Osmocosm, the world of smells that explains who we are

The lecture of scientist Harold McGee's at MAD introduces us to a wide-scoped topic: the cognitive potential of smell

by Gabriele Zanatta
Harold McGee in the screenshot from the online Zo

Harold McGee in the screenshot from the online Zoom lesson held at the end of February as part of Mad Mondays at Home. The title: “The world of smell”

Harold McGee is one of the most knowledgeable food science experts in the world. His first book, published in 1984 and titled On food and cooking, has influenced generations of cooks – classic and avantgarde – and given a decisive contribution to the recent (late coming) process that has placed gastronomy on the same level as traditional sciences.

And of course when the researcher and professor from California decides to focus his lesson on a new subject, this will catch your attention. The title of his latest book is indeed “Nose dive. A field guide to the world’s smells”, one of top books in 2020 for Time magazine. The title of the lecture was “Osmocosm, the world of smells”, a passionate online conversation within the “Mad Mondays at Home”, developed with Melina Shannon-Dipietro, executive director at Mad Foundation in Copenhagen, the community and school whose founders and supporters include Rene Redzepi, chef at Noma.

«Osmocosm», McGee began with his simple and elegant rhetoric in front of an audience of 800 people from all around the world, «is a neologism I created with the help of my brother in law, a classicist. It joins the words osmo, smell, and cosmo, universe. It defines the world of smells». Our olfactory sense is a crucial subject of interest, but rather neglected, «it's not yet sexy enough, but not for long». The cooking of the 20th century, for instance, is mostly influenced by two dominating senses: sight and taste. And how about what we smell? Shouldn't it have the same (or even more) dignity than what we see or taste?

The cover of Harold McGee's book. You can buy it from Amazon

The cover of Harold McGee's book. You can buy it from Amazon

«The ecosystem of smells is all around us. The universe of olfactory molecules has a huge and unnoticed impact on us, today and always. A pervasive, universal power, in space and time». This is why McGee recreates in his book the most varied olfactory alchemies, to find what could link the supposed smells of the Big Bang to the meaty and sweaty scent of a ripe passion fruit. Even the smells of the interstellar space: «It is proven that up there, there are molecules of ammonia and hydrogen sulphur that have much in common with the smell of rotten eggs, with fruity aromas and even with vinegar. We should wonder why oysters have molecules in common with cucumbers. Why we find fruity wines pleasant, as well as those that smell of inedible ingredients, like leather. Our nose raises huge questions and provides information that would otherwise be impossible to obtain».

With regards to food, it gives much more information than any other sense: «Taste only reveals the basic features of a food. But the varieties that are spotted by our nose are unmatched in terms of quantities. And it is also a very democratic and personal sense, because it is closely tied with the memories of the perceiver: the molecules that the Amazon ants release have a very difficult impact on us in Europe compared to the one on local people, who are used to that smell».

The audience of the Zoom lesson

The audience of the Zoom lesson

Researching the osmocosm is a task on which the author has focused each day for the past ten years, which is how long it took him to write this book. A passionate research «Because what we smell doesn't give answers, but raises further questions, which is in fact the method of virtuous science. Our nose is the sense that some have more developed than others, since birth. But it's a sense we must all get used to train, more than what our society suggests. This can create an endless combination, like the notes that come from a guitar with 7 strings alone. If, for instance, we can tell without doubt the smell of the people whom we love, why shouldn't there be a common aromatic selection for all those who are happy or sad? This is only the beginning of a journey that still needs to be traced». Right into the osmocosm surrounding us.


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