A nose for the flavours of love

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann

A friend of mine, twice divorced and currently polyamorous, once told me a story about how he met one of his current partners. The story is rather unsurprising considering that he practically lives in his kitchen. Everything for him is about flavour.

He had a “gnawing” attraction to a woman he was introduced to by his housemate at a beach party.
The party wasn’t quite at the beach. It was on a grass field next to a lagoon.

Surreptitiously, he had watched the woman, a lithe dancer, twirl around in her bikini top and light cotton skirt. On her head was a makeshift bandana she had made with leggings, complete with a tail that mimicked her body movements as she turned with the flowing movements of a figure skater. He couldn’t remember the song that froze the moment, but he does remember the look she had in her eyes when they were introduced by his housemate.

“It was a faraway, look,” he said. “But at the same time, very piercing. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt somebody look through you but with the intent of peering directly into your soul. It wasn’t unsettling. Also, with all the dancing she had been doing, I noticed that she probably wasn’t wearing any roll-on, because the faint smell of her body worked its way in my direction.”

My man says he was “totalled” by the moment, like a written-off car. Her barely perceptible scent, her eyes, her supple yet sturdy physique. “It was a kind of cinnamon, peppery smell,” he said with a chuckle. “All natural.”

The rest is that they fell deeply in love, and he and his housemate just happened to be looking for a third resident.

And what of his other love, I asked him as he concluded his story. “Oh, she has this soft, lush skin. She smells like eucalyptus and a bit of tea tree oil. When I hug her, I inhale deeply on her neck and feel immediately soothed. A charge of energy rushes through me.”

“Kinda like Vicks VapoRub,” I said, goading him. He laughed.

“No, you fool. That’s mostly camphor.”

“Well, tea tree does have that type of smell and Vicks has eucalyptus, for that matter. I put that on my son’s chest.”

“The point is when I hold her I just can’t let go. It’s a problem, you know.”

“That’s how love should be, dude. But what do I know.”

My man’s desire to not let go of his rubbed-up lover probably has something to do with his childhood memories. Just as it happened to me when I was growing up, his mother would calm his tight chest with Vicks or make him inhale Karvol to clear his nasal passages.

He has been my friend since primary school. His mother died when he was 13, first term of high school.

Smells, says Michelle Krell Kydd, a former fragrance and flavours industry consultant, go into that part of the brain that manages memory and emotion. It is known as the limbic system. The cerebral cortex, which manages language, only kicks in later, “meaning that you feel and remember first” when you smell something.

Even though we are not aware of how smell affects us on a day-to-day basis, consumer product companies are, says perfumer Holladay Saltz. In a Ted Talk in which she touches on the effect of synthetic smells on our behaviour, she mentions that Tide, the biggest-selling United States detergent (by a margin of more than two to one to the nearest competitor), is a combination of “foody, fruity and floral smells”.

Respectively, these smells, she says, create feelings of cleanliness, comfort and care. She then quotes a statement in the talk, which she says is a note to fundraisers, that “people were more willing to donate money to a charity if the room they were sitting in smelt of citrus-scented Windex”.

“These products are creating our memories and shaping our behaviours,” she says in the talk. “They are catalysing our brains to want the same homogenous smells over and over again.”

Granted, my friend responds palpably to essential oils and “natural aromas”, but Saltz suggests it is a jungle out there.

He doesn’t wear cologne because the formaldehyde irritates his skin, and he doesn’t “rub up” with essentials because, “in his mind, that is associated with witchcraft”.

“Ujola nomthakathi, kahle kahle.”

“Well, she’s not black,” he said.

“Yazi, you’d think with all your Kearsney College education you would have learnt something, but you may as well be part of the lost tribe of Shabazz, man.”

He is “neutral smells all the way”, he said. Or so he believes, him and his aqueous cream. I tell him how ridiculous he is about the witchcraft statement, even though I know nothing about Nguni culture and the use of essential oils.

Scents, mostly of the undetectable kind, have a lot to do with attraction between people. Although they help us to find “suitable” partners, they are, more precisely, filters that help people to choose partners as far away from their own gene pool as possible.

People apparently have more secretion and sweat glands than any other primate and they use the vomeronasal organ, a crescent-shaped collection of neurons at the base of each nostril, to detect pheromones. But some research suggests that not all people can do this.

According to a 2017 multinational study (published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology), our perceptions of a person are governed by “multimodal functions involving the visual, the auditory and the olfactory” (relating to our sense of smell). These combined factors “increase the efficiency of our actions and reactions when processing critical social cues”. 

Our smell, on its own, can determine personality, fertility, genetic compatibility, health status and age. People,the study says,do have the ability to recognise our kin from body odour, “which may be important in mate choice in order to avoid inbreeding”. Our natural smells keep the gene pool wide so we can strengthen our immune systems.

My dude, by the way, is expecting his first “little browning”.

So one may wonder, what is the effect of all this when we all gravitate to perfume in the hope of “agreeable scents”. Agreeable with what exactly? A YouTube ad for high-end products by one Jerry Fragrance proclaims: “Ask any girl around you and they’ll tell you that a good-smelling man is more attractive than a bad-smelling man. Period.”

Well, trust me. My dude smells terrible after a clutch of sit-ups, like a pork chop in the oven. Plus, he is a rugger bugger who loves his fatback. That’s why his neutral smell theory seems bogus to me.

But you know what, I have seen enough T-shirt tests to understand that women’s noses can burn through the bullshit on the way to their heart’s desires. Us poor sods, we’re likely to be waylaid by a dab of eucalyptus.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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