I remember reading this very annoying essay by this woman about walking through a cheese shop and noticing “the pungent, strangely and almost bodily smells of the cheeses.” Come on: the smells of cheeses are neither strangely nor almost bodily: cheese after all is made from a bodily substance, so it’s perfectly appropriate that its smell be quite thoroughly bodily. Moreover, cheese is what happens when you take a substance and introduce agents--bacteria, yeast, mold--that transform its chemical composition, while you simultaneously try to extract a good deal of the moisture--which is also what happens to food in the intestines. I’m not saying the processes or outcomes are completely similar, or that cheese smells like shit, but I am saying there are several reasons not to be surprised by a lingering whiff of living, eating, breathing bodies and the substances they produce when you inhale in a cheese shop.
Which leads me to another point: it seems to me that although--or because--smell is one of the most primal of our senses, conveying as it does simple information necessary to survival (if something smells sick or dead, maybe you shouldn’t eat or drink it) and able to affect our basic physiology in ways the other senses can’t (an unidentifiable bad smell affects us viscerally in ways an unidentifiable unpleasant noise does not), we don’t like to acknowledge the work our noses do, automatically, whether we ask them to or not. We don’t like to acknowledge that we occasionally smell stuff that stinks. And we heap shame on people who admit that they use their noses intentionally, as a source of information, rather than as an occasional and accidental source of pleasure or disgust.
I have been thinking about this ever since Rebecca acknowledged noticing that her left thumb smelled like fish sticks. She took some heat for this--people asked her, “Why did you smell your left thumb?” But if she’d said, “I just noticed that my left thumb smelled like jasmine oil,” would anyone care? Would anyone ask, “Why on earth did you smell your left thumb?” But noticing--and admitting that you noticed--that your left thumb smelled like fish sticks--well, that’s just beyond the pale.
So Rebecca came back with a spot-on response:
Oh please, don't pretend you never smell your fingers. It's not like I was changing diapers or something. While typing a blog post I was touching my lips, as I am wont to do when sitting and thinking, and I smelled fish sticks. So I smelled my left thumb, the thumbnail of which was pinching my top lip, and therefore right under my nose. It no longer smells like fish sticks, FYI.
I admit I have smelled my fingers, sometimes incidentally, as when I lay my forefinger above my lip and under my nose, which sounds strange when you write it out, but you see people do it from time to time--it’s a thinking gesture. Or sometimes my nose itches, and I scratch it, and notice that some smell, pleasant or otherwise, lingers on my fingers. Or sometimes, after I’ve been chopping onions or mincing garlic, I’ll smell my hands quite intentionally after I wash them, to see if the odor has been removed.
Not too long ago I happened to notice that my fingers smelled like a mildewy dish rag. I found this strange because I had not recently handled a mildewy dish rag. But I dealt with the problem in what seemed the most appropriate way: I washed my hands at the nearest sink, which happened to be in my kitchen. Then I dried my hands thoroughly on the tea towel by the sink.... and noticed that my hands STILL smelled like a mildewy dish rag. So then I smelled the tea towel, and realized two things: 1) it was time to get a fresh tea towel and 2) I should probably use warm water and maybe even a little bleach the next time I washed a load of white things (having cut back dramatically on using both in my laundry because of their environmental impact).
I know that Rebecca and I are not the only two people in the world who occasionally smell their fingers, because in some article I even found a way to remove stubborn food smells from fingers. (That’s right: if your fingers never smell funky, you probably aren’t very involved in food preparation, because making food exposes your hands to all kinds of stinkiness.) Here it is: scoop some warm coffee grounds out of the filter and rub them all over your hands. Do this outside, because it’s very messy. It actually feels great: the graininess of the coffee grounds makes this a great exfoliant, and the oil in the beans makes your hands smooth and soft. As for whether doing this actually removes the smell of garlic or just covers it up with a faint coffee aroma, well, I don’t know that it matters, because at least after you do it, your hands smell good--provided you like the smell of coffee.