Monthly Archives: December 2007

Chocolate and Incense Games

Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s new Sensory Collection gets my vote for being the most seductive luxury gift item of the year. I met Katrina Markoff, the company’s mad scientist chocolatier, at a Kripalu Yoga and Chocolate Retreat last February.

This chocolate tasting and smelling game involves uncapping 42 vials filled with essences such as dried banana, cocoa butter, tobacco, earth, cocoa powder, leather, charcoal, orange blossom, jasmine, asparagus, and burnt sugar and nibbling chocolates from Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad, Java, Ghana, Madagascar, Venezuela, Grenada, Bolivia, Tanzania, Peru, Costa Rica, and Santo Domingo.

There’s a little guidebook that chronicles the history of chocolate, the making of chocolate from bean to bar, the science of taste, and recipes. Also included are a color and flavor wheel to help you describe each chocolate, a notebook for your thoughts and inspirations, and a blindfold “for party fun.”

This chocolate parlor game reminds me of the Japanese-inspired incense games that I learned about while researching my book, Incense.

In Japan, the highly ritualized Kodo incense appreciation ceremony is designed to cultivate aesthetic refinement while deepening spiritual awareness. In this context, incense is the muse of both enlightenment and artistic expression. The art of Kodo is the practice of “listening to incense” – smelling with one’s entire being.

As with the formal Japanese tea ceremony, it takes years to master the complexities of the “Way of Incense.” There are specific rules regarding the subtleties of preparing the censer cup, pressing artistic designs into the white rice ash to correspond to the season and occasion, regulating the temperature of charcoal, blending the incense, and so on. An incense master must also draw upon a rich knowledge of poetry, classical literature, history, and natural science in order to fully comprehend and share the mysteries of incense. Gold-lacquered incense boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, exquisite Kodo burners, trays, and other ceremonial utensils can cost thousands of dollars.

The term Kumiko refers to the literary memory games of Kodo in which players must distinguish and identify different incenses by their perfume alone. David Oller, editor of Incense Journal, describes these games as being “aromatic journeys” shared with a group of friends.” He continues: “The true source of competition is to see which one among you is able to enjoy and cause the other participants to enjoy the journey most.”

There are hundreds of different Kumiko games that use various incenses and poetic procedures. These games are usually played with loose incense, such as aloeswood and sandalwood chips, using a Kodo-style censer cup filled with rice ash, charcoal, and a postage-stamp-sized mica plate to heat the slivers of precious incense. The following beginner-level games were suggested by Mark Ambrose of Scents of Earth.


Step One
The master of ceremonies prepares the incense censer and places three or four varieties of aloeswood in individual origami envelopes.

Step Two
Guests sit in a circle and pass each smoldering wood around for every person to experience. On the first pass, the host names each wood, giving it an evocative title like “Hidden Forrest,” “Autumn Wind,” or “Snow on a Lonely Peak,” and then guests try to associate the name with the scent. A designated record keeper writes down the name given to each wood on the inside of the origami envelopes in the order in which the varietis are passed.

Step Three
After reach wood has been named and passed, the envelope are then shuffled, and each wood is passed again, this time without a name. The guests then try to recall the name associated with the aroma and record it on their own beautiful slips of paper.

Step Four
At the end of the game, the host opens each envelope and reads the names in the order in which they woods were initially passed Each guest then discovers how well they associated the names with the fragrances.


Step One
The master of ceremonies prepares the censer.

Step Two
One at the time, three smoldering woods are passed around the circle.

Step Three
The guests try to determine whether all three are different or two or more are the same.


Step One
The master of ceremonies prepares the censer.

Step Two
One at a time, four smoldering woods are passed around the circle.

Step Three
When the first incense has been passed, the first guest writes a line of poetry inspired by the experience of “listening” to the fragrance. The next guest adds another line, the next guest adds a third, and so on, until all of the woods have been passed and a single poem has been created. Alternately, participants can individually compose their won poems by writing down a line inspired by each incense, and then reading their four-line poems to one another.

For more information and photos of the Kodo cermony, see Listen’ to Your Nose: Sniff Out a Calming Custom by Tomoko Otake of Japan Times.

Interview with Rebecca Walker

I’m going to introduce Rebecca Walker before her keynote address at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in February. Here is a brief interview I conducted with her that was published in Atención San Miguel.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you have a favorite place to write or any creativity-inducing rituals?

Since having my son, I have had to throw a lot of my ideas about where and when to write out the window. I now write anywhere I can charge my laptop: the bed, the sofa, a chair in the backyard. I also write in hotels more lately, and try to build a few extra days for writing into my lecture schedule. My other trick is to wait until I really know what I want and need to say. Then I add a few months onto that until I can’t contain it anymore. The urgency makes me write faster.

You’ve been extremely brave about delving into and revealing your complex personal truths in your memoirs and you’ve paid dearly for doing so. You wrote in Baby Love that your mother was so furious about what you wrote in Black, White, and Jewish that she disinherited you. Was it worth it? Is it worth it?

Well, it certainly wasn’t the best financial decision I’ve ever made! Because my mother is such a powerhouse in the industry (think Oprah and many, many others) and people take sides, the estrangement has had a serious impact on my career and the resources available to me.

Access aside, as millions of people know, my mother is a tremendous human being and I love and respect her deeply. The rub is that, like her, I’m a writer: my life is my material. It’s an issue all writers deal with: Is it possible to tell my story without hurting others? What happens to the world of letters if writers only write what is acceptable? What’s the point of writing if you can’t be truthful?

Some of my favorite memoirists, women like Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Audre Lorde, Diane DiPrima, Marguerite Duras, Susanna Kaysen, bell hooks, Lucy Grealy, asha bandele and others, didn’t write what made everyone comfortable. They wrote what they needed to write, and the truth of their expression stands the test of time. I hope my work does the same.

So I guess that’s a yes. It is worth it. And the cost is tremendous. I often tell writers in my workshops that their biggest fear about telling their story can come true: you can lose the people you love the most. But, as many of those same writers like to tell me, the opposite is also true: you can become closer to the people you love; telling your story can be a cathartic place of healing. I thought that would be true for me and my family. So far, not so much. But there is still time. I’ll never close the door.

You’ve edited three non-fiction anthologies and contributed to at least twenty others. Why do you think anthologies as a genre became so popular? What’s your new anthology about? I hear there’s a local author in it.

The first anthology I read was This Bridge Called My Back by the late Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua, and my all-time favorite is We Are the Stories We Tell. The genre endures because it fulfills a human longing to see the world from different points of view, all at once. And then there is the fact that collections are like parties for introverts: you meet the most fascinating people without having to leave the house. It’s the original virtual community.

My new anthology is about new family configurations. It’s called Walk This Way: Introducing the New American Family. It’s about all the ways people are living these days: from birthing at home without a midwife, living polyamorously, and inviting the nanny to be a full-fledged family member, to co-housing, transracial adoption, and intercultural ex-pat life. San Miguel de Allende resident Susan McKinney de Ortega is covering that last topic, and I’m thrilled to include her essay about moving to San Miguel, falling in love and starting what to some may seem like a non-traditional family.

Have you been in San Miguel de Allende before? If so, what is the first experience you look forward to having upon each return?

This will be my first trip to San Miguel de Allende, though my mother owns a house in Mexico and I’ve spent over two decades going back and forth: the country is in my blood. I’m looking forward to speaking Spanish, a language I love, and eating carne asada with beans and rice. I’m looking forward to the light, the warmth of the people, and the focus on family rather than consumerism. I’m looking forward to architectural beauty and diversity. And of course, I am looking forward to meeting some wonderful writers.

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