Thanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #Blizzard2016, I had an unexpected “winter break” from teaching, and I must say I have really enjoyed my #snowcation. Sandwiched nicely between my Christmas break and my Easter break, this one came with no expectations of shopping or meal planning. With my six school days I did some school work but mostly did things that I wanted to do, not that I had to do. I finished two knitting projects, crocheted a stack of make-up remover pads for my daughter Margaret who blogs about make-up and fashion, made a large batch of grapefruit orange marmalade, organized my bedside library (if you could see the number of books in my bedroom alone you would also designate this area as a library), did some writing and editing, and read several books.
Chris Grabenstein’s new book, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, was great. I also read Janet Evanovich’s latest, Tricky Twenty-Two, and even though I am really done with Stephanie Plum and her band of misfit friends and family, for many years I have been reading each of Evanovich’s books as they come out and I just can’t quit on her yet. I am one-third in to Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, and I am hooked already. In fact, I was hooked by the very first sentence:
“These are some of my favorite smells: toasting bagel, freshly cut figs, the bergamot in good Earl Grey tea, a jar of whole soybeans slowly turning beneath a tropical sun.”
I grew up on biscuits, not bagels; I despise Earl Grey tea; and I have no idea what a jar of whole soybeans “turning” in the sun would smell like. So, of that short list of items that Gretchen the protagonist is describing, the only one I can really identify with is the freshly cut figs. My Aunt Helen had a giant fig tree in her backyard and I used to retreat there when my mother would bring us over for a visit. I would literally climb inside the outer ring of larger branches and stand there, all but obscured from view, and eat fig after fig right off the tree. When I see what a small carton of four or five fresh figs cost at a gourmet grocery store here in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, I can’t imagine how many thousands of dollars in figs I ate in my childhood.
I can’t bring myself to purchase them no matter how badly I want them these days, because I know deep down that they will not taste as good as the memory of my Aunt Helen’s figs tastes in my mind. I know this because when sniffing the carton of absurdly expensive nuggets, they do not smell like fresh figs pulled off the tree, one after another. And, that doesn’t count the preserved figs I’ve eaten. These are figs that were gently poached whole in simple syrup and then preserved in mason jars, given out to friends and family as casually as though everyone in the world had access to that sort of goodness on a regular basis. Those preserved figs were great plopped on homemade vanilla ice cream or pound cake, but they were just as good, if not better, draped across a slice of buttered toast.
The connection of smell and memory is a powerful one. I was never much of an outdoorsy person but I did love the smell of the honeysuckle growing along the fence in my backyard as a child. I could stand there for hours, pulling the tender strands and sucking off the sweet nectar, one after another. The memory of pulling a satsuma off the tree in my backyard and eating it right there, dropping the peels and pithy stringy bits at my feet, is so powerful I can almost smell it right now, the citrus oils, almost acrid, slightly burning my nose.
Climbing up the levee to sit and watch the boats go by on the Mississippi River was a favorite pastime, something I did every time I went home for the weekend from college. I loved looking at the water, the soft waves lapping at the rocks along the bank, the pieces of driftwood floating by, but it is the smell of the Mississippi River that instantly told me I was home.
My hometown had a smell all its own as well, although those of us growing up there couldn’t really smell it. You had to be away from it for a while to be able to smell it. Originally Port Sulphur was a town created to house the workers of the Freeport Sulphur Company, the townsite as it was called. With its close proximity to the shipping channel via the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, it was the perfect location to fill tanker ships carrying the liquid sulphur away to foreign lands. When I had friends come for the weekend they all noticed it right away, but to us it just smelled like home. If you aren’t familiar with the smell of sulphur, you can get an idea of it by smelling the yolk of a hard-boiled egg (especially one boiled long enough for the green ring to appear around the yolk) or the tip of a kitchen match just as it starts to burn.
Everyone knows the smell of freshly baked bread, the earthy smell of yeast turning a bowl of plain flour and water into the bread of your culture, whatever that might be. In Louisiana, that would be French bread, not really a baguette as it has a soft exterior as well as a pillowy interior. It is the platform for po-boys of every kind: fried shrimp, fried oysters, roast beef, fried catfish, and more. It is just as good slathered with butter and eaten as is. Add some sugar, eggs, and milk to your bowl of yeast and flour and you get brioche, the bread of kings, Mardi Gras kings that is, the king cake. We have one shipped to us every year, just to get a bit of Mardi Gras here in our home in Maryland. Opening the Fed Ex box and then the Gambino’s box, and then the twist tie on the plastic bag, and wow, the aroma of that still fresh brioche hits your nose like a ton of bricks.
For Italians, the smell of a pot of tomato gravy bubbling away on the stove or a pan of lasagna baking in the oven is the smell of their grandmother, cooking love right there in her kitchen. For me, that would be the smell of a roux. It’s so simple, a roux, just equal parts of flour and fat. Yet, it is the basis of many a Louisiana recipe: First you make a roux. The trick is to cook it very, very slowly, until it simmers into a liquid pool of peanut butter-colored lava. I say lava because if you have ever had a bit of roux splash up on your hand while cooking, you will know exactly what I mean. Outside of cooking caramel (again equal parts of two otherwise benign ingredients, sugar and water), a cooking roux is the hottest substance in a kitchen. When you add the holy trinity (chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery) to a hot roux, that smell can transport me to the kitchen of my mom, my Aunt Helen, my Uncle Guy’s make-shift kitchen in his grocery store, the kitchens of restaurants all over Louisiana. Both my daughters know that smell and when I am making a gumbo, they come out of their rooms, away from their phones and devices, to stand in the kitchen and smell the smell of a Louisiana they never lived in, a place where they have only visited, a place they only know through family and food.
People have their own individual smells as well. My mother loved perfume and she loved trying them all. A walk through a department store with her meant an interminable amount of time spraying and spritzing one after another. She never wore a lot of perfume at any one time but she wore perfume every day. We all knew her favorites and there was always perfume under the Christmas tree for her. She loved the little sample bottles that came with cosmetic purchases. These miniature bottles became so popular that they started making them to sell as a boxed set. She received several of those as presents and long after she had tired of the perfume inside each one, she kept the bottles on a mirrored tray on her dresser. This collection of little glass memory containers was lovingly bestowed upon my fashionista daughter.
I guess I have my own smell which has changed over the years. Fresh out of college in my first job I found a perfume I loved and wore it for years until the store where I bought it closed. I’ve never been able to find Al Di La since but I still have my last bottle of it. It has a few drops left in it, enough to whisk me back to driving my chocolate brown Ford LTD, a former unmarked police car that was my college graduation present from my parents, windows down, wind blowing my hair, feeling as young and carefree as I actually was at the time. From there I transitioned to many of my mom’s favorites, the Estee Lauder perfumes: Aliage, Estee, Youth Dew, and eventually landing on my all-time favorite, Cinnabar. As a young working mom in a big company, I was told many times my scent announced my visit before my colleagues saw or heard me coming. I never used a lot of perfume at any one time, much like my mom, but the spicy, warm smell of Cinnabar became my signature smell. One of my bosses from that same company announced one day that it was time I find a new scent, and she gave me for Christmas a gift set of Aromatic Elixir by Clinique. I am still wearing that scent to this very day, alternating occasionally with Cinnabar.
Rachel Carson, the environmentalist who wrote Silent Spring, once said,
“For the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories and it is a pity that we use it so little.”
This is so true for me. Today as I opened the little pink box where my daughter keeps those miniature perfume bottles, the smell of my mom enveloped me and brought a lump to my throat. Yes, the image of those little bottles, arranged just so on my mom’s dresser in my parents’ pre-Katrina home, is a strong one, but the soft, powdery smell emanating from that box made me yearn to give her a hug and make her a cup of tea. The smell of a roux cooking will always make me yearn for those simple times of eating a bowl of gumbo at my Aunt Helen’s house or a plate of my mom’s crab stew. These are the smells and scents of my life, each one cataloged and filed away for instant recall at the opening of a bottle or the making of a roux.