Grunge and Elegance: Jasmine and New Orleans

 

800px-Chinesischer_Maler_des_12._Jahrhunderts_(I)_001It’s not just temperatures that change with the seasons. Everything changes with the seasons—people’s attitudes, their moods, clothing fads and shoe selections, plants, and along with plants the natural smells that saturate the atmosphere.

The first time I went to New Orleans it was on a friend’s Groupon whim. Hotel prices were especially low. Little did we know, it was the off-season in the Big Easy. It was August, and it was hot. You couldn’t last a full second outside without becoming sticky and drenched in sweat.

The intensity of the summer season might have added to the intensity of my first impressions. It was like everything was turned to eleven—the temperature, the sun’s rays, the spices in the foods, the noises in the streets, the smells of the hot sidewalks and hot trash and spilt liquor. I loved it.

That time around, my friends and I took the predictable, full-on tourist route. We stayed in the French Quarter, paid pocket change to ride the street car around and look at the big, expensive houses in the Garden District, then rode it north on Canal so we could visit a towering cemetery where it was so hot the above-ground tombs seemed to be melting like huge sticks of butter. In the French Quarter, we took shelter in the fleeting moments of relief when wed walk by shops luring people in off the streets by blasting their air conditioning through propped-open doors. We took ghost tours at night, where we were shuttled around the Vieux Carré beside the masses of hustling cockroaches and other curious visitors, taken by haunted houses that Nicolas Cage once owned, take past churches and shadows and vampire bars. We listened to jazz on Bourbon, we listened to jazz on Frenchman, and we drank two-for-one hurricanes and danced until 4 a.m. We sweated through every bit of it.

Since that first visit, I return to New Orleans whenever I get the chance, growing more acquainted with the city each visit. A few years later, I was back for my third or fourth visit, this time in early April. I was there to see a concert, get a tattoo, and hang around. By now I felt more at ease in the city, felt more like I knew it well enough I didn’t have to go 100% the entire time. I just strolled around, sat around to read and write, and ate plenty of good meals. One morning I was walking through Marigny to get breakfast when I got a whiff of a bush with tiny white flowers in bloom. I didn’t know that it was jasmine then, but I did know that it smelled vaguely familiar, and as lovely as I could imagine. I took a picture of the little white flowers on my phone to research later and continued on my way to my breakfast burrito.

By the time I was flying to New Orleans this past late April, I knew all about jasmine. But I wasn’t expecting to have it greet me so soon—like, the very moment I stepped out of the airport’s automatic sliding doors. I couldn’t see it anywhere, but I knew it was there somewhere because its smell was undeniably in the air.

My friends and I were staying in the Bywater neighborhood, which is a laid-back area with a few cozy bars, a country club with a swimming pool and weekend Drag Brunches, art galleries, and lots and lots of jasmine bushes. I smelled jasmine almost everywhere I went, along with an array of other flowers in their prime bloom. We spent no more than 20 minutes on Bourbon Street, and hardly any time in the French Quarter, where I would surely have found my sweaty, dirty, spicy smells that reminds me of my first trip to New Orleans. I love that smell, too—it’s lively and challenging. But this trip was about sipping gin and tonics on the front porch of our AirBnB, and the jasmine provided a better suited backdrop for that.

With so many rich smells of all kinds filling its air, it’s not the least bit surprising to find several old perfume shops in the city as well as a number of independent, up-and-coming perfume companies. Smell is something that you just can’t ignore in New Orleans, whether you’re enjoying it or not. That particular polarity between the sweet floral notes of spring in the Bywater and the grungy, funky scents that come with late nights out dancing, drinking, and eating yummy street food is akin to the polarity found in jasmine itself.

Jasmine is one of the most cherished absolutes in the perfume industry. The flower is too dainty to go through regular distillation, so the scent was traditionally extracted through enfleurage. Now the industry uses solvent extraction. Even a thousand pounds of jasmine flowers is not quite enough to create one pound of jasmine absolute, hence its high cost. But jasmine is worth the pretty penny, both for its strong staying power, and its complex scent.

No synthetic can really and truly replicate the scent of jasmine. The reason for this is its complex structure, which includes indole and skatole. These are two aromatic organic compounds that jasmine has in common with human feces. In the small doses dealt by mother nature, these add deep, sweet notes to a scent. But too much? You can guess how that might affect a perfume. Thus synthetic jasmine is often a little off, because the balance is just too ineffable to recreate.

Real jasmine absolute shoves all of that amazing, rich smell into a little vessel. It will do the experience some justice if you can’t make it to New Orleans next April. I’ll sniff it like I sniff neroli oil when I miss driving through the _____ region of California in March. Ah, to be a young and free traveler and lover of scent. It’s an element that’s added a new depth to my journeys, and new, stronger ways of evoking memory on demand.

by Katrina Eresman