Scent: Message Received

winter storm jonasThanks 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.

oliver wendell holmesChris 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.”

figI 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.

FigsI 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.

Lewis ThomasThe 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.

Mississippi RiverClimbing 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.

sulphurMy 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.

king cakeEveryone 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. holy trinityWhen 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.

mom's perfumesPeople 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.

al di laI 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. my perfumesAs 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.”

cruso quoteThis 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.

Preserving Old Traditions

Recently I was rereading for the umpteenth time Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin and its sequel, More Home Cooking. In her inimitable style, Colwin describes her amazement at the moment that she realized that her husband was indeed a European: she found him eating paper-thin pancakes smeared with jam instead of butter and syrup as Americans do. She devotes a chapter to her decision to make jam, and decides upon plum jam due to it being more difficult to purchase in a store. She made it seem so easy, which is one of her special talents, taking a recipe which to the normal home cook would seem daunting if not impossible and make it seem like something we can successfully take on. Then and there I decided I would make jam.

Even though my mom never made jam or jelly or “canned” anything, I grew up with these homemade items. We were regularly given things by friends and family members like strawberry jam, fig preserves, and other items that had been magically cooked in a normal pot in a normal home kitchen and then sealed in a jar so that it could sit on a pantry shelf for an indefinite period of time. Fig preserves is one of my favorites. When I married, my husband’s godmother started sending us jars of her preserves at the holidays, accompanied by some of her famous Italian cookies. Once she sent us a jar of pear preserves and it was unlike anything I had ever tasted before—delicious.

I approached this project much like I do anything that I am attempting for the first time: extensive Googling and research via my own considerable library. First I reread Colwin’s chapter on plum jam. Knowing that canning jars were either “Mason” or “Ball” brand, I checked their websites for information. I spent quite a bit of time on Pinterest and found new links to explore, including several YouTube videos that indeed made it seem doable.

During this exploratory period, I happened upon an episode of the Food Network television show The Barefoot Contessa. This particular episode featured Ina Garten making orange marmalade. My decision was made. I would begin with Garten’s recipe for orange marmalade. It gave exact measurements and time frames, which unlike Colwin’s (as with most of her “recipes”), was really a well-told story about how to make plum jam.

My husband, the family grocery shopper, or “logistics officer” as he once called himself, picked up the short list of ingredients: sugar, four navel oranges, and two lemons. He also managed to find a dozen half-pint canning jars on sale at our local grocery store. From my research I knew that I would need canning supplies such as a jar lifter, a canning pot, tongs, and a funnel. So I called some of my more domestic-oriented friends to see if I could borrow these items for the weekend. Finally, I had everything I needed, my Googling had sufficiently given me the courage I needed, and I was ready to begin.

That’s when I realized that this recipe was a two-parter. I guess in my excitement when watching the episode I didn’t realize that the sliced oranges and lemons had to soak overnight in a water and sugar bath. This was embarrassing, a rookie mistake. Always read the recipe all the way through before beginning!

The next day, with my oranges and lemons having spent the requisite time in the simple syrup mixture, I read the recipe again and started the process of jam-making, or in this case, marmalade-making. Apparently the difference between marmalade and jam is the inclusion of both the rinds and the flesh of the fruit, which means that all marmalade is made from citrus fruits.

01d5213900a61ed607a38d8e02561c2ef4c1c05910Because Garten’s recipe does not call for pectin, this process was quite time-consuming. The cooking process took about three hours but finally, the “jam temperature” had been reached and when dropping a bit of the marmalade mixture onto a saucer that had been placed in the freezer for a while, it puddled up in a little glob when pushed with my finger. Then the scary part began.

014ca32e7cfd96f54aa4c81d51d66c5632e36fe8d3For the safe preservation of foods, everything that comes into contact with the food must be completely sterile and then the sealed jars have to be “processed” for the prescribed amount of time. I tried not to think about the possibilities of screwing this up and bringing botulism upon my loved ones, but since preserving foods has been dated back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, I plowed on.

Using my largest pasta pot with the insert, I placed the half-pint jars in boiling water for ten minutes, along with the rings. The lids with their little rings of sealing compound were washed with warm soapy water and then placed in a small pot with very hot but not boiling water. I removed the sterilized jars one at a time with the jar lifter (a miraculous device which actually does what it claims to do and is quite indispensable to jam-making). Using the funnel I filled each jar to the top leaving a half-inch of head space as stated in the recipes. Then, on goes the lid and the ring. Finally each jar is placed back into the boiling water for ten minutes. The jars are removed and set aside to cool. That’s when you step back and wait…for the magic ping. As the jars cool, a vacuum forms inside the jars and the lid, which had raised slightly in the center while being processed, becomes concave and makes a pinging sound as it snaps into place. That sound means you have successfully preserved your jam!

019a2dcaca3197b1429a1528d4052d54f711122f87As thrilling as hearing the ping was, cracking open a jar of it several days later and spreading it on a toasted English muffin was astonishing. I had made orange marmalade on my own. And, it was good. Really good. Passing out jars of my hard work was equally amazing. When returning the canning supplies to my friend, I bestowed upon her a jar of orange marmalade and a jar of grapefruit ginger marmalade, a slight variation of the Ina Garten recipe using grapefruits and crystalized ginger.

A few weeks later, I ordered my own set of canning supplies and then tackled strawberry preserves and strawberry-balsamic-black pepper preserves. When given a bag of garlic scapes, I made garlic scape-flavored vinegar, both white wine and apple cider varieties. 0135f7ef950e43082132349758335c6a75abccbdbcTwo weeks ago, thanks to my older daughter’s shopping spree at a farmer’s market in Pittsburgh, I pickled five quart jars of okra, something that any 01797a93804afc5198857faa3a39760ab2dfeb5e85transplanted Southerner would love to get their hands on!

Jam-making, as both Laurie Colwin and Ina Garten pointed out, is very satisfying. First of all, you know exactly what is inside that jar of jam or jelly as you spread it on your breakfast toast (or your pancakes if you are European). You can control the amount of sugar or use a sugar substitute if you are so inclined. You can create jam or jelly or marmalade out of any fruit that you can find at your local grocery store or farmer’s market. And, the bragging rights that go along with those pretty jars of jewel-colored yumminess are out of this world!011aa7150d939c85f369ca0b763049013d2a341adf_00001


Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Garten, Ina. “Anna’s Orange Marmalade.” Barefoot Contessa. Barefoot Contessa, n.d. Web. 18 July 2015.

“Historical Origins of Food Preservation.” National Center for Home Food Preservation. University of Georgia, n.d. Web. 18 July 2015.