My current favorite perfume is Pistachio. Just Pistachio, from D.S. & Durga. I know that makes me perhaps too adherent to trends, but what can I say? It smells good. But from the moment I first spritzed it on, its existence, as well as the existence of a hoard of single-note food-scented items like tomato candles and matcha perfume, took me back to a totally different time in my life. These scents are all thriving because the Demeter fragrance library paved the way for hyper-literal food scents.
Demeter launched in 1993. Founded by Christopher Gable and Christopher Brosius, now of CB I Hate Perfume, the line poked fun at the traditions of the perfume world and the assumption that perfumes had to be abstract. Demeter “turned the idea of scent upside down and paved the way for niche fragrances that didn’t always smell ‘pretty,’” wrote Fragrantica in 2010. The line’s first three scents were Dirt, Grass, and Tomato, but after landing in the iconic department store Henri Bendel in 1996, Gable and Brosius expanded their library. Their text-heavy, functional bottles were filled with scents like Angel Food, Egg Nog, and Mushroom (as well as non-food scents like Funeral Home and New Car). They even had Pistachio Ice Cream, long before the current trend.
As a pre-teen pawing at the sophistication I thought a few more years would bring me, a Demeter scent felt like the scent to have. There were, of course, other straightforward food-based scents at places like Bath & Body Works, where you could make yourself smell like cucumber melon or raspberry. But those felt cloying and childish. Demeter struck the balance between elegant and whimsical and made smelling like Ginger Ale seem cool.
The girls in my 7th grade class began wearing the scents, which cost around $15 at the time — cheap enough to swing but slightly fancier than a body spray from Victoria’s Secret. But the adults in my life were just as enamored. I have a vague memory of seeing Tomato in my mom’s friend’s bathroom. For what it’s worth my scent was Madeleine, as if I wanted everyone to be shot into Proustian reverie just by sitting behind me in Social Studies. (At the time I did not know who Proust was.)
Demeter’s popularity coincided with the rise of Sephora, which opened its first U.S. store in 1998, offering a new makeup-buying experience that fell somewhere between the drug store and the department store. In 2000 and 2001, Demeter won awards for its scents Snow and Sugar Cane. The scents were also carried in other mainstream department stores, making the brand nearly as widespread as Bath & Body Works, and celebrity and fashion magazines frequently referenced the simple, chic bottles — Stella McCartney wore Lettuce, and Drew Barrymore wore Gin & Tonic. By the mid-2000s, Demeter was officially no longer a “novelty” brand, and it partnered with brands like Play-Doh and Jelly Belly for new scents.
Yes, perhaps we are more food-focused now than ever, and that’s why a Pasta Water candle can ignite certain corners of the internet. But there is no new idea under the sun; the present day fervor for food-scented candles and perfumes has been cycling for some time. Demeter is still out here, making perfumes that smell like string beans and orange cream pops, and at $20 for a one ounce bottle they’re a worthy alternative to more hyped, expensive brands. Perhaps Demeter endures just because its scents are easier to grasp — you may not know what a mystical arrangement of rose and sandalwood and musk evokes, but you know you like licorice. And why not smell like something you like?