Wild Things

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This week’s edition of The New Yorker includes an excerpt of an interview with the recently deceased Maurice Sendak. He’s pictured in the magazine looking like Yoda–cane and robe–next to his dog. The excerpt starts:

I am in my bathrobe in the forest with my dog, Herman, who is a German shepherd of unknowable age, because I refused to ever find out. I don’t want to know. I wish I didn’t know how old I was.”

This from the man who wrote and illustrated Where the Wild Things Are, a book that more accurately and delicately explores the complexities of childhood than most other children’s books. No wonder Sendak was not interested in growing old.

The excerpt ends thus:

It’s hard to be happy. Some people have the gift of pulling themselves up and out and saying there is more to life than just tragedy. And the there are those who can’t, and I’m one of them. Do you believe it when people say they’re happy?”

Max, the main character of Wild Things, is sent to his room after having a temper tantrum. He travels for a long time to the land of the wild things, where he becomes their leader. Still a child, though, he becomes homesick and journeys back to his room, from which he emerges to find dinner waiting, still warm. Is there any greater happiness than that?

Beer through the ages


I remember when I became really and truly interested in beer. It wasn’t so long ago. I had just graduated college, which meant that I had been consuming Key Stone Lite for four years straight. Key Stone is to a nicely crafted microbrew what cement is to ballet. And it’s just the kind of swill that would put a person off beer forever.

Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer

But then along came The New Yorker. The article that changed my entire perspective on beer focuses on a microbrewery in Delaware called Dogfish Head and its head brewer, Sam. This article came out in autumn of 2008 when I lived in a small town in Spain. My roommate and I got deliveries of vegetables from a local farm, and one of our main activities in the evenings was figuring out what to do with produce we’d never encountered before. Sam’s brewing experiments seemed akin to our own (although much more complicated). Furthermore, I was intoxicated by the strong dose of beer history and trivia.

Like this: in 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria imposed purity laws, known as the Reinheitsgebot, that limited beer brewing to only three ingredients: water, hops, and barley (yeast was as yet an unknown substance). Though the Reinheitsgebot was created to control barley and hops trade among peasants, German brewers still follow these laws. For some, creativity flourishes with restrictions–modern German brewers have learned to mimic fruit and spice flavors through endless combinations of yeast, hops, and grains–while others find inspiration in stranger places. Sam uses an archaeological chemist to help him recreate the types of alcoholic beverages drunk by ninth-century Finns and by King Midas’s court in Turkey in 730 BC.

An early depiction of beer brewing

It is somewhat surprising to think of how many centuries humans have brewed beer, considering the effort my family and I put in last Friday to make sure that our wort boiled just so, that all the parts that would touch the beer were sanitized, and that our fermentation system was airtight. Indeed, beer requires much more technology than, say, wine. Crushed grapes will ferment on their own. Beer is intentional. Still, it dates back something like 11,000 years old.

As the Reinheitsgebot once tried to kill variation in Bavarian beer, so Prohibition tried to wipe out the thousands of breweries that once dotted the American landscape (a 1935 New Yorker article bemoaned the “Fourteen Years of Suffering,” but was optimistic about the return of imported beers). And Prohibition was successful in that aim–the majority of breweries closed, leaving only a few that were able to stay solvent by creating “near beers.” But the last few decades have seen an exponential increase in microbreweries and home brewing. As we become more involved in the selection of our food–local, organic, free of artifice–so too are we becoming more cognizant of our drink. While there are still fewer than half the number of breweries in the United States than there were pre-Prohibition, I imagine that number will continue to grow. After all, both the process and result of beer brewing are way too much fun to let die on the vine.


The diamond planet, the sapphire island

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Underneath the outer layer, the planet is just one huge, cut, glittering diamond...right?

Less than a month ago, astronomers reported the existence of a planet that consists largely of extremely dense carbon…otherwise known as diamond. This diamond planet is just 4,000 light years away; I’m sure evil geniuses are already at work figuring out how to harvest this gigantic gem and ship it on home. Science fiction writers are no doubt similarly thrilled.

While the logistics of a mining a diamond planet may still be a little tricky, there’s a location closer to home that–at least until recently–had its own vast, untapped gemstone deposits.

Over the years, I’ve read many hundreds of New Yorker articles, but only a few linger in my imagination. One of these is the 2006 article The Path of Stones, an account of the gem trade in Madagascar. Burkhard Bilger describes the gemmiferous nature of the island:

The far north had basaltic sapphires, formed in volcanoes. The eastern escarpment had emeralds, deposited by superheated waters that broke through the earth’s crust when the mountains were formed. The central highlands had pegmatites: veins of hardened magma sudden with aquamarines, tourmalines, and other rare minerals. There were rubies as red as those in Sri Lanka, garnets as green as those in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, and some stones, like flaming-pink pezzottaite, that could be found almost nowhere else.”

Bilger’s article is chiefly a portrait of an American gem miner and dealer, Tom Cushman, who was part of a rush on Malagasy sapphires in 1998. Cushman had been in the country for a few years already, but hadn’t had much luck until the day a man showed him what he’d told the miners he’d bought it from were “peach-blossom garnets.” Both this dealer and Cushman knew the truth: they were pink sapphires, one of the most valuable stones on the planet.

2 Malagasy miners

Cushman immediately headed for the town of Ilakaka in south Madagascar where these sapphires originated, and spent the next several years buying, selling, and mining in the midst of what he calls the Wild West. Plenty of dealers have been killed in the area, and miners have died in cave-ins, as the mines are not well-reinforced. Thai and Sri Lankan dealers have crowded the market so much that smaller dealers mostly rely on synthetics to hopefully fool the larger dealers. The only ones who really made it big are those who “mined the miners”–the man who sold ice-cold beers to the miners, the prostitutes who followed the miners south.

The sapphire mines are pretty well tapped out now. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, did not see much of an economic benefit. Its gem trade is not quite so exploitive as the blood diamonds used to fuel warlords and insurgencies in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Yet the injustice is great: the rough sapphire that a man pulls out of the ground may earn him a week’s pay or a bullet in the head, but will go on to fetch tens of thousands of dollars after being cut.

Time to go harvest that diamond planet…I’m sure people will trade fairly there.

Susan Orlean and the rise of the urban chicken

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Chickens chillin' in the backyard

A year and a half ago, on my birthday, I went to a program called “Wits.” The featured guest was Susan Orlean and the topic was chickens. The hosts seemed to assume that chickens are such an inherently funny topic, they wouldn’t need to prepare much. Luckily, Orlean had plenty to say on the subject.

Orlean published an article in The New Yorker two years ago called, “The It Bird,” which details the recent exponential increase of urban chicken owners. As Orlean notes, chicken-owning was quite common until the 1950s, since the animals are so hardy, easy to care for, and productive (a hen in her laying years provides an egg every 1-2 days). Yet, in the 1950s, everyone wanted to be modern and anything hinting of agriculture was antithetical to modernity.

And now everyone wants chickens again. The word locavore became popular in 2007, along with its way of life: eating food that comes from a 100-mile radius from where you live. Many people interpret this by growing their own small garden of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, but what better way to complete the meal with eggs from your backyard?

My neighbors were on the cutting edge of the chicken-trend, and built a decidedly elegant coop and run several years ago when remodeling their garage. Fifteen chickens now call this coop home. I was anxious about providing daily care for the hens while my neighbors are on vacation, but I find myself already enjoying the domesticity of collecting eggs, putting out feed, and shooing the girls inside at night. It’s probably a long leap from taking care of a few pretty hens to the harsh realities of the farming life, but maybe I wouldn’t be so bad at it after all.

Here’s Susan Orlean at Wits, reading from her article The It Bird:

Shipwrecks and the Edmund Fitzgerald

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Bones of a dead ship

When I asked my boyfriend what he was up to yesterday, he said, “Researching shipwrecks.” He’d been on a album launch/cocktail cruise the previous night during which the DJ played the entirety of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Which is weird, because I’ve been researching shipwrecks as well. The New Yorker article I linked to on Wednesday led me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” (full title: The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor Who Drifted on a Life Raft for Ten Days Without Food or Water, Was Proclaimed a National Hero, Kissed by Beauty Queens, Made Rich by Publicity, and Then Spurned by the Government and Forgotten for All Time). Which made me think about wrecks in literature, like Robinson Crusoe*, and Jonathan Franzen’s meditations on this classic while spending time on the uninhabited island of Masafuera (which means Farther Away in Spanish). There’s something terrifying about shipwrecks, but also romantic in their primordial man-against-nature struggle. Thus, we have The Odyssey, Gulliver’s Travels, Twelfth Night, Life of Pi, even Tom Hanks befriending a volleyball in Castaway. And thus we have Gordon Lightfoot eulogizing the dead men of the Edmund Fitzgerald:

*Full title: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un‐inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Jeez, they used to have long titles back in the day.

The perfume of old books


Now I smell like Julia Roberts! Or, wait, like Elizabeth Gilbert? Or like a book?

The New Yorker’s Book Bench (my favorite blog) encountered three scents based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love” last summer sold through the “Fresh” product line (which seems like it could easily fit into Gilbert’s original title). The “Eat” perfume, apparently, smells like lemon, plum, and rose; “Pray” has notes of patchouli and juniper berry; “Love” is a mix of mango and sandalwood. The clever book-benchers contributed their own ideas about how perfumes based on classic books would smell. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “Great Expectations” Splash. Romantic overtones with just a hint of “moldy old mansion.” The perfect scent to wear while not eating your wedding cake. Comes in a bottle swathed in yellowed lace.
  • Essence of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Floral, with irises and roses, and notes of madness.
  • “Grendel” Musk For the Monster in You. Apples, shocked grain, a swampy mixture of sulfurous dragon smoke, and the blood of thanes. Notes of
    existential yearning and a hint of regret.

That made me think of a few book scents of my own:

  • Solitude Body Mist

    “Madame Bovary” Eau de Toilette. An avante-garde and intoxicating perfume for elegant French women. Though shocking to men, women will find the scent quite familiar. Strong on the pheromones.

  • “One Hundred Years of Solitude” body mist. Banana base notes, hints of clay for the pica-enthusiasts, fresh laundry smells that will make you feel heavenly. A perfect alchemy for the senses. Inexplicably cold as ice. Keeps on the shelf for one hundred years unless devoured by ants first.
  • “Original Sin” by Eve. Sinuous, top-notes of apple. Not for the modest.

And everything smelled like vanilla…


Just two days ago I was bemoaning the downside of March melting: the smells buried under months of snow suddenly uncovered. I woke up this morning to find that Minnesota happily solved my problem by dumping several more inches of white powder to cover it all up again (this is when I remind myself that I should be careful what I wish for).

What would the world be like if everything smelled like vanilla?

Six years ago, the New Yorker featured an article about a product called Odor Screen that would have solved my problem without me needing to bring out all the snow gear I’d just so carefully packed away. Odor Screen is a drug free gel that alters one’s perception of scents. As it says on its website, Odor Screen “provides the human olfactory pathway with a source of cross-adapting odorants, thereby altering perception of the malodor.” It is specifically marketed toward military, medical and service professionals who must encounter smells on a daily basis that could induce nausea, depression, loss of appetite, etc. The American version contains vanilla, which is supposed to relieve stress and bring about a feeling of relaxation (there were plans, at least at the time of the New York article, to market the same product in Asian countries with a green tea smell so as to be culturally specific).

The man who tested out Odor Screen in the New Yorker article visited those places in New York that are particularly pungent, such as the Fulton Fish Market and underneath the Manhattan Bridge. To his delight, instead of smelling fish, garbage, and stagnant water, all he could smell was vanilla.

It’s an interesting idea that, instead of trying to make the world around you smell better, you can just alter your nose to perceive it as pleasant. Certainly our noses help us avoid danger when we smell something off, but I’m sure there will be many times this spring when I’d prefer the scent of vanilla to the sour grass. Looking outside, I wish this Minnesota white-out was a vanilla-out instead. Excuse me while I go shovel…

How to be a perfumer


What you’ll need: a memory for thousands of scents, a good nose

Songlist: Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit

Further reading: The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr

March is an exhausting month in Minnesota; if it gives any continuing sign of winter, such as adding to snow to the ground instead of melting it away or obstinately staying below 40 degrees F (both of which it seems be doing this week) we throw up our hands in disgust. Yet when that first really warm day comes and reveals what’s been hiding under the snow for the last six months, we suffer a different kind of disgust. Thus in March I find myself longing for good smells.

I felt that way yesterday when I exited my front door and saw two pumpkins in my front yard, soggy and scummy from being left out since Halloween. To combat this distasteful image, my mind immediately went to a 2005 profile I read in the New Yorker of Jean-Claude Ellena, a professional perfumer who had just been hired as Hermes’s first in-house scent designer. In the article he is tasked to create a scent for the 2005 collection that would center around the Nile. To do so, he takes a trip along the Nile and decides that his perfume will be based on the aroma of green mango.

New Yorker articles have provided inspiration for many of my career whims, and this Ellena profile almost convinced me to change my undergraduate major. Not only does he get to take exotic trips, his main goal is to create the illusion of beautiful scents. The science behind smell is fascinating, as well. In a different New Yorker profile, this time of Michelle Hagen, flavorist for Givaudan (the largest flavor and fragrance manufacturer in the world), writer Raffi Khatchadourian describes the sense of smell thus:

Smells, for the most part, are fed directly from the nose to the “pre-semantic” part of the brain where cognition does not occur, and where emotions are processed. The bypassing of the thalamus may be one reason why smells can be so hard to describe in detail, and also why aromas stimulate such powerful feelings.”

While difficult for most of us, describing smells in detail is an essential skill for professional perfumers and flavorists. At the beginning of her apprenticeship with Givaudan, Hagen used Benjamin Moore paint chips to help her memorize the scents of approximately one thousand chemicals (“California Lilac was ethyl isovalerate; Mellow Yellow was gamma octalactone” the article tells us). Though it took him a long time to learn the science (“ten years to know, twenty years to master” he says) Ellena is now capable is identifying the country of origin of a specific floral essence as well as whether it was distilled by stainless steel, aluminum, or steel. Ellena says that his nose doesn’t smell any better than anyone else’s, he simply has better means to understand what it is that he’s smelling.

Girlfriend, you wearing "Cleopatra's Secret Perfume," too? What a coincidence!

When I was a kid, I had a perfume making kit that included five bottles of fragrances: jasmine, heliotrope, lily-of-the-valley, peppermint, and apple. One of the “experiments” was to make what the creators of the kit called Cleopatra’s Secret Perfume, which was heavy on the jasmine and included all of the other ingredients, besides peppermint. I remember feeling very grown-up, wearing a scent that was not only “secret” but also the very same one Cleopatra once donned.

Indeed, there is an element of the mysterious in the science of scent. Both Ellena and Hagen reference their jobs as creating illusions. Both of them work with chemical compounds, but both of them must make a consumer completely unaware of those compounds. “With me, one plus one equals three,” Ellena says in his profile. “When I add two things, you get much more than two things.” Perfume itself is used to create an illusion: the concept of a fragrance’s sillage refers to its ability to make people believe that a woman is still in the room once she has left. No wonder, then, that perfumers work so hard to master the art of sillage and women are so interested in wearing such perfumes.

As I look out at the flattened grass of my front yard, yellowed and damp and no doubt covering other decaying material, I wish someone could create an illusion to mask its scent. The kind of sillage, for instance, that would make a person believe spring was still in the air, and had never really left.