How one woman traded her love affair with food for a fragrant new passion.
I am lying on my back on the cool wood of my bedroom floor, an arm resting gently over my eyes, breathing deeply through my nose and sighing—long, full sighs that taper off into little creaturely murmurs of contentment. I don't remember exactly how I got down there. A prickly flush of anxiety over something had sent me pacing through the house. There had been a fevered search for a certain glass vial, then success, a brief struggle with the cap, the application along the insides of my wrists. Then, somehow, I was on the floor, and very happy to be there, with the dry, dusky, resin-sweet scents of myrrh and frankincense blowing through my head like a high desert wind, and then, just when that dryness began to feel austere, the round, dark-wine scent of a deep red rose, blooming up through the resins, a hint of ripe fruit in its velvet petals. The scent warmed and expanded and changed on my skin, and I went on breathing it in, following it along, diving into it. The floor seemed like a perfectly sensible place to do this.
For nearly four years now, I've been carrying on a wholly unexpected, wildly passionate love affair with perfume. I am an earnest, bookish person, inclined to Birkenstocks and recycling, and at first I resisted, startled and embarrassed to find myself so excited about something so girly, so frivolous, and so distasteful to most of the people I knew. But not long after I ended up lying on the floor, I made a quiet internal decision to go ahead, as far as I liked within the limits of my budget and basic sanity. Mostly I did so because, well, if you found something legal that made you feel that way, wouldn't you? But I had another reason, too. I had noticed out of the corner of my eye—I didn't want to look too closely for fear it would stop—that perfume was slowly but inexorably nudging aside my lifelong obsession with food.
I suppose this is the moment to confess that I don't believe in diets. "Oh yes, of course, diets never work," the diet people assure us. "You need a sustainable lifetime eating plan." By which they mean a permanent diet. But that's not quite what I mean. I've spent most of my life starring in a not very interesting B-grade melodrama about a woman torn between two food worlds: the one beloved by doctors and nutritionists, with its endless studies and measurements, every inch, gram, pound, percentage, and portion counted and accounted for—and the rich, messy, gorgeous one created by writers and cooks, where food and flavor fuse with art, memory, culture, storytelling, and all the comforts and pleasures the sensual life can offer. I can talk complex carbs and glycemic indexes, but I can also recommend restaurants in five different cities and see three wars and an empire in a bowl of soup. The ultimate penalty for turning my back on the diet world is early death, so I worry over my cholesterol levels and my waistline. But I can't help noticing that no matter what my height-weight ratio is, neither I nor any of the people I love is going to live forever, and I haven't found a sustainable eating plan yet that takes that fact fully and completely into account.
So my perfume diet was not some silly swap program where I tried to satisfy my cravings for, say, the tang of the nuoc cham dipping sauce that comes with my Vietnamese egg rolls with a spritz of something bright, savory, and citrusy. (Though it's not a completely terrible idea—try Annick Goutal's classic citrus, Eau d'Hadrien, or L'Artisan Parfumeur's strange and wonderful Timbuktu.) Nor was it a perfume-for-pounds reward system. Let's face it, if I had the self-discipline and restraint necessary for that kind of plan, I probably wouldn't be here writing about diets in the first place.
What I did, and do, have is greed—greed for knowledge, greed for sensation, greed for delight, and for deliciousness in as many forms as possible—and larger than average portions of enthusiasm and curiosity. Though I didn't know it at the time, these were my tools, and when I gave myself permission to follow my passion for perfume, I put them into unfettered, unified action for the first time. The result was not a diet so much as an invasion—the infiltration of perfume into nearly every aspect of my life touched by food.
Looking back, I can see it began with the samples, the small glass vials of perfume that I had begun to collect—do I really need to use the word hoard to be clear here?—in a wooden cigar box hidden under the bed. Some of them I had gotten for free from kind sales associates. Others had come in the mail from one of the specialty boutiques I'd read about online: For the price of an inexpensive meal out, I could own small amounts of five or six expensive perfumes. Those little vials were mine and mine alone in a selfish, secretive, Halloween-candy sort of way that made me feel about 4 years old. I liked to paw through them in their little boxes, separating them into shifting categories of my own devising. Like any stashed treat, they were always lurking somewhere in my thoughts. I spent a luxurious, not to say obsessive, amount of time considering which one I might try next, and when I finally did, I used only the tiniest amount of perfume on my wrist or hand, savoring it, making it last. Perfume was my private, guilty indulgence, and if I accidentally applied enough to elicit a compliment from someone, I blushed, caught with my hand in the cookie jar.
I've always been somewhat mournful over how quickly flavor disappears from my mouth, and then—when I take another bite, and another, to bring it back—from my plate. But a good perfume can unfold for hours on the skin, long enough to bask in, think about, live with. I learned that my favorite way to sample perfume was to put some on and then research it. Sniffing along with reviews I found on blogs with names like Now Smell This, Perfume-Smellin' Things, and Bois de Jasmin, I soon came to recognize the fragile sweetness of violets or the rough green dirt of vetiver in a perfume the way I had once recognized the buttery herbal note of dill in a dressing or the resonance of red wine in a stew. When I found a smell I loved, I chased after its variations, as I had so often done with a new ingredient, learning not just the smell of leather but the soft apricot skin of suede, the sexy, sweaty warmth of a used saddle, the lipstick-and-powder polish of an elegant purse, the tarry street smell of a black leather jacket, and the fierce, thin smoke of a cracked whip.
The more I sniffed, the more I read. My food books gathered dust while I picked my way through the lavish coffee-table tomes that held the bits and pieces of perfume's story, a hidden history as full of scandal, politics, and eccentric characters as anything I had read about food. Late at night, when I should have been working or sleeping, I followed links into the blog archives, paging through the comments for more leads, reading for the pure pleasure of being talked into trying new things.
A couple of months into all this, I was sitting in traffic, tired, bored, and a little hungry, and realized that instead of ordering imaginary takeout, I was daydreaming about perfume. The channel in my brain that normally ran perpetually on food and flavors now offered me a program of smells. Waiting on the phone, or working at my desk in the late afternoon, I no longer considered the various possibilities of, say, the butternut squash I had just bought—the way its beautiful saffron color might look in a risotto or pureed in a soup, whether to pair its sweetness with a touch of sage or a pinch of curry. Instead, I conjured up the scent of vanilla, roughened and deepened with smoke or smoothed with the milky comfort of sandalwood. I considered the beauty of honey lifted by orange blossoms and the way green leaves could lead to the lush erotic rot at the heart of a gardenia.
But it wasn't until I left for a trip to New York City that I realized just how far things had gone. Where, my longtime boyfriend asked me on the plane, were we going to eat? It was a fair question. My parents had always planned our family vacations around restaurants, and I'd kept up the tradition. In a place as food-mad as New York, every meal was an opportunity to be researched and debated. Normally, I'd have answered his question with a sheaf of reviews, recommendations from friends, neighborhood maps, even a possible subway route, but I realized with a start, and quick twinge of regret, that I hadn't even thought about it. For the first time in my life, I didn't care where or what I ate. None of our city friends believed me when I told them this. "No, really," I insisted, surprised how much I was enjoying my strange new freedom. "We can go anywhere." Anywhere, as long as I had time to slip away in the afternoons and follow the routes I'd planned out to all the perfume boutiques in the city.
When I returned home, things got even stranger. A friend called to ask where she should take her mother for dinner. I didn't know what to say. People who could describe the last three dishes I'd made for them in loving detail invited me to a potluck, and I brought nothing but wine. I felt light, giddy, disoriented—and worried. I'd been feeding my friends for such a long time that I wasn't sure what would happen, who we would be, if I stopped. So I offered them what I had on hand: perfume. One by one, they came and sniffed. Some of them surprised me—the three women in my life least likely to ever own a pair of heels turned out to have secret perfume lives of their own. They went through my samples with an expert relish. A few surprised themselves. My friend Joy prided herself on her strength and frugality. She'd lived in a yurt for two years, rode her bike instead of driving, and grew a huge vegetable garden. A secret sensualist, she'd always let me cook for her—I was her excuse to eat something besides lentils and kale. But perfume? She sniffed gingerly, experimentally, just to please me. Then a few months later she called. She was pregnant, nauseous, and craving the scent of roses. Could I help? Yes, I said, happily. Oh, yes. I could.
"That's all very nice," I can hear the diet people saying, "but did it work?" Meaning, did I lose the weight? Do I have a lifetime plan? Am I a slender, sweet-smelling, perfume-diet success?
Well, yes and no. I lost some weight in that first heady year of scented distraction. But mostly, I surprised myself so thoroughly that it felt as if anything might happen next. I might, for example, become a person who goes to the gym on a regular basis. (And I did.) I might get married in a big wedding after 11 years of stalling. (And I did.) I might do a lot of things. Finding a lifetime eating plan might be one of them. I'll let you know.
Meanwhile, there is still a lot to smell. The tetchy sadness of most diets is the way they make the world shrink. Half the grocery store, three-quarters of the menu, all of the bar; whole neighborhoods and ways of life vanish, and what remains is parceled out in careful, fussed-over portions. But the perfume diet made my world expand. I'd always been a person who stopped to crush a basil leaf or bend toward a lily, but now everything seems worth inhaling, naming, describing to myself: the green humidity of the warming air on my morning walks, the mix of honey, peaches, and kerosene rising from the overripe mangoes at the Mexican market, even the oddly comforting stale-corn-chip smell of my dog (who is overdue for a bath). The world rushes toward me, and I taste it all without ever opening my mouth. Sometimes it is so beautiful, I have to lie down on the floor.