When an eating designer loses her sense of smell, and turns her disadvantage into creative research – The Marije Vogelzang interview

by scent historian Caro Verbeek | caro@caroverbeek.nl

CV: You are a world famous eating designer. How important is smell in your professional life?

MV: I don’t really distinguish between my private and my professional life when it comes to smell because a large part of who I am consists of experiencing through my senses. I use my personal ability to appreciate sensations as an inspiration in my professional work. I work with food so smell is a crucial aspect of that but I also work with scents separately.

Marije Vogelzang and her signature pose with chicken. Copyright and photo by Ilja Keizer

CV: Recently you contracted covid-19 and you lost your sense of olfaction. What did that do to you?

MV: It was one of the weirdest experiences! I received a gift, which was a hand cream and naturally I took a bit and smelled it. It appeared to have no scent at all while the packaging said it was ‘basil and mint scented’ hand creme. After that I took a tour around the house trying to smell something. Anything! I tried garlic-cream cheese, very old Camembert, all sorts of perfumes. The only thing I could faintly catch was a cheap scented candle with a very strong perfume. It was a peculiar experience to be in a kind of scent void. It felt as if I wasn’t really fully awake. I am very short sighted and in the morning before I put my contact lenses in my world seems blurry and cloudy. That’s how I felt without having the sense of olfaction. I have to note as well that I was ill so perhaps this amplified that experience. 

CV: You mentioned the situation stimulated your creativity. You started to imagine scents. Can you give an example?

MV: The whole experience of anosmia triggered me a lot. I realised it was a unique experience, like fasting: when you do not eat everything is about food. Now everything was about scent in the absence of it. Next to that I wanted to actively train my olfactory abilities because, of course, I wanted to be able to smell again. I tried to imagine smells. In the shower I had an imaginary Coca Cola shower which worked very well. Some scents were very easy to imagine and it seemed to me that was because I had a kind of clean slate to work from. Eventually I didn’t smell a thing for just a few days but in these few days alone I drank spoiled milk without noticing it. I had to clean up puke which I decided was soup as I could just add an imaginary smell to it. I had to clean up poo which I knew I couldn’t smell but I noticed I was still holding my breath and feeling disgust as if I could smell it. As for taste: I could still taste in a very rudimentary way: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami but without the aroma. Incredibly boring. I tried to imagine aromas on top of the taste but that took quite a lot of energy.

CV: What happened after your anosmia turned into parosmia?

MV: involuntarily I started smelling kitchen smells, like baked potatoes and roasted meat. It made me go to the kitchen and see if I accidentally left the stove on. It wasn’t unpleasant but it was weird. My friend who had the same situation smelled ‘oliebollen’ (sic: Dutch greasy pastry) without reason. For a few days after I started smelling faintly again some things seemed out of tune with what I knew they were supposed to smell. As if pieces of a puzzle didn’t fit correctly. Fortunately this corrected itself rather quickly.

CV: Have your ideas about your artistic practice or even life in general changed  now that you (luckily) retrieved your sense of smell?

MV: Yes it has made an impact. I am absolutely appreciative for having had this experience. I know about ansomia but it is really unimaginable for someone who can smell. Now having had the experience it is incredibly valuable to me and I value my olfactory sense even more.

I was already working on a joint project about using our imaginative abilities to create sensorial experiences without actually physically adressing the senses so it seemed as if this came just at the right time as a part of my research!

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