A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

In which Michael resigns himself to forever cursing the darkness

I like my living/teaching environments (they're highly overlapping) to smell good.  To me, it is important that every one of my 5 senses — and those of my visitors/students — gets triggered with pleasant stimuli.  (Or at least 4 out of 5.  Ironically for a food blogger, taste is the sense that I invoke the least in my professional work.)  I have gone to great lengths to choose restful colors for the paints and fabrics in my teaching room, to provide soothing white noise that masks harsh sounds from outside, to touch my clients with respect and gentleness, and to make the room agreeably, but not overpoweringly fragrant.

This last step, to bring about a pleasing olfactory environment,  has not been easy to bring about.  In short, most of the scenting products out there stink.

Would you like to read about my aromatic journey?  I'll start by proclaiming that in our house, artificial scents are anathema.  We are sensitive to any chemically scents — like those in many commercial household cleaning and grooming products — and buy or make only products that have their fragrance imparted by essential oils.  When you stop to think that whatever you smell has already entered your system, you will likely decide like us that harsh, toxic chemicals are verboten.  Anything that your body absorbs through your skin or nasal passages must be processed by your liver and other internal organs just like the foods you eat.  (A good rule of thumb, which I abide by about 80% I guess, is that you shouldn't rub anything into your skin that you wouldn't put in your mouth.  Thus our use of almond oil as a facial moisturizer and raw organic eggs as a toner.)

The danger of toxin absorbtion is the real reason we avoid commercial air fresheners, Febreze, Renuzit, Yankee Candles, and (horror of horrors) Bounce dryer sheets like the plague.  Besides the fact that their smells make us want to retch.  

So please don't recommend a Glade Plug-in for my teaching room.  I don't want to poison my students or myself with scents fresh out of the test tube.  OK, OK — I'm coming down off my soapbox now.  Not that we even use soap.

Here are some scenting methods I've tried and largely abandoned:

Incense.  As my co-worker Jason used to say, "It smells like a Pakastani whorehouse in here."  Those sticks and cones smell delicious. . .until you light them.  Then they smell like something delicious is burning.  And most of the fragrances are cloying and too heavy for a room where people will be singing.

Sage smudgesticks.  This is really just a sub-category of incense.  But instead of a whorehouse, it leaves my teaching space smelling like a pothead's bedroom.  For at least 3 days.  I don't care how many evil spirits the sage exorcises, I can't have my students thinking that I spend my evenings lighting up big doobies in the room they are learning in.
Me and Cathy, as we might look after lighting up a big doobie.  (I am straining here to shoehorn into my theme some pictures that in all truthfulness do not belong in this post.  But they're too fun to miss out on.) 
Salt crystal lamp with receptacle for essential oils.  I love love love this lamp, but only for its cozy orange glow.  Its 5-watt Xmas-tree lamp bulb simply does not produce sufficient heat to effectively disperse the scent of the oils.  The (supposedly Himalayan) salt crystal is also supposed to give off healthy positive (or is it negative?) ions, but I can't really say I feel more ionized than before I bought it.

Nebulizer.  I ended up giving this away to a friend.  Not a good friend — I gave it away because a mold I thought might be poisonous was forming in the tank in which you are supposed to put a mixture of water and essential oils.  I was sorry when the mold problem arose, because, otherwise, this was a satisfactory scenting system — it silently dispersed a perfect amount of natural scent into the air.  (I wonder how my friend is doing....)

Scented candles.  Ah, how I love the scented candle department in stores!  I can entertain myself for a half hour, sniffing each one in turn, and going back to re-sniff my favorites.  But back in the reality of my home, I have yet to find a scented candle that works for me.  There are, in my experience, 3 categories of this product:

1. Cheap-ass (but not necessarily cheap) artificially scented candles.  These smell chemically in the store, and nauseate me when they are lit, particularly at mealtimes, when their sickly-sweet miasma competes with the food aromas.  This category includes the kind of votives you find in Hallmark stores and drugstores as well as Yankee candles and their ilk. 

2. High-end luxury candles, usually costing over $20.  Like Votivo and similar brands.  They have fancy poetical names like After the Rain or My Gigolo's Musky Pits and smells to drive you wild with hunger and/or desire, but I find that, when lit, they produce too great a concentration of scent, which easily overwhelms a room.  If pretentiousness had a smell, it would be Votivo's red currant flavor.  I am looking for (smelling for?) something a little subtler.

3. Lower-end luxury candles, usually costing under $20.  These often have a soy base and names that are more like ingredient lists (lilac & ylang ylang, lavender & rosewood).  I am forever falling for products like this, which are enticing on the shelf in the store, and am invariably disappointed when I get them home and find that, lit, they have about as much scent as glass.  I recently got duped (by my own apparently unteachable brain) into bringing home these beauties:

I believe the pink one is lavender/rosewood and the green one is rosemary/mint.  It doesn't really matter, though, because they "smell" unscented once lit.  You will notice that they came with kicky little wooden lids whose purpose, other than denuding the nation's forests, I cannot discern.   They also came with kinky little embossed labels suggesting that I use the melted wax as a massage oil.  I tried this out on myself — only on my hands, lascivious readers — and was informed of the resulting putrid effect in a series of comments of gradually escalating pointedness by my not-so-subtle partner, Peter.  I believe the final straw was "I feel like I'm sitting next to the bathroom on a Greyhound bus!" after which I raced to the bathroom to scrub off the offending scent.  

Please remind me to stop expecting scented candles to take my life to the next level.  I'd rather spend the same amount on a nice Cabernet, which might have a bouquet I — not to mention Persnickety on the other end of the sofa — could truly appreciate.

So how do I scent my teaching room?  I am currently (NOT currantly) using this diffuser:

As you can perhaps see, one attaches a little bottle of essential oil (without water) onto the back, with a little diffusion cone on top to direct the mist where it's desired.  The controls can be set to determine the length of time it stays on, the length of time it stays off, and the level of scent.  My little ultrasonic pal lends just the right amount of scent to my room; my students are always appreciatively commenting on the aroma (usually lavender/peppermint) in the air.  My only complaint is that I can use it only BETWEEN students, not during lessons, because it sounds like a jet engine when running.  (Its loudness is variable depending on the level of scent dispersal you dial up, but I find that I need it to be on max to work effectively.)  Also, with its plasticky mechanistic look, it's not nearly as charming an accessory as a lit candle.  So I guess my search for the perfect scent producer is still not over.

Do any of you have recommendations?  I would love to find an aroma delivery method that 1) is silent, 2) is clean and non-toxic, 3) is capable of delivering an amount of scent that is discernible but not overpowering, 4) is attractive to look at, and 5) uses only natural scents.

To close out this post, here's a recent picture of Freddy, the older of my two young Chihuahuas.   He'd just woken up from a nap with canine bedhead, and I couldn't resist getting out my camera.  Freddy manages to maintain an aura of dignity and poise even on a bad hair day.  You sure can't hold a candle to him.  (There — I managed to force this picture into my theme too.)


  1. Sorry, I've got nothing. I agree with you about the Glade plug-ins etc. What I hate the most is when some one uses the canned airfreshener in the bathroom to "mask" a smell. I find all I can smell is the two mixed together, which is way worse than either alone.

    How portable is your counter top convection oven? Could you bake bread or cookies in your teaching space? To me, the best scents are the ones from cooking or flowers.

  2. Fresh flowers are the only thing I can think of. I love the smell of lilly's, but they can be a bit cloying.

    You could also get a small burner and put some water with cinnamon, orange peel, star anise etc. and keep it at a low temp.

  3. I agree with you about the stench of commercial scented products. I once lost my mind and bought Glade scented Christmas candles, and had my first migraine when I unwrapped them. Never did burn them. What on earth was in them? Scary.

    I do have a couple of suggestions, one of those mini crockpot thingys that you were supposed to cook potpourri in or something, I used to put drops of essential oils into water. Worked. Unfortunately they aren't pretty, but they are cheap, at thrift stores etc, or lightbulb rings, or oil diffusers. Check out this link.


    As for scents I recommend lemongrass or lavender oil, both relaxing, and lemongrass is compatible with food scents.

  4. I do sometimes keep a pot of spices in water simmering on the stove, especially in the wintertime, and it fills the whole apartment with a wonderful fragrance. My teaching room is not set up to accommodate a pot of boiling liquid, however, so that won't work (safely) in there.

    I've also used the lightbulb ring things, but the light fixtures in my teaching space take small-sized bulbs that won't support the much-wider ring. This method also does not provide the spa level of scent I wish to achieve.

    Has anyone used one of those fancy nebulizers that look like chemistry lab apparatus, with big, fragile glass bulbs to hold the oils? They are expensive and I think difficult to clean, so I've held off buying one so far, but if someone can recommend them, I might give one a try.

    Baking smells are not exactly appropriate to the Zen-like environment I'm trying to create, but sometimes when Peter is making dinner during my last lesson of the day, my student and I exit the teaching studio into delightful aromas from the kitchen. To "come home" to the smell of dinner cooking: priceless.

  5. Bath & Body Works sells something called a "Scentbug" which is an oil warmer with a silent fan that disperses the scented oils really effectively. My daughter got one for Christmas from her aunt after I scoffed at it, and the vanilla oil she puts in it makes a lovely subtle scent. They put out a lot of scent, and aren't expensive.

  6. You have some herbs on your balcony, take some of them into the room and roll them between your hands, then wave them around. Always fresh, always natural, not too expensive.

    Also look into getting a spider plant or three to live in the room. They are sturdy plants and they remove toxic chemicals from the air as well. Plus, every plant gives off a bit of green scent just by being there.

    And no no no on burning anything for scent. Any small particles in the air are very bad for your lungs and carcinogenic.

  7. We only use coconut oil on our skin, but we also use it for cooking, saving olive oil for salad dressings and low temp cooking.

  8. Years ago we had a patient who when he came to the hospital turned down the thermostat in his room, used liberal amounts of Listerine mouthwash and had his family send a huge bouquet of fragrant flowers. Going in the room was a delight; it smelled clean and felt cool.

  9. I am totally digging the idea of big bouquets of fresh fragrant flowers. I wonder if the budget will support this practice.....

  10. @Nell: The pictures on your blog of your garden and grounds are spectacular. I, with my little balcony garden still in late March freezing its asters off with temps in the low 20s, am green with envy. (It's the only green in sight.)

    Where do you live, that you have such a gorgeous abundance of flowers already growing?

  11. I'm terribly sensitive to smells and chemicals, too. I use a homemade diffuser that I made out of an old jar and bamboo skewers. I fill it up with essential oil (mandarin orange, grapefruit, and lemon verbena being my favourite) and it scents the room very gently.

    I totally agree that fresh flowers are wonderful - such a fantastic luxury. :)

  12. My favorite smells are the heads and breath of our cats, Karma and Buddy. But you can't have them.

    My asthma is set off by even the slightest scent these days. I always have my inhaler with me. Passing by Bath and Body Works in the mall is lethal. Just letting you know for the next time we visit. :)

  13. I prefer essential oils for scenting purposes as well, as most perfume-y scents set off migraines for me. Years ago, I had a Scentball. The plus side was that it was safe to use virtually anywhere, including my office at work. But, the scent doesn't dissipate well and doesn't last very long either. The candle-based diffusers (usually metal, with an unscented tealight at the bottom and a shallow well on top for the oil) is my hands-down favourite. Works well enough for me.

  14. What about essential oils? If you have one scent that you like, you can just put a few drops on your light bulb. If not, there are rings (that you put the oil in) that you can put on the light bulb. There are also little receptacles with a space for the oil on top, with a little tea-light candle underneath. They work quite well.

  15. Also, I am sure there are technical names for everything I described, but I don't know them. Sorry!

  16. Fresh flowers are expensive, how about a forced bulb? They'll last longer than cut flowers. I'm thinking freesia, as hyacinths are very strong. Some people like the smell of paperwhites too, but I don't. Drop by your local nursery and sniff and ask.

  17. I think I'll do the forced bulb thing, but in my entryway instead of my teaching room, since some people are not fond of the heady fragrances of bulb flowers. For me, hyacinth is just about the world's most wonderful scent. (Other than human pheromones, that is. Also known as sweaty guys. Definitely NOT an aroma for the teaching room.)

    @Sarah: Would you be willing to share some details about how you made the diffuser? I'd love to try this.

  18. What about a Lampe Berger? If I understand correctly, they can be used with or without fragrance. And they are lovely - so you get to please at least 2 senses!
    I would love to get one for my bedroom, but they are a petit peu outside my current budget.

  19. Wow, those things are pretty. I'd never heard of these lamps, but found out all about them at www.lampeberger.us.

    It seems you need to buy their alcohol-based scented fluids to burn in them, which is unfortunate and expensive. Anyone know if you can make your own lampe berger fluid using essential oils?

  20. Sure thing! Here you go! http://www.rhinestonesandtelephones.com/2009/12/thrifty-diffuser.html

    I do use a smaller necked jar now. :)

  21. There's a fair number of online instructions to make your own Lampe Berger fluid - it seems to be a 16oz bottle of isopropyl alcohol and essential oils as desired (about 10 drops seems to be a popular amount).

    The Lampe Berger "So Neutral" scent is alcohol and water (and parfum - I assume to take the edge of the alcohol smell).

  22. Thanks, everyone, for all the ideas. I'm going to start by making Sarah's version of a diffuser, which she assures me will cost less than 50 cents. If that doesn't do the trick, I'm going to buy myself a Lampe Berger — for significantly more than 50 cents.