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Building a personal smell museum of Los Angeles
Bags of dumplings in a freezer at a food court in a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, Sept. 30, 2020. “Nose Dive,” is a deeply researched guide to the world’s smells, down to their volatile molecules, by science writer Harold McGee. Ryan Young/The New York Times.

by Tejal Rao


In my office, I’m getting the muted smell of old cookbooks — like a loaf of slightly sour bread or a package of extra thin and crisp chocolate chip cookies — along with something earthier and soggier underneath it all, which I associate exclusively with public libraries on rainy days.

Science writer Harold McGee calls our sense of smell “the bridge between our experience of foods and our experience of the larger world.”

His new book, “Nose Dive,” is a deeply researched guide to the world’s smells, down to their volatile molecules (in the case of books, a range of wood pulp and paper fibers).

Reading McGee, mostly in isolation, I started to pay more attention to the information in the air, to jot down notes about the mundane fragments floating around me as I whiffed them in.

Smells informed every part of my work when I was eating in restaurants or looking for cues while developing a recipe. But the language I use to describe smell is culturally mediated and always, in some way, limited.

Still, I wanted to try and answer the question: What does Los Angeles smell like?

Early in the morning, most mornings, volatile molecules from my neighbor’s kitchen waft across the street and enter my body. My brain processes it quickly: onions.

My neighbor is frying onions. And as the onions start to take on some color, they smell less sweaty and more sweet.

Driving, I catch the glorious, artificial vanilla sweetness of a commercial bakery, and then, with absolutely no warning: the high stink of garlicky cured meat, of woody mint that’s gone to flower, of the swelling ember at the end of a joint.

It’s just a skunk.

Inside Kang Kang food court, I help myself from a freezer full of bagged dumplings. I don’t open the door until I know exactly what I want, and I’m greeted with a pleasant, very cold rush of sulphur-rich cabbage and garlic chives.

But it’s filtered through the tedious smell of my own lip balm, my breath, my laundry detergent, and the grassiness of the basket by the front door where I keep my mask.

If your sense of smell hasn’t been affected in the last few months, then what you smell in your own mask is familiar, private and monotonous — and impossible to ignore.

The first scent of smoke puts me on high alert in a state besieged by wildfires.

It’s a relief to breathe deeper, to pick out the smell of smoking oil and puffing tortillas and browning cheese.

There are smells that make smaller impression — ones that I am sensitive to in the moment but that I don’t think I would remember if I didn’t write them down.

The sticky, piney aroma of sage bushes and rosemary, and the mushroomy dirt itself, raked for seeds, watered. The smell of fall.

Andy Warhol wore perfumes for a limited time then retired them, so a sniff might vividly evoke a time in his life “I realized I had to have a kind of smell museum so certain smells wouldn’t get lost forever,” he said.

In my smell museum of Los Angeles, I’d include the microseasonal smells of ripe guavas with their tropical, candylike ripeness; pink jasmine and mint; orange blossoms and jacaranda.

But also the tarry scent of road work and decomposing trash, warmed by the sun.

And the grounding smell of my neighbor’s fried onions.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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