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Snippet of 724: The Power of Smell with Harold McGee

From Audio: 724: The Power of Smell with Harold McGee

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Duration: 05:39
Listen to this snippet on the power of smell with Harold McGee. To listen to the entire discuss, be sure to check out the full episode!
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Listen to this snippet on the power of smell with Harold McGee. To listen to the entire discuss, be sure to check out the full episode!
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So tell us how you decided to, you know, take it. Not a total 1 80 but a little bit of turn into a deep dive into the study of aroma. Well, back in 2010, I, uh, started work on what I thought was a book about flavor. Because, you know, I I write about food and drink and for me, flavors the most fascinating aspect of cooking and enjoying food. And I really wanted Thio devote a whole book just to that in the process, I ended up changing the focus for a couple of reasons. Um, one of them was that, of course, flavors taste plus smell, but taste is relatively limited sense. Smell is where all the variety of food comes from. Eso I I knew I was going to focus more on smelled on taste. And then once I did, that began to be struck by the echoes among different aromas of foods. For example, Parmesan cheese smelling like ripe pineapple sometimes okay on Ben, by the echoes of the larger world in foods eso wine writers have the most advanced vocabulary for describing aromas, and they talk about, you know, flowery smells and wines. They talk about sweaty saddle smells and wines. Those have nothing to do with with fermented grapes. But yet those smells really are there. So that led me to ask the question, What are those smells doing in sweaty saddles or flowers? Um, and that ended up drawing me into this question. Why do things in the world in general have the smells that they do? And, uh, I took this dive that that required 10 years because I knew food and drink. But I didn't know sweaty saddles or flowers, so I had to learn all that stuff. You know, I confined the sweaty saddle here in California, but finding someone who has studied the volatile molecules from a sweaty saddle. That's the real challenge. May that person exist. Um, as you mentioned smell is the vast majority of what we think of this flavor, that that's really what contributes the flavor. Just a basic statement, you know, taste, uh, saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sour nous. Um, umami is generally included now, and they're they're a couple other like maybe that's a taste. Maybe that's not kind of things going on, but almost everything else that we perceive as flavor comes from smell. And in the book you write, that smell has long been regarded, you know, in Western philosophy anyway, as quote the lowest sense, What does that mean? Well, it's true in Western traditions that it's been considered, you know, more reflective of our animal nature than of our higher nature. So you know we can. We can write. We can communicate with each other with sound. We can think of things that aren't right in front of us and draw pictures of them or compose music. We can do things with those senses that we don't seem to be able to do with smell, which has more to do with, uh, detecting what's around us, not necessarily something that we're actually creating and reflecting our human nature with on oftentimes smell comes down to a matter of nice or not so nice. You know, uh, oftentimes we noticed smells when they're disgusting, you know, and they get our attention for that reason, and we don't have the same kind of problems with vision and hearing. So smell just has seemed to be, uh, much more grounded in our in physical necessity, and therefore not as, um worthy of attention as sight and hearing. That's so interesting. But I love what you say. Um, you write a version of this in the book, and when we were chatting, you said this and this really beautiful way you said smell is the bridge between what we put in our bodies and what is in the world around us, and that really reforms the way I think about that sense. Um, what does that idea mean to you? Well, that's what helped explain for me why it was that I was getting these echoes of the rest of the world in in food and drink. You know, we have to breathe many times a minute. Every time we take air in, we're also taking in molecules from the world around us. And, um, if we pay attention to what those molecules are, uh, that is to say, pay attention to the smells we're detecting. Then we learn things about the world around us. In that way, that might not be evident by by sight or by hearing on then, when we enjoy food and drink were also breathing. But we're breathing out instead of breathing in, and it's that breathing out that exhalation that brings molecules from our mouth into contact with our nose to help us, uh, confirm and savor what it is that we've taken into our bodies.
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