Friday, July 9, 2010
ON NATURAL AROMAS
I started thinking about the topic of natural scents and flavors while sampling a particularly insipid all-natural perfume yesterday and eating a mango today. I am all in favor of natural foods, scents, clothing, and anything else that can be made from natural materials, but I wonder why so many people who embrace the “natural” lifestyle equate it with excruciatingly bland. Certain of my friends and in-laws are into natural foods, and eating at their house is always torture. Try to imagine tasteless tofu lasagne made with whole-wheat noodles and waxy soy cheese. No spices, no flavoring of any kind. Even if there is flavoring, tofu sucks it all out, so the unflavored lasagne is like swallowing a gustatory black hole. Along with the lasagne there’s probably a salad - fine as far as it goes, but instead of good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the poor organic greens are smothered in some sort of viscous, tasteless, no-fat "healthy" dressing. For dessert there’s a pumpkin pie made with pumpkin from the backyard garden of the party in question. It sounds good until you taste it. It’s unflavored mashed pumpkin on a lumpy, 2-inch thick crust of whole-wheat flour and flax seed, probably held together with tofu.
In North American culture, I think there is some sort of Puritan idea that whatever is good for you cannot, by definition, be enjoyable. It’s the only reason I can think of for the plethora of inedible “health food” and “natural food” that exists. For heaven’s sake, traditional Indian vegetarian food is all-natural and is some of the spiciest and most delicious in the world. Traditional Italian cuisine is all-natural and delicious. So is traditional Mexican food and Thai food - the list could go on and on. All it takes is good ingredients, a little imagination and the desire to actually enjoy eating.
I think the same principle of “bland equals virtuous” is sometimes applied to the making of natural perfumes, judging by the ones that I’ve tested. There are plenty of natural oils, resins and absolutes that are every bit as strong and long-lasting as most synthetics. Think about traditional Indian attars and Arabian perfumes. These (at least the good ones) are all-natural, but stronger and more pungent than many “western” perfumes, even the synthetic ones.
In my own perfume formulation, I try not to use a synthetic material when a natural one will do, not because I consider natural materials somehow virtuous, but because the natural material almost always has a deeper and richer scent than the synthetic one and is therefore more enjoyable. It’s like the difference between eating a real ripe mango and something containing artificial “mango” flavor. There’s no comparison. It’s the difference between real wood and laminate, blown glass and plastic, leather and vinyl, real gold and “gold-toned” metal.
Having said all this, sometimes the ethical choice is the synthetic one. People have no business using real ivory, tortoise shell, oils made from plants that are on the brink of extinction, or anything else that’s not completely renewable. I don’t think mangoes or lavender are going extinct any time soon, at least not as long as people cultivate them, so I’ll continue to enjoy the natural versions.