Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.
Humans are generally thought to have five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and feel. Actually, careful researchers don’t agree, with some arguing for as many as twenty-one senses.
Of the big five, the sense of smell seems special. It is regarded the most “feeble” (relative to the smelling powers of many animals). Another oddity is the way smell is tied to another sense, namely taste. Smell also seems more capable of evoking disgust or delight than other senses. Finally, smell seems hooked up to memory in ways that are not true for other senses. A circus poster might remind us of circuses we’ve seen, but the smell of a new car overwhelms us with new car memories.
I have vivid memories of personal highs and lows in my sniffing history.
My erstwife and I spent the summer of 1970 living in the home of a friend who took her family to Europe. Barb’s house was perched on the banks of the Saint Croix River just north of Stillwater. A spring that burbled out of the ground fed three ponds on the property, one of which was patrolled by fourteen colorful trout. It was an exotic place, especially for two impoverished college students whose former housing was a dilapidated brownstone apartment near the University of Minnesota.
That summer was hot and humid, which made it the stinkiest summer of my life. The heat and muggy air produced three especially disgusting olfactory events.
The worst was the garage meltdown. We left Barb’s home for a four-day visit to Wisconsin’s Brule River. The upright freezer in the garage vibrated as it ran. In our absence the freezer’s shaking jiggled its electric chord out of the outlet, causing the freezer’s contents to melt, spilling pungent liquids all over the garage floor. Those liquids then decomposed. Most spectacularly, the gallon pail of chocolate chip ice cream melted and then decomposed. When we got home and opened the garage door the odor was indescribable and unforgettable. The smell was still identifiable as ice cream, but ice cream gone ghastly and foul. On a meter measuring disgusting stenches this would have pegged the dial at a perfect ten. (Or, if you’ve seen “This is Spinal Tap,” an eleven.)
Two years later we joined a group of free spirits who hung out at a fly fishing tackle shop in Brule, Wisconsin. These were about two dozen unique young people: painters, photographers, students, fly fishermen, motorcycle freaks, fishing guides, back-to-the land hippies, pot farmers and lost souls. The word “counterculture” was perhaps the only description that applied to all of us.
In 1972 consumers didn’t have anything approaching the wonderful assortment of foods and beverages that exist now. If you wanted a good bottle of ale, the nearest place to get it was London. American stores only sold that thin, gassy liquid called lager. If you wanted a decent cup of coffee, you had to go to an upscale restaurant. I spent decades desperately trying to brew good coffee at home, not understanding that restaurant coffee had been roasted in ways grocery store coffee had not.
One of our group worked in a store in Milwaukee that sold exotic spices, herbs, unique tea blends and restaurant-quality coffee beans. The store was called Milwaukee Coffee and Spices. It still exists 45 years later but is now called Penzeys. That worker agreed to sell us anything from the store’s mail order catalog at wholesale prices. This was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. My wife and I were living in a duplex in a distressed neighborhood of Saint Paul. To simplify the order, all of the packages would be shipped to our home. I would deliver them to the shop in Brule for final distribution.
We had recently acquired our first hunting dogs, an incorrigible springer spaniel and yellow Labrador. Because the puppies defeated every effort to confine them, we locked them in a glassed-in front porch while we spent the day at the University. When the UPS man delivered the shipment of exotic foods he chucked the whole lot in the porch. Those packages sat for hours in the warm and weather-tight confinement of the porch.
Words cannot describe the complex smell that greeted us when we walked in that porch. The main components were dark-roasted coffee and green tea, but with strong overtones of hot curry, cloves, garam masala, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, marjoram, chili peppers, bay leaf, dill, garlic, rosemary and others. All of those smells floated over the baseline odor of dog shit (which, oddly, mixed with them agreeably). We knew the instant we opened that door that we were encountering a smell that was unique in human history. And, friends, it was a bit of heaven. I almost wept with disappointment days later when the smell dissipated, never to be experienced again by anyone.
What memories do you have—good or bad—tied to smells?