Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Last week, as I was driving home from picking up my son from daycare, I heard part of an intriguing story on NPR about gourmet chef, Grant Achatz.  This artisan chef overcame the loss of taste due to tongue cancer.  How traumatic it must have been for him to deal with the loss of his taste when it is so vital to his livelihood and passion for cooking.  Achatz talked about some of his unique gourmet creations and how our senses react and are so involved in taste, sight and smell.  

Pictured here is his creation that perhaps some diners would see as, bizarre, strange, odd or even weird, but this story and his creation has, as he mentioned in the interview, stirred emotions and memories that I’ve since reflected upon.   He explained how patrons of his Chicago based restaurant, ‘Alinea’ sometime become emotional at the sight and smell of the pheasant with burning oak leaves presentation dish.

Now I must admit I did snicker a bit to myself when he said this.  But after I thought more about how our senses, particularly those of taste and smell affect us and give us such profound delight and joy through the food we eat, I began to understand more fully what he was talking about.  So I began thinking specifically about our sense of smell and memories that can be triggered. 

If I ever am around or perhaps just passing by where someone smoking a tobacco pipe, I automatically am transferred back to thoughts of grandfather.  The smell of the pipe tobacco ignites my mind with the image of the small worn out wooden desk that sat in the sort of den area of my grandparent’s home.  My mind flashes with the sight of numerous pipes along with small pouches or cans of tobacco in one of the desk drawers.  I can even taste the pipe in my mouth as I remember sitting a back of my parents Chevy II in our driveway as a young boy during a visit from grandpa, my ‘Paw Paw’.  

I also thought of the memorable smell of honeysuckle.  The smell of it today will transport me back to elementary school where a long chain link fence ran along the back of the playground area.  The fence seemed to always be covered in it.  It’s where I and other kids picked the tiny sweet flowers and sucked the nectar off them during recess.

How many of us can, upon smell of onions and peppers being grilled up in a skillet, transport ourselves suddenly by just closing our eyes back to a small town fair or carnival?  I’m not talking about today’s entertainment theme parks, I’m talking about those little fairs that came to town sometimes unannounced or the once a year county fair or how about the old time amusement park.  Of course the uniqueness of the onions and peppers comes from its combination with the aroma of deep fried confectionary concoctions, i.e. ‘funnel cakes, ‘elephant ears’.

I also remember the childhood smell of waiting for the school bus.  It’s such a non-descript sensation that I get as the summer comes to a close and autumn approaches.  It’s most profound early in the morning; the time I would have been waiting to catch the yellow ride. 

I can also easily transport myself without even thinking about or needing a smell to the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico near the ‘four corners’.  The smell of the hot dry summer air and the wind whipping in and out of vast canyons coupled with the abundance of silence creates a feeling, a sensation of peacefulness.   Now that’s one of those places you just have to close your eyes and think about because there’s really no smell that’s away from there that will trigger the memory. 

Then there’s my other favorite place to think about, sense and experience; the beach.  Here again another place hard to really capture in a smell away from the real deal.  Even those smelly candles can’t really cut it when it comes to recreating the smell of the ocean.  The ocean’s saltiness in the air is so refreshing and comforting.  Who doesn’t like the smell of the beach?!  The beach is a place of family trips and good times that I look forward to; this year especially since it’ll be our first trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with son, Gabe.  His young cousins are so very excited!

Who doesn’t like the smell of the beach? Well, I suppose there is someone who might not because of a traumatic or sad event that may have occurred in that locale during their life.  Smells can conjure up memories that are good as well as bad.

I can immediately think of two examples: Vietnam War veterans will tell you that they will never forget the smell of their first day ‘in-country’.   I suspect veterans who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan too have smells that can bring about memories they rather not remember.  I’m also sure the many thousands of people who were near the tragedy of 9/11 and the eventual collapse of the World Trade Center, will never forget the massive clouds of dust and the smells associated with that awful day.  Then too I remember the sight of grandpa's cold hardened leathered hands as he lay in the local funeral home and grandma telling me and my brothers as we peered in to make sure we touched his hands for good luck. 

Left to think about it we can all think of times like that and remember a smell, a sight, a sound a touch...good and bad.

I thought too this week about my small infant son, Gabe.  Yep...I can close my eyes and think about how he smells.  A smell I will never forget and think about years from now and smile.
What smells help you remember times and places in your life?  Have a great rest of the week!


Here's the link to the NPR story on Grant Achatz:

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