Mysterious Maple Syrup Smell in New York City

by Tig Tillinghast

It’s certainly not news to find strange smells in New York City, but this one caught my attention. Over the past couple of years, people have been noticing a “maple syrup smell” wafting through Manhattan and boroughs east of it. It’s become a bit of a running joke among the hipster blog sites infesting the city . They even made a T-shirt.

Theories abound on these sites as to why there seems to be a periodic wafting across the island. Not known for stoicism, New Yorkers have been calling municipal information and even emergency lines asking what’s up, some suspecting a chemical attack. It led to one of my favorite New York Times headlines: “Good Smell Perplexes New Yorkers.”

Trying to track down the source NYC blog Gothamist created a Google Maps mash-up of reported sightings, pictured below, sadly using Mrs. Buttersworth bottles as an icon. Which helps explain some things…

The likely answer to their puzzle is the fact that the same primary ingredient in fake maple syrup flavoring is fenugreek, the same spice used to make curries and other strong-flavored ethnic foods.

Here’s the deductive reasoning, which – upon reflection – sounds sort of like one of those gritty New York City crime show endings…

– It’s unlikely that the average New Yorker could tell the difference between a real maple syrup smell and something approximating a maple syrup smell.

– Once one person posts a comment on a blog in NYC, it’s axiomatic that several tens of people will make some sort of self-referential comment, in this case probably triggering a wave of smell observations.

– The key ingredient to fake maple syrup flavoring is fenugreek, a seed used more commonly as a key spice in curry.

– An internet search turns up listings for 17,107 Indian restaurants in New York City, or about one for every 400 people.

– New York is so densely populated each individual takes up only about 1,000 square feet of land space, or about a 30’x30′ area.

– That means that the average surface area commanded by a particular Indian restaurant is roughly 10 acres.

– This all means that it’s probably difficult to NOT smell fenugreek in New York City roughly around dinner time (a time that seems to correspond to the reports)

To put it in perspective, even here in Thetford Center, VT, with a population of 2,800, if we had the same density of indian restaurants per person, we would have roughly seven of them (which would be a fine thing in my book). They would each command 3,000 acres of land, and being at the population centers would likely cover the majority of the population with fenugreek smells. Except we’d know the difference.