Culinary Smelling: Matsutake Mushroom

I had just started reading a section of The Mushroom at the End of the World, a book about the matsutake mushroom by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, when it was time to go to dinner. I was surprised and delighted to see the list of specials—there it was: matsutake mushroom, served with preserved pine, currants, and herring roe. I had never heard of matsutake until about an hour before, and I wasn’t 100% sure I was remembering the name right, but I had to order it.

The Mushroom at the End of the World Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing mastutake book cover

From what I’d read at that point, I gathered that matsutake had a polarizing scent, and that it could overtake and ruin a dish if you didn’t prepare it correctly (Tsing described throwing out an entire stir-fry when the matsutake’s flavor invaded every bite). I was expecting a strong and distinctive aroma, but was a little disappointed to find the dish perfectly inoffensive. Light and earthy, with an outdoorsy aromatic lift, probably from the pine, and a hint of salty marine breeze from the roe. The mushroom was served raw and sliced thin, yet its smell and flavor was mild. Ordinary.

After dinner I went back to the chapter I’d read and realized that I hadn’t yet encountered an actual description of the smell. I kept reading. Tsing says that for the Japanese people to whom matsutake is so delightful, it’s a nostalgic smell. It “smells like village life and a childhood visiting grandparents and chasing dragonflies. It recalls open pinewoods, now crowded out and dying. Many small memories come together in the smell … It was an easier time, before nature became degraded and poisonous.” Eventually she breaks the news: “It is time to tell you that most people of European origin can’t stand the smell.” Even though matsutake flourishes in the PNW, Tsing says that white mushroom pickers find the smell “nauseating,” describing the smell as “mold,” “turpentine,” and “mud.” When I googled matsutake to try to find out what kind of smell I should have expected, the first hit was this description from California mycologist David Arora: “A provocative compromise between ‘red hots’ and ‘dirty socks.’” I felt a little bit shortchanged to have been given such a pleasant dish.

“In Glorious Smell-o-Vision”

How cool is this? The (remaining) original “Smell Brain” by Hans Laube, the smell-disseminating organ for the only feature film written for scent: The Scent of Mystery in 1960. Miles of tubing disseminated scents to the audience at key moments of the film.

The film and its ambitious scenting mechanics went down in history as failed experiment: the first and the last major motion picture to be written for scent and screened with scent. Recently, however, the film and its scents have been screened again by @inglorious_smellovision, who has a documentary coming out soon! Visit their website to read more.

Natural Perfume

Periodically I crave to wear natural perfumes. It’s like changing the radio station to a different genre of music—not necessarily better or worse than synthetics or mixed media perfumes, but a different character altogether. (There’s a lot of hyperbole out there that would have you believe that “natural” is a superior moral position over “synthetic”; in perfumery, however, the truth is much more complicated.) It’s like choosing a watercolor painting instead of a photograph—it’s simply a different experience.

Maybe it’s the summer heat, but lately I’ve been craving naturals more and more! These are some of my favorites from Jolie LaideJ Hannah CoAftelier Perfumes (I’m especially loving Mandy’s solid perfumes!), and Laromatica Perfume.

I’m always looking for more to try—what are your favorite natural perfumes?

Perfume as Memento Mori

Serge Lutens Borneo 1834

To wear perfume is to destroy it. When you have a bottle of beautiful perfume—especially a perfume that has since been discontinued or reformulated, as my Borneo 1834 has—it’s tempting to want to stash it away, to save it rather than wear it.

Even if it were possible to perfectly preserve a fragrance (perfumes evaporate, age, and change)—would you want to? What is it they say about a real flower being more beautiful for the fact that it will die? For me, slowly using up a beloved perfume—especially if I don’t think I’ll be able to find another bottle once it’s gone—is a kind of memento mori, a little vanitas painting I take with me throughout the day, coaxing me more firmly into the present moment.

I often think about this quote from Annie Dillard and apply it outside my writing life:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Anything you do not smell freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your perfume cabinet and find that it has evaporated and the top notes have turned.