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The Aromas That Take Us Back

Our olfactory senses. There are few things in life which act as our personal time machine and transports us to another space, another place, the way that our sense of smell does. The stimulation is a powerful one, evoking memories that perhaps would otherwise lay dormant and undisturbed. The connections we draw between that which our nose detects and the people, places and experiences of our past provide an intangible link that is difficult to break.

Stop and smell the roses . . .

Stop and smell the roses . . .

We smell without giving much thought to it. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s what our noses do. We stop and smell the roses, crinkle up our nose when the garbage truck drives by, smile when the aroma of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies wafts by, or wave our hand wildly in front of our nostrils to fan away the stench of burnt microwave popcorn.

Who can resist the smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies?

Who can resist the smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies?

Our sense of smell is intimately intertwined with our emotions. Strong feelings are evoked when we catch a whiff of that certain something that can leave us dreamy-eyed and wistful. The everyday smells which tickle our nostrils may not prompt memories as readily as those smells which are few and far between. Our surroundings are ripe with aromas that go unnoticed for some, while for others these same smells trigger remembrances of childhood and paint vivid pictures in the mind.

There’s a certain fragrance that, when I smell it, I am whisked away to the home I grew up in, where my Daddy still lives, in Maryland. I can envision myself coming down the stairs during Christmastime wearing my comfortable pajamas and shaggy bedroom slippers. There, on the little wooden table beside the staircase and across from the bathroom, rests a brass bowl, tarnished by time. It’s one of many bowls that my Mom would fill with hard candies, apples, tangerines and nuts of all sorts—pecans, Brazils, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts—most in their shells. My sisters and I would spend the holidays digging through the bowls in search of our favorite nuts, mine being pecans. At the top of the heap in each bowl Mom would place an orange studded with dozens of cloves. This was her pomander, her fragrant gift to our home, and that wonderful aroma is etched in my memory. Now, at times the fragrance, so pervasive and alluring and so connected to my Mom in memory, is enough to bring a tear or two to the surface.

orange cloves

There are a few foods in the storehouse of my mind that trigger my moments of nostalgia. The heady smell of chitlins, which haven’t assaulted my nostrils in years, leads me right back to not only my Mom but my Grandmother as well. They were the pillars of womanhood to my young and tender sensibilities. To see them with their hands draped over a large bucket, laboring intensely—stretching, pulling and rinsing the pig innards—filled me with a strong sense of pride to be associated with these two great women. Cleaning chitlins was no easy task, but they did so anyway, because for them it was a means to an end; it was a way to feed their family. The fact that they coveted the taste of chitlins was a great motivator, as well.

And there are many more. Many more food aromas that lead me on that journey of rediscovery. Reliving the past may be a feat best left to the filmmakers with their special effects gurus and misty flashbacks. However, with the wonderful smells that stir up thoughts of childhood and recollections of pleasantries trapped within, perhaps this pseudo-vicarious state of being is what a higher power intended for us to experience. With the remembrances come the smiles, and even in the worst of times you can still carry that with you. Wherever, whenever. They are the smells that have left their indelible imprint and we have only to look as far as our nose to experience the memories.

What food smells evoke happy memories for you?

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