Marzipan Memories or the Scent of Plum Kernel Oil, Essay 15 of #52essays2017

Plum and Rose Eye Serum by Yes Organic.

My best friend Indigo, owner of Yes Organic Boutique in Albuquerque, sells a handcrafted Plum and Rose Eye Serum that makes my mouth water. The first time I smelled it I felt confused. It smells a little of rose but not at all like plums, a sweet scent, familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then I looked up plum oil and found that plum kernel oil is taken from the soft center of the common European plum (Prunus domestica), and is famous for smelling like marzipan. Prunus is the genus of the so-called stone fruits like nectarines, apricots, cherries, and yes almonds too.

Besides tempting me to drink my beauty product, the marzipan scent of this Plum and Rose Eye Serum takes me back to a strange and somewhat lonely moment in my life when I stayed in a studio apartment in Paris. Back then I was neither blind nor sighted and, damn it all to hell, the iPhone had not yet been invented.

The first summer I spent in Paris was to learn French after my first year of grad school, but being unable to read normal print or see much in the way of street signs or the expressions and hand gestures of French people, I failed. I did a lot of wandering around aimlessly, walking from one end of Paris to the other and somehow finally met a guy who seemed to sort of change things. It felt like it anyway. I had been lost and then I was found. We traveled together to Limousin to visit with family and ate very well. We camped out in the shadow of the Pyrenees and loved and argued quite a bit, but that is all another story.

Prunus domestica on tree.

The following summer I returned to Paris to try again. This was after my French love had come to New York and we realized there was no future together, and my friend set me up in her sister’s place in Belleville. It was the first time I’d ever lived alone, no mother, no boyfriend or friend, no roommates, and it was, as I said, strange and lonely.


Fruit shaped marzipan.In those days I had an only child’s tendency to cheer myself up with food, and a poor child’s greedy appetite. Whenever I had the chance, I guiltily pilfered the food of others. From babysitting gigs to roommates, their food always tempted me, and I would eat without feeling good about it, stealthily and with an attempt at taking a little at a time so that the food would not be missed.

I hadn’t lived in a household of plenty growing up, and for my mom and I eating groceries was a matter of finishing and replenishing, hopefully. We never had extra, not like the rich friends I went to school with who had boxes and boxes of cereal to choose from and freezers stocked with infinite meal possibilities.

So in that little studio up the street from the Canal, in an area of lower class and ethnic Parisians–a few miles and a thousand worlds away from the Champs-Élysées, I tried to work on French grammar using my portable CCTV which blew up letters big enough for me to read–much bigger than any magnifying lens could do and in high contrast so that my peripheral vision could make sense of the letters–a task it was not meant to do, and be repelled into the tiny one-person pantry to snoop. Unable to read labels, I used my fingers and my nose to ferret out points of interest.

It was during one of those gluttonous reconnoiterings that I found the tube of marzipan. From that moment forward, I obsessed over that foil tube. As I, day by day, chipped away at the sticky, mealy, nutty sweet stuff–almost savory with its dark undertones of almond smoke–my understanding of almond flavoring was forever altered. I had certainly tasted it before, but not in its natural state. No. Almond flavored items from America with their synthetic benzaldehyde pushing itself into cakes and cookies on the cheap could not compare to that ambrosial and addictive paste.

That second summer, I did not fall in love, but got better at French. I took language classes at the Sorbonne, learning the language with other foreigners who thought I was quite weird and stupid with my CCTV pulled out of its mysterious black suitcase and plopped onto my desk. The class was too hard for me and I didn’t really know how to study. I did not meet any friends until after I gave a presentation on Derrida and other postmodern theorists that I worked on in my head smoking cigarettes at the Canal. I composed and memorized my little presentation in perfectly acceptable French, and they were impressed.

I believe I spoke of the Siècle des Lumières and quoted Diderot, and when it was over I was invited out on the town for the first time. Not much came of it, but a sense of gratification and relief. The class ended, and friends from America would visit soon.

Paris eclipse.

One of those friends (whom I somehow lost) and I visited Paris Disney and we twirled in a teacup, innocent still. There was an eclipse that summer also, and I saw the strange light filtering onto the upturned faces wearing funny glasses. The light had been so odd, silvery eeriness with the earth and the moon and the sun aligned, that I took a picture. I can never remember which is which–solar eclipse versus lunar eclipse. I only remember the light and how everything glowed that last summer in Paris.

 

*This is #15 of #52essays2017. Check out #14 “The Hand That Extends” here*

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Melissa officinalis (or Lemon Balm): Booze & Botany & Monasteries oh my! Essay 11 of #52essays2017

Melissa officinalis derives its name from the Greek word honeybee because the tiny white flowers are so attractive to bees. According to The Drunken Botanist: “The upper leaves and flowers are steamed distilled to extract this potent flavor, which goes into absinthe, vermouth, and herbal liqueurs. It is suspected to be one of the secret ingredients in both Chartreuse and Benedictine.”

Boyer's Carmelite Water factory with monks, drawing, probably an advertisement.

As discussed in this article on St-Germain, Medieval monks and nuns used booze to preserve the healing powers of herbs. The famous Carmelite Water consists of Melissa officinalis macerated in rectified spirits with angelica, nutmeg, and other medicinal plants in a closely guarded formula that can still be purchased in German pharmacies for stomach upset.

Officinalis is a term from Medieval Latin that refers to the place where the medicines and other necessities of the monastery were kept. It denoted a plant (or sometimes animal) as having established use value as a medicine. It was Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish taxonomist, who first employed the binomial nomenclature that so plagues young botanists and plant enthusiasts today. Melissa officinalis, Rosmarinus officinalis, and many more plants with the epithets officinalis (for masculine and feminine nouns) or officinale (for neuter nouns) tell us that the plant was known and used by at least the middle of the 18th Century, when Linnaeus published his several editions of Systema Naturae.

As Mrs. M. Grieve writes in her 1931 Modern Herbal, Melissa officinalis is also known as sweet balm or lemon balm. “The word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, the chief of sweet-smelling oils. It is so called from its honeyed sweetness.” Grieve continues, “It was highly esteemed by Paracelsus, who believed it would completely revivify a man. It was formerly esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.”

The essential oil of Melissa officinalis is quite expensive (about $60-70 for a 5ml bottle of good quality oil), so I decided to give the hydrosol a try. I ordered a 4 oz. spray bottle from PhiBee Aromatics, a family-run distiller in Arizona, who specialize in oils of the Southwest.

Melissa is native to the Mediterranean but has been naturalized in many places around the world. I messaged Clare to ask a couple questions about their hydrosols and she got back to me right away, among other things she mentioned that she often has a teaspoon of melissa in warm water before bed. I too put a teaspoon of Melissa hydrosol into a cup of warm water and added a shot of Bushmill’s Honey for an instant hot toddy–delicious!

Melissa officinalis from Botanical Magazine.Melissa officinalis is a member of the mint family (lamiaceae), which includes many of the classic culinary herbs such as basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, and like these others is wonderful in the kitchen. Yet, with so much commodification over the course of the twentieth century, a huge variety of plants used in the kitchen got compressed into a few, and many delicious flavors absconded from the typical American palate. The result is that when I encounter an herb like melissa I am delighted to find recipes that support its culinary use, for instance this one for lemon balm pesto.

Having lost the majority of my vision later in life, I still consider myself to be a highly visual person, but I’m trying very hard to hone my aesthetic appreciation of taste and smell. The hydrosol of Melissa officinalis has a delightfully lemony tang, but not like lemons. As Suzanne Catty puts it in Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy, “more the idea of lemon in a flavor.” There is also something floral about it while it retains the herbaceous grounding of its culinary cousins. It’s a flavor that can go both sweet or savory. Catty suggests using it for steaming vegetables or fish.

Catty also tells us, “Melissa is calming to the body more than the mind but without being overly sedative. Use it for stress, anxiety, and childhood hysterics. Combine with rosemary while studying and with neroli to drink during exams.”

John Gerard, frontispiece to his 1636 Herball.Melissa officinalis has long been renowned for its good effects on the nervous
system and to calm anxiety, and there have been a number of scientific studies to back up the anecdotal evidence. For someone who tends to get overexcited/angry, I can appreciate. The herbalist, physician and contemporary of Shakespeare, John Gerard wrote, “It maketh the heart merry and joyful and strengthened the vitall spirits.”

With that in mind, I’ve been spritzing myself day and night with melissa. Travelling around as an artist hobo makes it necessary for me to buy stuff and use it up. As much as I’d like to have palettes of aroma rainbows to choose from at all times, I can’t be toting around dozens of bottles. So I do the very unAmerican thing of using a few items for everything, thereby using up all my stock and replenishing as necessary. Taking a cue from the ladies of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I like my beauty products to double as potable cordials!

 

*This is Essay 11 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read Essay 10 “CERKL Gene: My newly Identified Eye Disease Is Not an Eye Disease” here*

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Ylang-Ylang: Calming the Panic of Love & Memory, Essay 5 of #52essays2017

Cananga odorata illustrated in Francisco Manuel Blanco's Flora de Filipinas. 1800-1803?. Public domain from Wikipedia.When I first read about ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), I’d no smell associations, but I was intrigued because it is included in so many aphrodisiac blends. It is both relaxing and stimulating, which is a fabulous combination when you’re trying to get it on.

Then I smelled ylang-ylang out of a labeled essential oil bottle, and I realized I’d smelled it before. I was transported to the sexy time in my life when I could walk around unaided–no white cane, no guide dog, no boyfriend. I’d just arrived in New York City and I could see well enough to walk around without mobility help, but not well enough to read signs or see into shops.

I was a grad student at NYU and was visually impaired, but if you saw me walking around campus, you would not know that I was not like everybody else, unless of course you knew me and therefore knew not to be offended that I did not recognize you. If you recognized me from a class but did not know that I was visually impaired, you likely thought my lack of acknowledgement meant I was a snob. Anyway, in those days of wandering around enjoying the feel of walking if not the visuals that many peripatetics associate with the activity, I regularly got slapped pleasantly in the face by a smell that emanated from a large and bustling shop–perhaps a hair salon–that sat on the corner of Waverly and Sixth.

Each time I walked by, I would hesitate and want to enter, wondering what it was because that smell reminded me of an earlier scent memory. I’d coveted the brilliantly colored hair on the box of Salon Barbie, and her dyes–red, purple and black–smelled of what I now suspect to have been some kind of synthetic ylang-ylang. The smell stuck with me though any fun I may have derived from the oddly punk rock toy has completely evaporated.

That said, I was never a very olfactory-oriented person but rather a visual one. I can still see the photograph on the box of that damn doll with its perfect purple hair quite plainly in my mind’s eye. I still feel like a visual person, but I’ve not got the sensory inlets going anymore, only the imagination and the hallucinations.

The deprivation has finally led me to appreciate smell, and recently I find that I get a little depressed if I don’t have any around–pleasant ones I mean–those that I can control, or at least name and manipulate. The fakey-wakey smell of my cheap-ass Dove “cucumber” shampoo does not count.

Though I cannot, at present, afford to have everything be blessed by natural fragrances, I fantasize about a future wherein I will have complete control of my smellscape. I underline the word fantasize here, because though I long for the day when I can indulge in all the aromas I read about and lust after, having complete control over what enters the nose is of course impossible, as smells permeate all, and each person has their own. Sadly my smellscape could not be vacuum-sealed unless I had no desire to go out or have sex.

Godin brushing hair reflected in antique vanity mirror

Speaking of sex, let’s return to the heady floral scent of the tropics.Ylang-ylang, long admired in its native islands of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia for its good effects on libido, skin and hair, grew commonplace in far-away England as Macassar Oil, which was so popular as a styling product for men, that doilies were soon required to protect the backs of upholstered furniture. As mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, the men and women of 19th century England were as mixed up and contradictory as any society, and so it is likely the sensual fragrance of ylang-ylang, reminiscent of bodies barely clad and warmed by the sun, was likely more than one kind of bother in the buttoned-up drawing rooms.

But ylang-ylang is more than an aphrodisiac, or rather, its effects on the libido result from its ability to relax and regulate extreme emotions and to calm the physical and mental effects of anxiety. As Peter Holmes remarks in Aromatica:

” In dealing deftly with intense emotions, Ylang ylang bestows a relaxing, softening, harmonizing and lightening grace over the energetic Heart – a function that is expressed in Chinese medicine as ‘nourishing Heart Blood.’ Its ability to transform dark negativity into lightness and positivity is perhaps unique. In opening us to the lightness of being, Ylang ylang is clearly a remedy for the soul as much as for the body.”

Jar of Yes Organic Ylang-ylang rose night cream on antique vanityLiving now as a vagabond, my essential oil collection has dwindled. Knowing this, my best friend and owner of Yes Organic Boutique, gave me a beautiful cream made with ylang-ylang and rose essential oils. I slather it on at night to smooth the wrinkles of face and psyche. The calming effects of ylang-ylang have been of particular interest to the latter, which has recently been subject to panic attacks.

I was a panic-prone person in my twenties, so I can’t blame it all on aging and blindness, but these two aspects combined with the recent casting off, has allowed the sleeping giant to rise. The first panic struck on the plane from NYC to Denver and hit me again in the bus from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque. In lesser forms, it hits me in each new house, where even the simplest cupboard or table can present a problem–one can be mired in a cul-de-sac no bigger than a public bathroom stall when one cannot see. As mentioned in Winter Wonder Maze, I’m terrible at being blind, and worse when I feel people’s eyes on me. So, putting myself in the position of being in the households of others, with their crap acting as constant reminders of my lack of freedom and control seems an odd place to be. Stupid maybe.

And yet. And yet, who is truly free? My dear friends with house and car payments, children and spouses may be free to walk about the cabin, but they are not completely free either. Freedom comes in degrees, independence a balancing act.

My mother wonders why I do not get another guide dog. “You used to care so much for your independence,” she opines. She does not know how hard-fought and lonely it was. She does not feel the memory weight of its superficiality, tethered as it was to anger and the need for a love that I wielded like a club.

She also does not believe that in these strange blind cul-de-sacs there is another freedom, and the only one that may yet transcend this mortal coil. I will, like all of you, grow feeble, if I am permitted to live, and this body will be but a sack of memories of a time when the body was free. But if the mind is free, there is movement in the soul, right? And, just as those ancients used scent to communicate with the gods, I use smell to transport me out of this body that fears each vase-clad armoire as if it were an on-coming bus, this body that shuffles about like that of a very old person, slowly, carefully, with embarrassing trepidation.

If my worth were measured in my tiny steps taken , my life, like Prufrock’s measured out in coffee spoons, I would surely collapse in a heap of self-loathing. But if I follow the scent of the Tropics to a place where I can learn and learn and continue to learn, I do not feel old or blind or feeble. Not useless. On the pleasant smelling days, I believe myself to be an organism still sucking life and pleasure, in and out.

The trick is to follow the nose up and up into the rarified air of the unforeseeable future.

The trick is not to panic.

The trick is to keep breathing, nostrils flared as if smelling a flower for the very first time.

 

*This is essay 5 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics here*

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