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The Sweet Smell of Memory

Yesterday was a long, tiring day.  Not a bad day—I was visiting my Mom and Dad.  But where I live means it is 2.5 hours of travel one way and a fair amount of in-and-out running around as I progress through the day.  And I started out tired—not enough sleep because I stayed up too late finishing a novel. You know, just one more chapter.  Late in the afternoon, before settling in for a visit at my dad’s convalescent hospital, I grabbed a quick diet coke to boost my energy levels and took the time to drive through the window at one of my favorite bagel shops.  I snagged my usual order—onion, garlic and jalapeno bagels—and sped off to visit Dad.

Later, when I got back to my car, I was dragging—but looking forward to a late dinner with my sister before heading home.  I opened the car door and was treated to a delightful aroma—my bagels had filled the sun-baked car with their sweet, pungent aroma.  I know about comfort food, but comfort smells?  I was overwhelmed, in a good way.  I sat there, sipped a little more diet coke and was transported to many a good dinner, fun times cooking in the kitchen, meals with good friends over a good bottle of wine.  Forget Calgon, the savory garlic and onion took me away.  And I was thankful—it was a great pick-me-up to get me through the rest of night.

Today as I enjoyed one of the bagels for lunch, I kept thinking about the power of smells and their association with memories, or at least memory retrieval. We all know the typical examples:  a whiff of cotton candy and you are back at the fair, enjoying the excitement of the day, or the lingering smell of a camp fire puts you back on a camping trip enjoying s’mores. 

A fast trek to the internet confirmed the science of the relationship between smell and memory.  Neuroanatomy offers the reasoning, according to a quick review of a study by Mueller and Velisavljevic (June 2001): olfactory nerves are in close proximity to emotion nerves (amygdala) and thus are associated with the early processing of memory that takes place in the hippocampus.  Basically, smells help lay the emotional foundation of memories as they are first being processed and stored, thus the smells remain effective triggers to recalling those memories. Knowing that certainly appeases my curiosity—and makes the power of smells to trigger memories even more fascinating.

At this point, I cannot help but think of a friend from college who had lost her sense of smell, and the loss affected her sense of taste and enjoyment of food as well. I realize now that was a greater loss than it sounded like at the time.  Even the smells that are not necessarily “good” bring forth memories:  definite stink of skunk, either on the road while driving by or—worse—on your dog after a skunk-dog encounter.  Rotten eggs.  Dog poop—worse if in your house brought in on the bottom of your shoes.  Full diaper pail, even if the kid is cute.  For me, the smell of fish, especially if lingering in a restaurant, worse if permeating a walk along a wharf. 

Not all “bad” smells evoke negative memories.  I actually like capturing a whiff of dogs—not really dirty, need a bath, oh my goodness dogs—but their musty smell.  It always makes me think of the dog I had for 16 years—I still miss him!  But I am even more thankful for my favorite smells and the memories they conjure up!  So here are ten of my favorites, in no special order. I have added pictures where I could, many from other general sources than my own photos.  I could not figure out how to turn this into a scratch and sniff post—maybe technology can address that problem in the future.


A burning cigar:  Not being a smoker myself, I realize this seems a bit odd, but it brings to mind my Uncle Bob who smoked cigars when I was a girl.

Popcorn:  Especially wafting through the shared office when someone else took a break—the smell always made everyone take a break. Good snack for at-home movies, better if butter, garlic and parmesan cheese are added. 

Freshly mown grass:  Not that I ever enjoy this task, but it brings to mind leisurely summer afternoons.  See, I was not the one doing the mowing!

Apple pies with lots of cinnamon:  My grandma made great pies, and my sister has inherited that family gene/skill—great!

Lilacs: spring, Grandma’s garden, Mom’s favorite flower, and walks in local gardens.

Fresh fruits:  Peaches, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, coconut—so tantalizing, so refreshing, ingredients for great drinks, reminders of lazy summer evenings.   But not bananas—that smell is not so sweet!

Chocolate:  Well, chocolate—need I say more? 

Desert sage:  Whether walking in the desert and crushing the leaves or using a dried bundle to cleanse a new apartment, the smell brings comfort and mystery.

Coffee:  I do not drink the dark liquid, but the smell is overwhelmingly delightful, always makes me think I should try drinking the stuff again, but the taste never matches the expectation. The smells do remind me of friends who do enjoy the brew.

Garlic:  I do love the sweet aroma—and it brings to mind delicious meals with friends, trips to the Gilroy Garlic Festival where they even serve Garlic Ice cream, and drives along the fields before the garlic is harvested. 

What aromas are you thankful for—or wish you could avoid? 

Comments on: "The Sweet Smell of Memory" (22)

  1. As soon as I land in Mexico City, my nose searches out and is not disappointed when I catch the smell of warm, sweet corn tortillas permeating the city on every corner.

    • Thanks for sharing. Your recall transported me back to a restaurant in South Texas where a kindly old lady made fresh tortillas for the dinner crowd–such a welcoming aroma. I have not been back there in years!

  2. I look forward to the first cutting of hay in our area, usually in early June. Even if it’s really hot, I drive around with the windows open and inhale. It brings back all of my childhood adventures in the hay fields near our home—hide-and-seek games among the round bales, and searching for “critters” around the square bales. Then, as a young adult, I worked throwing hay in the summers (from field to trailer or up in the loft). Lots of hard work and sweat, but always with fun people and the satisfaction of a job well done, when you could say “I threw two tons of hay today” over a well-earned dinner.

  3. Very nice post! So fun!

    I also love the smell of coffee and it makes me want to dive right in – but I dislike the taste!! But the aroma is so inviting.

    I also love the fruits and apple pie smells, cut grass and garlic.

    How about fresh baked bread – yummy!

    One I don’t like is the microwave popcorn, I just hate that smell and it lingers for so long…

    • I don’t meet many who have the same love hate with coffee regarding smell/taste. I know what you mean about microwave popcorn, not as good as really popping corn–my mom had an old pot that we used to pop the corn on top of the stove. The best! But I still am enticed by the microwaved stuff. But the fresh bread–that is a real treat–my old roommate when I was in grad school eons ago made fresh bread in the winter–oh was that good! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Wonderful post Patti. I share your liking of a burning cigar; I’m not a smoker and neither was my father but he would have a cigar or two at Christmas – when he was relaxed. I rarely encounter anyone who smokes cigars these days but when I do, memories of my father at Christmas come flooding back.

    Smells in nature create strong memories: freshly mown grass; rain on soil; the distinct smells of the sea and seaside; certain wildflowers. One I’m not too keen on is diesel: an unpleasant smell which had to be endured for pleasurable ends: funfairs; ice-cream vans; holidays by coach.

    • Oh, my, yes, on the smells of the sea! How could those have not come to mind–although it has been far too long since I wandered along the shore.

      And, yes, also on the negative for diesel smells, all petroleum products actually. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I agree with the lilacs. I love lilacs and fresh tomatoes right off the vine. I guess I like gardens because the way carrots smell when they’ve just been pulled from the warm ground..yummm. How ’bout the way the breeze feels after a warm rain, all fresh and sweet. I also like the smell of coffee but don’t like the taste so you can add me to that list too! 🙂

    • Garden smells, especially after a sweet warm rain–yes, those are all great. Nice to hear there is another who like the smell but not the taste of coffee==I thought I was alone in that. Thanks for stopping by, especially since you have been out traveling again!

  6. The smell of clothes after they’ve hung to dry in the back yard. My mother used to do that occasionally and I’ve done it a few times. All of yours are great memories!

  7. I love the smell of apple pie and chocolate chip cookies! Come to think of it, I love the smell of anything baking.

  8. I knew there was one I kept forgetting and it’s the garden tomatoes. Oh, so good to smell. By the time they get to the grocery store, that’s all gone.

    I have given you the Versatile Blogger Award. Here is the link: http://steadilyskippingstones.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/you-like-me-you-really-like-me/

    • Fresh from the garden anything! But you are so right that the aroma fades so quickly.

      Thanks for the award–I will try to do it justice and nominate others–but you would be one on the list, so we’ll see who I can find!

  9. Loved this post, and many of your smell memories and those of the other bloggers are ones I share. I’ll add one more that may seem strange: moth balls. When I smell moth balls, I always think of my grandparents’ apartment in Manhattan because Grandma used moth balls. It was particularly strong in the bathroom. I loved that apartment and my grandparents, so the smell of moth balls actually makes me smile.

  10. I love quite a lot of things you love the smell of, too – especially popcorn, apple and cinnamon, lilac, freshly mown grass, chocolate, garlic, strawberries, coffee. (I do like the flavour of coffee, but I agree it doesn’t taste quite the same as it smells, and I find that curious!) I also love the smell of dry pipe tobacco but hate the smell of it when it’s being smoked. Other smells… roses (some are just wonderful), spearmint (though I’m not fond of the smell of peppermint), and I love the smell from bakeries! Warm fresh bread.

    This is a topic I’ve often thought of posting about but get caught up posting about other things, so thanks for this, I’ve enjoyed reading it. 🙂 (I came over via ‘Coming East’, by the way).

    • Thanks for stopping by. Isn’t Coming East great?

      I appreciate the reminder about spearmint and peppermint. I agree with you on that, especially when it pulls in taste as well as smell. Spearmint Great, Peppermint only okay. Although peppermint and lemon are both great tastes for generating a small walk-up call at workshops and meetings and such.

  11. msangiesworld said:

    I think my favorite smells would be:
    1. Coffee: because even these days the smell of it brings me back to when i was five and i would get up at three in the morning just to drink a sip of grandpa’s coffee before he left for work. I love my grandpa, and even though i don’t see him much anymore, i am still his little girl!

    2. peppermint: I love peppermint, and every time i smell it i think of Christmas. I think of all the times i spent and my grandparents decorating for Christmas and the fun times we had together.

    3. caramel apples: it reminds me of the fall-which is my favorite time of year-, and how Thanksgiving and Christmas are near.

    I am sure there are others, but these are my top three!

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