Artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter wants you to mine your childhood for scent

Brian

PerfumeThis week I submitted one very smelly piece of writing to Olfactory Memoirs, a participatory art project by San Diego-based post media artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter.

How does it work? Well, you pick a scent from your childhood and then you write a scent memory piece it in whatever form you choose. Memoir here is loose — you don’t have to adhere to any conventions of the genre. Some of the entries in the existing archive read like stream-of-consciousness (appropriate for scent, no?), some are in poem form, some haiku, others, like mine, feel like essay.

If you want to try your own and are having trouble getting started, Brian and his collaborators have put together this handy list of writing prompts.

I thought it might be fun to talk to Brian about why he’s doing this. Why get strangers mining their past for scent stories?

Brace yourself.

This is one very thoughtful super-sniffer.

In other words, if you share a scent-related memoir with one person this year, let it be him!

Q & A with artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter about the Olfactory Memoir project

Emily: Can you tell the story about how the Olfactory Memoir project come about?

Brian: One of my preoccupations as an artist relates to me finding great interest in other people’s passions. The stories they tell and consume, the objects they collect, the way they build worlds in which they can lose themselves. Basically, these are all examples of meaning-making engineered by people who make no claim to be “artists.” Call it an ethnographic dimension in my work. At first blush, it might appear to be an artistic liability or shortcoming – not desiring to develop an artistic voice of my own. But I love to hear other people tell stories. And I am good at collecting and representing multiple narratives to find connective tissue, discursive meaning, and radical juxtapositions. Olfactory Memoirs came out of this context. The project asks, What’s your earliest scent memory? It’s such an innocuous question. It doesn’t have an agenda other than to produce stories. And it has been my experience that stories beget stories. Producing and consuming stories is such a pleasurable way to learn about one another.

So I thought it would be interesting to tie this into my research in olfactory art and transmedia storytelling. Olfactorymemoirs.com was launched as a way to collect and archive scent memories of childhood. Down the road I will begin curating readings from the archive that will be performed in a transmedia environment which overlays conventional storytelling with scent compositions designed to unfold in temporal relation to spoken-word narratives.

Emily: Why is scent important for your collaborative art projects?

Brian: Scent is important insofar as it is a grossly underestimated sense; so many of our cultural biases are made painfully apparent through the various ways we have tried to keep the sense of smell at the bottom of a hierarchy of senses that has shaped the way we relate to the sensorium since the Enlightenment.

And yet, I’ve found that people are more than curious about the sense of smell. It feels like a zeitgeist moment in which we’ve come to realize that the visual can only tell us so much. Scent is wondrous. It represents, but not in the way an image or a sound represents. The volatile molecules of an odor change over time, which give it a temporal dimension. And, of course, the fact that it is the only sense that directly interfaces with our central system means that it’s the only sense in which emotion precedes cognition. For me it has all the elements for an engaging art experience.

Emily: Why does the project focus on scent and childhood in particular?

Brian: This project was sponsored by a Creative Catalyst grant for socially engaged artworks. “Social engagement” is a term that makes me bristle a little because it sounds like a euphemism for something more dubious. That, and the fact that it is often used naively by people who have not yet learned that there is no free lunch. With this project, I didn’t want to be didactic, nor did I want to preach to the converted. By focusing on childhood, a theme that I earlier referred to as innocuous, I felt it limited the risk of polarizing my audience, while simultaneously increasing the potential for meaningful reflection on diversity. Everyone has been a kid. And most people have memories of childhood that inform the stories they tell. By beginning with the all-inclusive theme of “childhood” I present readers with a range of childhood scenarios designed to resonate in collective memory and expand the complexity and diversity of what it means to “grow up.”

Why scent? Because it destabilizes our storytelling routines. You can infer a lot about a person’s identity from the way they mine their personal histories for narratives.

It’s not uncommon for people to possess and draw from a collection of narratives that in some way attempts to explain who they are as individuals. Most of us have told these kinds of stories so often that they become a little too slick. By asking someone to begin with a scent memory I prevent them from deploying story for tactical purposes. Instead, there is something akin to innocence or an unconscious working-out of things when someone begins with scent.

What made me remember that? And where did those details come from? I haven’t thought of that in years. I host writing workshops led by Judy Reeves, who for decades has been a writing provocateur in the San Diego area. She has so many good prompts that lead writers to arrive at scent memories that reveal a raw portrait of the writer as a child.

Emily: What have you learned about humans’ relationship to scent and childhood from your ongoing project?

Brian: If I were to rephrase your question to read, “What have you learned about humans’ relationship to scent and memory,” I would say that scent memories are packed with details. Usually, surprisingly vivid details, such as the pattern of a dress your friend wore thirty years ago, or a dialog you suddenly remember verbatim, or the ambient sounds that occurred simultaneously with the smell.

This is not terribly linear in the way that written narratives often unfold in a sequential order. Rather, it comes as a collage of sensory details that not only adds a certain authenticity to the narrative, but in the right hands, can allow the author’s voice (at that time in childhood) to speak. That is a specifically moving part of reading scent memories of childhood; the author can assume the voice of herself as a child.

But to your question about scent and childhood, I’ve learned that our attachment to odors are incredibly subjective. I knew that there are cultural biases in smell, but collecting scent memories has taught me that individual bonds or aversions to smells are formed early, and often in unusual ways. One example is an olfactory memoir that was recently submitted to the website about the smell of pickled pig’s feet. The feet, which the author claimed smelled like silicone caulking, were an early memory of what he referred to as “the smell of truce” that would occur between he and his abusive father. Hearing his father pop the lid and smell the sour vinegar from the jar told him he could join his dad around the table for a rare bonding moment. Even 40 years after these moments, and although he has never popped a jar of pickled pig’s feet as an adult, he still salivates whenever he smells silicone caulking! Apparently the response is automatic.

Emily: I’m writing a book-length olfactory memoir myself right now and I’m finding that scent is a subject that you have to make sneak up in the writing to be effective. Do you have any thoughts on what writers need to do to use scent effectively in writing or storytelling?

Brian: I like the phrase “sneaking up.” In daily perception smell also sneaks up on us. We see a clean kitchen but smell the burnt toast. We can choose not to look at something but unless we hold our breath we are constantly confronted our olfactory environment. Why should it be any different in the way a reader experiences it on the page? Beyond that, I imagine there are additional challenges, since descriptions are often limited to what something smells like or how a smell makes you feel.

I have this ongoing conversation with a polymath of sorts named Richard Gleaves. Richard has a plan to counter the Anglo-American smell aversion that has limited the way in which we verbally describe smell and the perception of smell. His project would involve perceptual scientists and professional writers. The scientists would delineate the various phenomena and principles of olfaction that people are capable of receiving (as measured by scientific tests), but not necessarily consciously aware of, due to the existing gaps in their language and culture. Once this inventory of perceivable olfactory phenomena is established, the writers would be commissioned to collectively coin new language which artfully defines the perceptual inventory, with the goal of introducing the coined language into common usage. Such coinages would include (but not be limited to) new words, semantic extensions of existing words, and new metaphors. Maybe you two should collaborate!

Emily: What will happen to all of these olfactory memoirs you are gathering?

Brian: In addition to the website functioning as a participatory archive, which invites readers to become writers, there is a performance element that is in the works. The performance takes a hybrid form: A literary reading of olfactory memoirs that is choreographed to coincide with an orchestrated delivery of fragrances that I design. Throughout the performance these fragrances play the role of olfactory landscapes (“scent-scapes”) intended to add a sensory dimension to the performance by connecting audiences more deeply to the narrative texts read on stage.

Presently I am working with Dave Ghilarducci, a very talented artist with a deep engineering background. We are designing scent distribution devices that will release trace amounts of fragrance into the audience and then filter them out just as quickly. Dave is working on a keyboard that will essentially allow me to DJ the scents from a computer and disperse them simultaneously to a seated audience. We will do some preliminary test events in a couple of months with major performances expected in 2017.

Emily: Thanks so much, Brian!

If you’d like to contribute an Olfactory Memoir to the project I’d say retrieve those memories and tackle those scents to paper! If you decide to do it, I’d love it if you’d link to yours in the comments.

Truffle Week! 7 Days Experimenting with Oregon Truffles

Truffles1

A low-key tool: Carved-out milk jug.

GrapesTruffles are the olfactory powerhouses of the Oregon forest.  Their scent is full of contractions: intoxicating but subtle, deeply earthy yet ethereal and out-of-this-world.

If ever you needed proof of the connection between olfaction and taste, consider the truffle.

I’ve done a lot of truffle hunting since moving to Oregon six years ago, and I can’t get past how they turn me into Gargamel every time, unleashing in me an energy and a drive that can keep me digging in the woods for hours on end. Every meal seems a little more special, a little more hard-won when you cook with truffles. It’s not the market price — though Oregon truffles can fetch over $300 a lb. It’s the way they take the feeling that you get from walking through a cathedral of an Oregon forest and transport that feeling to whatever you are eating.

But the thing you are actual cooking with is not taste at all, but the truffle’s scent, a come-hither perfume that smells like sex and earth and rot and musk.

This was my motivation behind my 7 Days of Oregon Truffles. My goal? To experiment with various dishes to see what harnesses the magic of the Oregon truffle most completely. In short, to find a dish worthy of the truffle.

I started this little truffle experiment as a way to interpret an Oregon ingredient in my own household — a kind of meet-and-great of Oregon’s best kitchens with my own. I hope you enjoy these little stories about cooking with Oregon  truffles.

Tips: Cooking with Truffles

When you cook with truffles, your mind is challenged to artistry. Your jeans? Challenged to accommodate your zest for life. If you dare to eat truffles for a week,  you, too might find the truffle can take over. Your greatest fear becomes nothing from the world outside — news of torture and war and suffering and poverty. The greatest worry of all is that this truffle will go bad and you will have stolen a treasure and let it molder away right under your nose.

Truffles

A cross-section of Oregon black truffles.

Here’s a few generalities about cooking with truffles:

  • Keep it simple — too many flavors can overpower with the truffle.
  • Make it all about the truffle.
  • Use very fat-laden preparations like creams and cheeses.
  • Very often, truffle oil is a better alternative to using truffles directly.
  • Do not cook with truffles or truffle oil. They are a finishing product.
  • Use the truffle at the height of its aromatic powers, when it is ripe.

Day 1: Mushroom Risotto with Truffles

Risotto

The plates were on the table. The forks were in the hand. Truffles sliced on top.

This is the point when my dear neighbor arrived and got into a heated conversation with my husband about the scientific merits of the film What the Bleep Do We Know. That film is a major intellectual wormhole — pretty much the last thing you’d want to start talking about when you’re preparing to devote all of your attention to your tongue.

I was done with my risotto before my husband even touched his. It wasn’t long before I had drifted into a state of complete and utter bliss — until I got to thinking that maybe these truffles weren’t really truffles at all, but magic mushrooms. Within minutes, I had spaced out completely and was moved, as if ordered by remote control, to take more from the pot.

My husband had a similar, if muted, reaction. Sadly, he has a pretty bad sense of smell because of his allergies, which does affect his truffle experience.

Lesson: Truffles make everything taste better.

They are like little umami catalysts. They are little symphony conductors that force all of the Parmesan, arborio rice, white wine, garlic, onions and mushrooms to play exactly as loud as they should. They are music to my tongue.

Day 2: Asparagus with Truffles

TruffleAsparagus

Roasted asparagus, with just a little olive oil — and if you have some on hand, sliced truffles. I generally roast a pound of asparagus (and that’s for two people!), drizzled with a little olive oil, at 375 for about 18 minutes. Last night, I added the sliced truffles with about one minute to go.

They make the asparagus taste like it has just been pulled out of the earth and walked on a plate through the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles . Or, thinking about it another way, this is absolutely the most decadent and charming version of ants on a log that I’ve ever encountered.

Lesson: Not a first choice for truffle use, but if you happen to have too many truffles, go for it.

Day 3: Potato Leek Soup with Truffle Oil

Creamy-Potato-and-Leek-Soup
Soups are the great matchmakers of the world. Given time, and the right characteristic properties, they can take two otherwise curmudgeonly ingredients, introduce them, let them mingle, and within a day, they are married and living happily ever after.

For this Truffle Week challenge — a challenge that has been hampered these last few days by some unexpected interruptions — I set out to discover how Oregon Spring black truffles would affect the love-making properties of a French-style potato leek soup.

In a word: Felicity.

Potato leek soup is already a winner without the truffles. Its richness doesn’t overwhelm, but surprises, lingers, and then spreads to throughout the body into an overall sense of well-being.

Lesson: A wholly good use of truffles.

Day 4: Truffle Butter

butter1

By now, my jeans were fitting a little tighter, my lap feels a little smaller, and my arteries — if you can feel arteries –are packed. I wasn’t sure I could keep up this exercise. Even if I tempered my truffle-infused, cream-based dishes with a side salad, I’ve been leaving the table feeling like I never want to eat again.

And though I had given away five of the twelve truffles I pulled out of the Oregon forest floor, I was finding that these babies go very, very far and just keep changing with my whims. They are power-packed. They are long distance runners.

To be honest, they are starting to get a little annoying. Truffle Week should probably have been Truffle Night.

On Day 4, I pulled out my old Bayerisches Kochbuch and flipped to the pages for Kartoffelpuffer — potato pancakes, latkes, whatever you want to call them, whatever your culture, these are much-loved street food in Germany and are  often served with applesauce. I like mine with sour cream and chives. With a side of pork schnitzel. And a thin smear of truffle butter on top.

I used one of the remaining truffles to make a little canister of truffle butter. Not too difficult, just chopped really small and mixed in soft butter. I’ve been eyeing this French butter dish, or something similar to it, at the Portland Saturday Market. Seems like a better choice than a custard cup.

Lesson: Truffle butter goes great on, well, just about anything. 

I’m not sure that I’d try it on sweeter dishes, but I’m sure it can be spread across any manner of baked goods — brownies, savory muffins, whatever.

We should all be happy that no one has come up with truffle potato chips.

Whoops.  Too late.

Day 5: Truffle with Pizza

A word about truffle and pizza. If you sprinkle truffles on anything acidic, say, a red sauce on a pizza, you are wasting the truffle Just don’t do it. Epic fail.

Day 6: Spaghetti in a Mushroom Cream Sauce with Truffles

trufflespaghetti

All this sauce took was a little garlic, a lot of butter, a lot of cream, some less-than-worthy button mushrooms from Olympia, WA. The taste, when jazzed up with a tablespoon of Oregon black truffles, is just about enough to bowl me over. It is certainly enough to make me regret eating so much.

I added these truffle shavings at the last moment, after the sauce had boiled to a proper thickness and cooled a bit off the burner. Then I stirred in the truffles and gave them a minute or two to work their truffle magic — you know, the meet and greet I’ve talked about above, which allows the truffles to coax out the right flavors and scents in the other ingredients.

Lesson: This was by far my favorite use of the truffle in my household this week. It got me to shut up and eat.

Day 7: Black Truffle Ice Cream

Truffleicecream

Ice cream and mushrooms are two mutually exclusive tastes in my book. Luckily, truffles aren’t really mushrooms. They are tubers — but not in the sense of a potato. They are the fruiting body of a species of fungi that propagates itself much like  fungi do. Nor are they particularly closerly related to what we normally think of as fungi.

They are really in a class all of their own.

And while I am not one who believes that all strange tastes lend themselves to good ice creams, I can say that truffle ice cream, when made with Oregon spring black truffles, is delicate and interesting enough to be worth the expense of a single truffle.

The recipe I used is from the FOOD Network and calls for “honey cream.” If anyone knows what that is, please enlighten me. I had no idea, and couldn’t find it online, so I just added some honey to some cream.

Truffle ice cream hits the tongue cool and earthy, but then mellows out as the tongue picks up the cream, sugar and honey. The lingering flavor at the end is sweet truffle, which tastes something like mushroomy chocolate that’s been sifted through peat moss.

I must have underestimated myself, because the truffle ice cream grew on me. I ate two bowls. They were small.  Still, if given a choice, I’d take a baci gelato or a maracuya sorbet over truffle ice cream any day of the week.

Lesson: Try it, but don’t repeat.

If You Can’t Dig for Truffles: Oregon White Truffle Oil

JackAssuming you don’t live in Oregon — sorry! — and assuming you don’t live in one of the great truffle-producing regions of the world, you might consider finding other ways to harness the olfactory magic of the truffle.

My favorite is Oregon White Truffle Oil, an artisan product by my adoptive Oregon father Jack Czarnecki and he is the owner and former chef of the Joel Palmer House, the Dayton, Ore. restaurant that arguably uses more domestic truffles than any other in the United States.

Several years ago, Czarnecki passed his toque blanche at the Joel Palmer House to his son Chris, an Iraq War veteran who has been shaking things up and introducing some new dishes to the JPH menu. You can find a recipe of one of his new masterpieces, Angel Hair Pasta with Dungeness Crab, here.

Jack is crazy in the forest. He digs in the dirt with a zeal that can last for hours at a stretch. It is back-breaking labor that never gets old for him — not when he doesn’t find a truffle for two hours, not when the patch he is digging in doesn’t yield.  He’s exactly the kind of person I like to attach all of my Oregon dreaming to — a little nuts about what he does, very smart man doing very physical work, a visionary in overalls.

TruffleOilNow, not everyone can afford to buy truffles. I certainly can’t. But what Jack has actually done is create America’s first truffle oil.

Truffle oil?

You’ve probably had it on French fries or drizzled on risotto in upscale restaurants. But it wasn’t necessarily the real deal. There’s been a truffle oil backlash of late based on the revelation that most of the oils being used in America are synthetic.

In other words, most people are faking it.

And while I admit that it seems completely ridiculous to get caught up in most foodie rows over authenticity, truffle oil is something I am happy to get angry about.

Jack’s not a faker. He’s developed a system to capture the organic essence of the truffle in an oil in a safe way and is now selling bottles of it for $29.99 for Oregon White Truffles and $34.99 for Oregon Black Truffles from his website.

I hope you enjoyed my week of experimenting with Oregon Truffles. Have you tried them or seen them around? How do you like to use your oil?