that crisscrossed the Italian countryside to bring fresh water to Rome. With pretty much zero park infrastructure, you are free to simply wander around, enjoying not only the ruins, which reminded me of prehistoric stone formations, but the sights, sounds, and smells of the vanishing Roman campagna.

I don’t know if Rome itself has a distinctive scent. If I had to choose one, I’d probably say diesel! I did notice, as I did in Sevilla, that people smelled very nice, and even though the city is dotted with perfume boutiques selling heavy mainstream designer perfumes, they seemed to mostly be very pleasant and subtle scents. Perhaps that’s because they bought their perfume at Esenzialmente Laura.

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This natural perfume boutique features the 43 fragrances created by Laura Bosetti Tonatto. She wasn’t there when I went, so instead I tested out some of them under the somewhat intimidating eye of her loyal salesperson, Elena, who actually turned out to be very friendly and informative.

The fragrances are grouped into seven main categories: Hespéridée (citrus), Floral, Fougère, Chypre, Boisée (woody), Amber, and Leather. I knew I wouldn’t be able to try them all, so I stuck to the fougere, chypre, and woody scents. I liked Pepé, with notes of pepper and orange, but Elena warned me people had told her it tended to wear off quickly. So, after much back-and-forth and hemming and hawing, I finally decided to also get Indaco, with top notes of sandalwood and bergamot.

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While she was ringing me up Elena told me about Laura, who she said was a genius but, I gathered, perhaps not the best at publicity, so she was excited when I said I would write about the store. Elena also got on my good side when, after asking where I was from, said, “Ah, Chicago, a beautiful city.” I said it was pretty rare to hear that from Europeans, and she said, “Why, because of the weather?” Then she asked if I was an architect. Chicago is known for its architecture, but I am only an admirer, of course!

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After wearing these scents for several weeks, I really like them. They are more subtle than I would normally wear, but sometimes you want a perfume that is more of a personal experience than a statement. The Indaco, although clearly a woody scent, nevertheless has something almost marine and astringent about it. The Pepé is indeed quite light, and so I’ve been layering the two. The result is a woody, spicy fragrance with a pronounced citrus, almost lemony tang.

Of course when I wear them I am brought back to Rome, which more than ever I feel is my second home. I feel so much myself there that I found myself wondering how I could live there again. I’m not willing to completely rebuild my life to do it at this point, but perhaps there’s a path yet to be found for my return.

Esenzialmente Laura
Via del Coronari, 57
Rome
 

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Scent | Mrs. Meyer’s Geranium Dish Soap

Yes, dish soap. Why not? Who said nice scents in your life can only be in the form of perfume and candles?

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I hate, hate, hate doing dishes. Even though I live alone and there typically aren’t that many, it’s something I’ve just dreaded since childhood. I don’t know why. I think it has something to do with memories of unidentifiable food bits floating around in the sink. Yuck. Plus I have a dishwasher now.

Still, some things need to be hand-washed, and this scent actually makes me–dare I say it–look forward to washing up. I’m not a huge fan of geraniums as a houseplant, but I do like the way they smell. Once at a greenhouse sale I got to sniff all different kinds of geraniums–chocolate mint, apple, ginger. This soap is just plain geranium, but it’s quite authentic–none of that artificial “lemon”-type smell.

It’s a testament to the effect that scent can have on your mood. Curating the product scents in your world is just another way to make the everyday enjoyable.

I was running errands yesterday–not to specifically buy more of this, but kill two birds with one stone, yadda yadda. Both Home Depot and Mariano’s were out of the geranium scent, although they had plenty of basil, lavender, and lemon verbena.

What gives? Has everyone suddenly discovered how wonderful this smells? Please don’t tell me there’s a shortage. I only have about an eighth of the bottle left.

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Scent | Cowboy Grass by D.S. & Durga

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When my mother became ill with cancer when I was about 13, several family friends jumped in to help out and take care of us when she was in the hospital. One of them was Bette, who lived just down the street with her husband and two boys. I don’t even remember my mother being good friends with her before she got sick; I think she just stepped in because she was a kind person, her sons were friends with my brother, and it was a neighborly thing to do.

As a young teenager I wasn’t really into talking to adults, especially about scary and serious things like my mom being sick, but Bette always did her best to draw me out, with mixed success. I remember she once admired a chambray snap-front shirt I was rather proud of, which was ornamented with lots of little silver studs. She told me she had always wanted to be a cowgirl, and my shirt reminded her of what she wore when she was young. I probably rolled my eyes at this, imagining a 10-year-old in front of a 50s-style tube TV with a red felt cowboy hat and a toy gun holster, and was chagrined that she associated my super-chic top with western wear, of all things.

I think of Bette when I smell DS & Durga’s Cowboy Grass. If I had to choose one word, it would be “arid.” It smells like a hot, dry prairie, with a good blast of wild herbs and wisps of woodsmoke in the distance. Masculine, yet with a femininity that’s rooted in living things growing and surviving in a challenging landscape. You can envision yourself in a long skirt in the middle of a vast field against a backdrop of sharp hills, shading your eyes against the sun going down on the horizon, alert for anything or anyone that shouldn’t be there, or waiting anxiously for someone who’s expected.

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That’s a mirage, of course, as most perfumes are. The lives of cowboys were probably mostly lonely and tragic. The geography of the West was indifferent to human need or survival. Kindness and mercy were probably in short supply. The law only mattered when there was someone around with enough power to make it matter, which wasn’t often. Any number of disasters, natural and otherwise, awaited. Cowboys carried guns for a reason.

I don’t know what happened to Bette. She lost both her sons in a terrible car accident just a few years after my mother died, a tragedy that was so awful in its sheer random cruelty that I still don’t like to think about it. Last I heard she was traveling the world and doing things like sky-diving. Because what is that kind of risk when you have already lost everything? How do you go on after that? Perhaps, like the cowboys whose lives she idealized, she simply bore the fate that had been handed to her, and continued down the trail, living a grand and terrible truth that most of us don’t ever have to truly face.

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Scent | Homemade Natural Deodorant

IMG_2238I started making my own deodorant several years ago because I was a little freaked out about the potential connection between the aluminum in antiperspirants and breast cancer. I tried buying natural deodorants, but they gave me a rash within a week or two.  There is no scientific evidence for a link between aluminum and cancer, but at this point I’m just used to making my own, plus that’s a lot fewer plastic applicators in the garbage. And you can add your choice of essential or perfume oils, which can complement your other fragrance or just serve as a subtle scent on their own.

My recipe is based on the one at The Prairie Homestead, but with one important change: try making it with a lot less baking soda, which can cause a rash, as it did on me. I reduced this ingredient to about a teaspoon and a half and have no problems, but you can add more if you feel it’s not working well enough.

  • 1/3 cup coconut oil (I used refined because unrefined tends to be gritty when you get to the bottom of the jar)
  • 1 to 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 cup arrowroot powder (available at Whole Foods, Mariano’s–basically anywhere that offers organic or natural foods)
  • 4 tablespoons cornstarch
  • essential oil or perfume oil

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Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Be warned: the arrowroot powder tends to get everywhere.

I find it’s easier to melt the coconut oil in the microwave before measuring it out. Set this in another bowl and mix the dry ingredients into it.

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Add a few drops of the perfume oil. For this batch I decided to add some lotus perfume oil I picked up recently, but I’ve used lavender, lemongrass, various mixes of essential oils, and even Aveda’s Shampure composition oil, although the full scent didn’t quite come through.

Put it in some sort of cup or jar–I use a covered ceramic jar I got at West Elm a while ago. Ta-da! That’s it. To use, just scoop some out with your fingers and smear it on your pits.

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I find this works quite well, except on very hot days I might have to reapply in the late afternoon. I’ve gotten in the habit of bringing a little jar with me in my bag. Friends have expressed interest in making their own, so I’ve passed along the recipe several times. I’ve thought about making it for holiday gifts, but it might be a little weird to gift people deodorant? I think the right people would appreciate it though.

 

 

 

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Scent | Scents for Survival

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The riverfront near where I live–a great spot for inhaling the scent of wildflowers and water.

More and more I’m coming to terms with the kind of person I am and the needs I have. For nearly my entire working life I have attempted to become the kind of person who succeeds in corporate and office life, even though I knew it was not a good fit. What other game was there, if I wanted to have a salary that allowed me to do and buy some of the things I wanted, gave me some sort of financial security, and provided a route to affordable health insurance?

One thing I know is that I’m not good at hiding my feelings. I’m sure my attitude toward the culture of corporate capitalism is one of the main reasons I’ve not been anointed as a “leader,” whatever that means in the land of buzzwords and mandatory team exercises.

I’ve also realized I’m more sensitive to environments to some and maybe most people. At my current job, I’m pretty happy with the work and my team. However, the fact that I’m trapped in an office building in a sterile suburb, where there is literally nowhere to walk except the mall across the street, makes me very unhappy. (It does have very nice landscaping, but it’s still a mall, another temple to capitalism.) So sometimes I literally drive 10 minutes to a forest preserve to walk in nature—which I’ve found really refreshes me and makes me feel grounded. It’s not a nice thing I do for myself—it’s absolutely essential. And I told my manager that when she questioned why she couldn’t find me at my desk some afternoons. Luckily she is an excellent manager and completely understood. (Of course I am still sitting there for the other eight hours . . .)

On the advice of someone in a Facebook group I joined for highly sensitive people and empaths, I checked out the website of The Happy Sensitive and signed up for some of her free emails and videos. I’m still going through them, but one of her suggestions really stuck with me: Because we tend to pick up on so much negative energy, it’s imperative that we seek out sensations and environments that make us feel good. She calls it ‘attuning to your intuition.” It’s not an extra or a thing we should fit in if we can—it’s literally a thing we need to do to. If I want to remain functional and balanced, it’s a must.

So walking in the forest and breathing in the mingled scents of dirt, leaves, and wildflowers isn’t just a relaxing walk in the park for me—it’s a way to tune in to positive energy, which helps me release and deal with the negative energy I tend to pick up on in other environments. Maybe this is also why I respond to scents so much. So now instead of thinking I should light that favorite candle on a special occasion, I light it on a normal weeknight. I bring a little pot of solid fragrance to work to smell or dab on. I burn palo santo in my bedroom before I go to sleep. I drink my tea on my porch in the morning and breathe in the fresh air. I take breaks for walks and refuse to feel guilty about it.

The thing is, this isn’t something that’s unique to me. A lot of people have these same needs–but they ignore them, because either they aren’t allowed to meet them or feel like they aren’t. And instead of expecting us to constantly conform to the culture, I think the culture should start trying to conform to us—or at least give us space to do what we need to do to be our best. Don’t force us into ugly cubicles in office blocks with nowhere to go to escape the stress or enjoy the full texture of the world and expect everyone to thrive in that environment. And if you are stuck there, stop feeling guilty about doing what you need to do to recharge yourself. Push back. Let corporate leaders know that not everyone is able to sit at a desk nonstop for eight hours without a chance to recharge in their own way. And just maybe we’ll keep inching away from this one-size-fits-all workplace mindset to create a place where even sensitive and creative people feel happy to be.

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