In ancient Rome, people would chew on parsley sprigs to freshen their breath. The Mayans and Aztecs chewed a gum made from boiled sap. You can find betel all over Asia. In the Southern US, there’s a proliferation of toothpicks. There’s also the cartoonish ubiquity of Binaca breath spray and those curiously strong Altoids. President Trump has pretty much ruined Tic Tacs for the rest of us. But it’s wrong-headed to characterize these food objects exclusively as breath-freshening tools.
When did fear of stinky breath become such a thing? Granted, the breath can be a solid indicator of gum disease or a serious gastrointestinal problem. The deeper truth, of course, is simply that we worry the disgusting smell emanating from our face hole all day will turn off of our colleagues, friends, and lovers. Like a shiny pair of wingtips, breath freshness makes a good first impression. Advertisers are keenly aware of the anxiety people feel about the smell of their own breath. Whether this anxiety is natural, or a result of the fears brought to our attention and fed by the advertisers, the fact is that it’s real. However, the anxiety is located in the consequence — social alienation — not in the stink itself. After all, it’s pretty difficult to smell your own breath.
So when we obligatorily consume a mint passed our way down the table in the cafeteria at lunch, that’s really a gesture of social inclusion and assimilation. What’s in a mint? The more I think about this, the more any breath-freshening quality of the mint seems superfluous. The real point of the mint is a momentary achievement of social connection, not fresh breath. A lot of mints have so much sugar in them that you end up with breath that is actually less fresh ten minutes later. How many times have I absent-mindedly picked up one of those red and white swirly mints while exiting a restaurant, only to regret the sticky aftertaste that lingered when I was finished with it?
While mints rule by fear, bonbons do not. A bonbon is any type of small confection. Many people think of them as chocolate-covered, but this need not be the case. “Bonbon” comes from the French word for “good” and bonbons rule by love, not by fear. For the past few months, I have been quietly engaged in a bonbon experiment: isolate the fresh breath quality while attempting to preserve the social acceptance generated by the sharing of mints. Unavoidable conclusion: there are lots of kinds of tiny bites that promote a feeling of communion, regardless of their effect on face hole odiferousness.
I began with Altoids. My mother always had Altoids because, like probably all mothers of four, she drank a great deal of coffee. Sometimes the tin box would bust open in her purse and the family car would smell like peppermint for days. Anytime she told us to go in her purse for something, we’d grab an Altoid as payment for our errand.
Fast forward a couple of decades to when I am gainfully employed and carpooling. Every day when we got back in the car to go home, my carpool buddy and I would pause, heave a sigh of relief and then I’d bust out that Altoid tin. It was our way of wiping the day off of us together. Whatever crazy stuff happened on the job that day, we freshened it off our breath instead of bringing the crazy home with us. So that’s my control group.
There was also a morning tradition I had with this carpooler, where we would stop to get the good coffee every Wednesday. Sometimes, I would also get a doughnut. The doughnut was not for me; it was for a colleague to be chosen later. Yes, I regularly engaged in Random Acts of Doughnut. At first, it was just for people at work having birthdays or other stuff to celebrate. But at some point it dawned on me that I could surprise another person with a sweet treat anytime I felt like it. I began leaving them on peoples’ chairs, tucking them safely under the desk for the maximum surprise factor. Sometimes I’d put them in the mailroom, or on a conference table.
Usually, I’d get an email later that day offering up profuse thanks for this simple one-dollar treat. They’d say things like, “You can’t even know how much I needed this today” and go on about some awful thing their teenager said last night or a medical issue happening with the in-laws. I made several new friends and got oddly closer with the ones I already had.
A doughnut is on the larger side for spontaneous food-gifting, though and not everyone can stomach so much sugar. So I moved on to chewable coffee. I’d been meaning to try nootropics (“smart drugs”) for some time, and I found these gummies that are flavored like coffee and caffeinated as such. There are four to a pack, and two gummies equal the caffeine equivalent of one cup of coffee. It works out to about two bucks per serving, giving a little kick that is also somehow more relaxed than actually drinking a cup of coffee. During my summer travels, it was easy to drop some into my backpack and pop one whenever the jet lag came on. I started offering yawning acquaintances a “cup of coffee”. They’d be confused and then delighted when I poured the gummies out for them.
When you give a person a new food to try, one of four things happens: they look at it and change their minds, they eat it and hate it, they eat it and love it, or they eat it and meh. All four of those reactions are great conversation starters. Like or dislike once they were chewing, nearly everybody I invited was willing to engage me in a bonbon situation. These tiny tastes are the building blocks of our relationships. They convey all kinds of things about a person — adventure, trust, discernment, nostalgia, excitement, just for starters. You make faces, watch each other chew, share a brief but intensely focused experience that doesn’t impose too much risk or cost on anyone.
Sharing a tiny bite is actually not the high stakes situation that the peddlers of fresh breath would have us believe it is. When I was maybe ten years old, there was this Lifesavers “spark in the dark” commercial that totally fascinated me. The basic implication was that you could freshen your breath and get laid, but being a little kid, I was more attached to the idea that two friends could sit around in the dark doing a science experiment to watch the mouth sparks fly. Unfortunately, I hate wintergreen flavor, but of course, I ate tons of these mints anyway because the icky taste was worth it for the fun factor.
As an adult, I steer clear of wintergreen, but I like a lot of botanical flavors that most people avoid. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Choward’s violet mints. I’m obsessed with the flavor, which is not minty in any way, and most people think they taste like soap. The interesting thing is that even though a lot of people know themselves well enough to know they won’t like the taste, they can’t help but hold out their hand when I offer one. They will actually take a tiny taste of something they are pretty sure they will not like because they want to do the experiment with me. Even given the consequences, they find that the social reward outweighs any unpleasant flavor that may linger.
They make a weird face and say something hilarious, then tell me it reminds them of that time dad put soap in their mouth or the way a favorite aunt smelled during church service or the summer they spent with cousins in Mumbai. We do the tiny bite, talk for ten minutes, and then go back to our separate work things feeling much better about life, people, and our place in life among people. No matter what it is we’ve just chewed on together, our faces are never really close enough together for me to smell their breath. But I’ve seen them make funny faces and heard them talk about their life for a few minutes, which makes me like them more and have more empathy for their stuff — which in turn means I would care much less if I did catch a whiff of their stinky breath.