I’ve been stalked for about a month by a spaghetti-scented votive candle. I mean this in the way that, in our peculiar age of digital advertising, an item available for purchase can follow you from platform to platform, popping up in sponsored ads and emerging from the e-shadows through targeted campaign emails.
Sold by the MoMA Design Store, this candle is made by the designers behind “Toiletpaper” magazine — a biannual magazine co-created by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari. Its fragrance is described as “eclectic… an aromatic blend of tomato leaf, sage, and other botanicals sprinkled with pink pepper.”
I know the candle, with its porcelain holder designed to look like coils of sauce-covered noodles, is meant to make a statement; it’s sold as “comfort food meets Pop art,” after all. But every time it would appear in my social media feed, I felt a little sick. The thought of lighting a small, white candle that suddenly filled the room with the smell of pasta sauce was disconcerting. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way; in an informal survey of friends on social media, there were very few “savory-scented” candles that people would actually want to put out (bacon was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common exception).
But why? At the end of a long day, if I walked into my kitchen or a restaurant and the scent of spaghetti with sauce filled the air, I would drool in anticipation and reach for the Parmesan.
According to Dr. Thomas Cleland, an olfactory researcher at Cornell University, our sense of smell — and how our brains construct feelings about most odors— is a really personal thing.
“The affect, or feelings, associated with a given odor can come from many sources including personal experience, associations with similar odors, or even some startlingly indirect routes,” Cleland said.
He gave the example of how a spicy scent bouquet could evoke thoughts of drinking hot spiced wine under a blanket beside a roaring fire while the snow swirls outside the window. “[It] doesn’t need to be an identical odor so long as enough important ‘notes’ are there,” he said.
Cleland imagines this sensation would be strongest if someone actually had experience with hot spiced wine themselves, but doesn’t believe that’s actually necessary.
“You can substitute any sort of spice that fits the narrative,” Cleland said. “I’m thinking Christmas spices here, and most of us have smelled cinnamon and know that it is a traditional part of such spice combinations.
“In other words, the olfactory perception associated with an odor encounter is constructed from the full experience, real and ‘advertised,’ of that or similar odors in your experience, and one can attribute meaning to any sort of odors that you associate with particular situations or circumstances,” Cleleand said.
This idea of “construction” is key to understanding why a spaghetti-scented candle would be unsettling to some people. The way we comprehend the world around us is very much a collection of active processes and prior learning; our brain is constantly putting together puzzle pieces and making predictions.
According to Cleland, as a culture, we have a tendency to not focus on odor “as much as some other modalities, and hence it’s kind of prone to mystery.” In this case, it may help to think about it in terms of our other senses.
Take listening to music, for example. As with everything, personal taste varies because of a collection of cultural and personal associations, but most people have a pretty solid grasp on what music is appropriate for certain occasions. You’re not going to blast Ginuwine’s “Pony” at a funeral, “Baby Shark” is not a song you want to get it on to.
And while our brains are constantly learning and adapting, it can be tough to break prior associations. This is something I wrote about for NPR last year in terms of taste, memory and visual cues (using gummy bear flavors as an example). For that story, I spoke with Dr. Don Katz, a neuropsychologist at Brandeis University.
He broke down a study done by the UK-based researcher Charles Spence, in which he took a group of college students and gave them bottles of clear-colored liquid enhanced with fruit flavorings — orange, grape, apple, and lemon.
According to Katz, the college students did a great job of differentiating between the flavors of the clear liquid. "But then he added food coloring," Katz says. "The 'wrong' food coloring for the liquid."
So, the grape-flavored liquid was then colored orange, for example.
"While I wouldn't say they went to chance, their ability to tell which was which got really subpar all of the sudden," Katz says. "The orange beverage tasted orange [to them]. The yellow beverage tasted like lemonade. There wasn't a thing they could do about it."
“Spaghetti odor, I think, is associated with dinner time via our individual — and shared — experiences,” Cleland said.
Removing it from that context, via candle, is a definite way to mess with one’s mind. And like other cultural touchstones that have been altered in bizarre ways — like this ska remix of the “Jurassic Park” theme — that disconnect is intriguing enough to inspire discussion (and potential purchases).
It’s a business model that has worked well for shops other than the MoMA Design Store, too. Kentucky for Kentucky is a novelty store that sells state-based items. They garnered a lot of press in 2013 when they launched a fried chicken-scented candle.
“Initially we only had 25 candles for sale and they sold out in under a minute,” said Kentucky for Kentucky partner Whit Hiler. “Based on the demand, we decided to relaunch the candles a few days later and just let the sales run and then make the candles based on that demand. After a few hours we had sold over 1,300 fried chicken candles and had to kill the sale.”
Since then, the business has released other state-specific scents. According to Hiler, their candles with sweeter notes, like bourbon ball and mint julep, sell more consistently. But he said, thanks to a powerful combination of novelty and internet popularity, there’s a strong demand for their savory-scented candles, too — which are cornbread, beer cheese, and the classic Kentucky hot brown sandwich.
So next time you walk into a restaurant and catch a whiff of your favorite savory entree — consider the market for candles that purposely challenge our sense of odor construction and perception.