Book Review: Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells by Harold McGee

Walking into my house this time of year, I am greeted by the intoxicating scent of Daphne.  Daphne is a wonderful evergreen shrub that blooms here in late January and keeps on blooming for weeks.  I have always loved the smell of Daphne, and on neighborhood walks can sniff out other Daphnes in flower.   But not until reading Nose Dive:  A Field Guide to the World’s Smells did I think about delving into what the fragrance was.  I will agree with others that it has a powerful nutmeg and honeysuckle perfume, a sweet and spicy fragrance that is strong, but not sickly.  I think it has a bright citrus element too.

Reading through Nose Dive by Harold McGee I really starting to think about about aromas and what characteristics they have.  Harold gave me the additional information about why they smell the way they do.

Here are three reasons to read this book:

1.  The smells of our world.  Nose Dive is an excellent compilation of the smells of our world, starting from the creation of Earth, followed by plant and animal smells and then into the smells of land, sea and industry.  This is all followed by the world of chosen smells; the smells of fragrances, cooking and lastly, cured and fermented foods.

2.  You’ll learn a lot.  The book covers how aromas are created by their molecular compounds on to how aromas are synthesized for the consumer goods industry.

3.  You’ll be surprised.  There may be a few revelations for you.  I learned what aromas some cheeses emit is, as well as the funky smell of black currants.  That lovely smell of cassis in wine may not be as pleasing as first thought.

And here is one big reason not to:

You may never smell things the same again!  While reading this book, I’ve been sticking my nose in freshly laundered towels, jars of black currant preserves, tubs of hummus and handfuls of compost to learn the fundamental smells of things.  While I have always had a good sniffer, this was detrimental to me earlier this year.  While sniffing for that pleasing fresh laundered towel smell, I was shocked that my clean laundry stunk!  Ten loads of laundry were rewashed, my washing machine was scrubbed inside and out, and I found a filter on my machine I hadn’t known about for 13 years.  Going forward, when I do the recommended bimonthly filter cleaning I will remember that I’m battling the stink most likely caused by the bacteria Moraxella osloensis.  (p. 546)

Nose Dive is a great book.  It is quite hefty.  I figured there were about 600 detailed pages I had to get through.  But they were fun and informative.  Good quotes, good references, and fun facts were discovered.  Harold McGee also encourages you to read the book whatever way you want.  Skip ahead to the wine section, or breeze through the plant smells.  Every author should write that way!

Harold does a wonderful job of taking very dense information (lots of chemical compounds are discussed and diagrammed) and making it accessible.  With Harold living in Northern California now, I was able to virtually walk the streets of San Francisco as he described the scents his neighborhood expressed.  Also, he allowed me to learn what some mysterious plants, and smells, were that I’ve encountered my entire life.  An example of this is Rabbit Tobacco.  Growing up in the Bay Area, I was often out wandering in the hills.  In late summer I would always discover “maple plant”, an everlasting flower that smelled exactly like maple syrup.    Reading this book, I now know the plant is Rabbit Tobacco, and it smells of maple syrup as well as curry and fenugreek.  Exactly!

My only unresolved sensational question is:  How does Febreeze work?  I may never know.





Share the Article

Related articles