Saturday, September 19, 2009

Scents & Sensibility

Our family dog, Cinnamon was especially anxious to take her morning walk today. Thinking she really needed to answer nature's call, I tumbled into some clothes and hurried out the door with her in tow. I was more than a bit frustrated as we walked along for a block or two, stopping every few feet for Cinnamon to sniff one of the mesquite bushes or scent the air. Normally, she can't wait to find a patch of soil to relieve herself but this morning was different. She was into smelling her surroundings. I know that dogs have an especially keen sense of smell and I started thinking about how animals use scents to tell them about their world: what's good, what's dangerous, which way is home.

I began to think about my own scent memories and associations. Here are a few:

The scent of Night Blooming Jasmine: when I was a teen in East LA, my bedroom window was right up against my mother's garden. On warm nights when the window was open, the sweet, subtle perfume of this night blooming plant would permeate my room and help me drift off to sleep.

Tres Flores Brillantina: the floral odor of this hair oil reminds me of my father, who used it daily to comb back his thick, curly hair. This one comes with a visual memory as well: the oily impression of my dad's head left on the passenger window of our family car when he dozed after a long drive.

The Sonoran Desert after a summer monsoon: I love the smell of the wet dirt in the desert after a summer thunderstorm. Its deep, earthy smell, somewhat musty and mixed with the green scent of wet creosote is usually carried through the air on cool, welcome breezes after a scorching hot day. The smell somehow conveys the promise of life. Now I understand why so many Bollywood films feature dance sequences during monsoon rains. It's like a blessing from heaven to mother earth.

Scent of Mexico: The tortilleria near my aunt's house in Mexico City is completely open. At night they roll down the metal door but during the day, the area where the tortillas are made and the sidewalk is separated only by a narrow counter. Here, one can place a basket lined with a dish cloth to receive a kilo or two of hot, freshly made tortillas. The warm odor of sweet corn masa practically pulls the pedestrians off the sidewalk towards the humble, delectable treats which can be sampled for a just few centavos. The scent reminds me that the best things in life are often the simplest: a rough hewn stool to sit on, a handmade tortilla with fresh butter, the company of a dearly loved family member.

Yesterday, I roasted red potatoes with rosemary, salt, cracked pepper and a little olive oil. It's a very basic, simple dish but the rosemary smelled so appetizing that I could hardly wait to taste the potatoes. I opened the oven and, using the excuse of tasting the potatoes for doneness, popped a hot spud into my mouth, burning and effectively numbing my taste buds for the evening.

It probably sounds insane that I'm baking at all during summertime in Arizona when the temperatures outside are in the triple digits, but baking is my weakness. In winter, I bake cakes, cookies and quick breads several times a week and usually end up gifting a loaf to an unsuspecting neighbor. There's nothing like the smell of bread baking in the oven and a pot of good strong coffee brewing, its dark aroma mingling and complementing the lighter fragrance emanating from the oven. It puts me in a good mood and colors my whole day.

When my daughter and stepdaughters were growing up, I recall them watching an episode of Sailor Moon where one of the sailor scouts is remembering her childhood. In a flashback, you see the little sailor scout entering her cool, sparsely decorated Japanese abode where her mother is baking cookies. She breathes in, takes a bite and a jubilant smile spreads across her face. The scene made an impression on me so I try to have warm cookies waiting now and then around the time the school bus rolls around. The cookie smell says "welcome home, come in, sit down and unwind, I'm happy to see you."

The power of the sense of smell is not to be underestimated. I once broke up with a man just because I didn't like his scent. He wasn't dirty, but his body chemistry was just wrong when it mingled with mine. By contrast, I slept with my husband's unwashed t-shirt for months when he was in prison. I kept the shirt next to my pillow and would take deep breaths from it, hoping to fall asleep and dream that he was in bed next to me. Now that he's often away working in another state I cling to his pillow, trying to inhale the last traces of my lover.

1 comment:

melississippi said...

i love scent memories too! when you were talking about your husband's shirt it reminded me of something. I read a study where they found that women were attracted to the smell of a sweaty man that they were the most genetically different from, they thought maybe it would help make better babies? But when women are on birth control it was the opposite, they were attracted to the smell of their father, brother, etc. So I try not to worry about my scents since I'm on the pill right now!