Olfactory Highs and Lows

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.

sma-brule-crew-scan-editThe 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?

93 thoughts on “Olfactory Highs and Lows”

  1. bali hai wine being tasted after exiting the nose in days of bumper dragging behind bill hendersons 59 chevy.
    our friend nick had moved out of town up to zimmerman mn and we took a weekend road trip. we loaded into bills car and headed to nicks house. we had no thoughts about where to sleep but scred a couple bottles of bali hai wine. (this was in the days before boonesfarm became the ripple step up of choice) and i was having such a great time with the gang that as i got schnockered on the wine i remember laughing as the wine came up. the only unpleasant part of the memory was the smell of the aftereffect. i had been a drinker of wild mountain raspberry malts at dairy queen prior to that and i am sorry to say it was an identical aroma tha kept me from enjoying ever again.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. i walked into my office yesterday morning and was trying to pinpoint the smell. it was distinctive although it was faint. turns out i let my hotplate on low for the tea kettle and it had cooked all the water out and was pan frying the mineral residue to the once porcelain walls of the kettles inside in a pre solder disintegrating odor that made me glad that when i added water it hissed and momentarily increased the smell before settling into a wonder room humidifier. maybe i should bring some essential oils or lemon extract to add to the mix.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. my family has wonderful smells that come form their bodies. i have french onion soup body odor i love and egg sald farts i dont. we always know the culprit when the essence of egg salad enters the arena

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  4. Both tim and Steve are in fine form this morning. When husband and I cook east Indian food you can smell it out to the street. I love Penzeys. The Asian grocery stores in Fargo have complex and pungent smells. I never liked the smell of my grandmother’s chicken house. There is a certain odor I call the smell of poverty on clients whose life circumstances make laundry soap a luxury to be used sparingly. That is a sad reality for them

    Every year for St Patrick’s Day, people at my agency prepare corned beef and cabbage in the kitchen in the basement and cook the dickens out of it. I find it horrible, and the smell pervades every floor, stairwell, and elevator shaft . I should probably take the day off this year.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Renee, you pick up on one obvious response to my piece. I said the odor of all those spices in our porch was unique in human history, and it was, but a fair approximation to it is what you get by walking in Penzeys. What Penzeys doesn’t have is all the coffee odors. And the dog shit.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. thats kind of what chai tea is black tea turns to coffee replacement when you add all the other stuff with smells for the indian spice jar

          In a medium saucepan, combine fennel seed, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon stick, ginger root, peppercorns and water. Boil for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and steep for 10 minutes. …
          Strain mixture, discard spices and return the tea to the saucepan. Stir in the brown sugar and milk. Serve immediately.

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    2. When I was thirteen I had a paper route along Main Street in my old home town, Ames. That year my route had me delivering newspapers to people who lived on Main Street in apartments above the stores that were the retailing heart of town. Those were cheap, small apartments, so they attracted poor people.

      One of my customers was a huge woman who had been born in Poland. She seemed to live on a diet of overcooked cabbage, and the stench of cabbage was overwhelming. I could handle it when I delivered her papers, but I could barely handle my disgust on Thursdays when I had to stand at her door to collect payment for my papers.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. I know the smell of poverty you describe from my days as a Child Protection Worker. It is a mix of urine (human, cat or canine), fried food, and dust, usually combined with either alcohol or marijuana. My nose knows.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent piece HVS. Excellent.
    Smells are an issue for me, some are big pain triggers, some are irritants. Indian cooking, the spices, is an irritant. In part their pervasiveness. So guess who moved in across the hall. She is welcome to be here. She seems to only do it up one day a week, weekends. As a doctor may be too busy to cook Indian during the week. I run through the hallway, well, not run. Would like to get to know her, just to know her, would never complain. First time I was aware of smells as a problem was Indian cooking 54 years ago.
    Fingernail polish and remover, scented candle, perfumes, room deoderants, all that sort of thing put me in high pain, make me light-headed, constrict my throat. Poor scent loving Sandy. She cannot even wear perfume or powders. Lately have encountered a few restaurants servers wearing scent. Twice asked for a new server. I think that is my right, but mostly I do not say a word. Sandy has never adjusted to the fact that I have much more sensitive smell than she does. Aren’t women supposed to be more sensitive?
    Have some smell stories, a couple with skunk, but my hands are saying no more.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Research confirms everyone’s casual experience: women DO have a better sense of smell than men. As one consequence of knowing that, I have gone through life worrying whether I was emitting odors that I was unaware of but which were offending women unlucky enough to be near me.

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  6. Rise and Sniff Baboons!

    Mildew, Ivory soap, bread or cookies baking, and geraniums are the smell of Grandma’s house. Grandma’s farmhouse is long gone, having succumbed to the wrecking ball in 1966, but there are still old houses that smell similar to it. I smell that and I want to open the lower kitchen cupboard, pull out the oatmeal tin where she keeps the oatmeal raisin cookies, then breathe it in. And eat some cookies. With milk, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. i was just thinking yesterday i wanted to revisit hesse. havn’t looked since 72 or73 read em all for the english curriculum i assigned myself

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    1. The thing about patchouli is that I’ve never known a wearer to give off a subtle waft of fragrance. It’s as if those who aren’t repelled by it are inurred to it and feel they have to ladle it on.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve become more sensitive to smells as I get older. In my younger days I could walk into a candle/incense store without a problem. Now I can’t even walk past the door. Many people love lavender but it just gives me a headache. On a trip to the Croatian island of Hvar (where they grow a ton of the stuff) I did purchase 3 tiny bottles of lavender oil to give as gifts. They were double bagged in a zip lock bag inside my checked luggage. On arrival at home, I discovered two of the bottles had leaked and my whole suitcase reeked of lavender. It was overwhelming. Everything in the suitcase plus the case needed to be aired out. The gift bottles ended up in the trash bin out in my garage – even the sealed one! I can commiserate with Clyde. I have not worn perfume in over 2 decades, buy unscented laundry soap, dish soap, etc. Those scents don’t give me high pain but make me a bit headachy. Food smells don’t bother me too much – unless the food is spoiled/rotten.
    I do like the smell of bread or cookies baking, spices such as cinnamon, laundry that has been line dried outside, most flowers (except lilies), and my cedar chest.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve written some unflattering things about my mom’s cooking. She did have a few dishes that could not have been better, and the very best of those was her cinnamon rolls. That’s a classic midwestern dish, and hers was probably typical of what other housewives baked in the 1950s. But, oh, what a delight to step into her kitchen on a winter day and be met with the smells of yeasty dough, brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins and crushed pecans!

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Definitely bad. After a day of working on an apartment house in Duluth, I had the misfortune of drinking Colt 45 malt beer. As we often did on new construction, the crew was camping out in the building. (Yes, we had permission)
    Well some of the beer was spilled on a midfloor landing. My job was to help haul carpet up the stairs past the smell of stale beer. This required dozen of trips. Each became a test of my gagging reflex. Never again.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I can’t come up with a specific memory tied with a smell, but let me tell you that, in my experience, there is nothing like the sensitive sense of smell of a pregnant woman who is suffering from all-day-and-all-night morning sickness. Can you smell food that is just a bit off through its closed container and through a closed refrigerator door? I could. There are more examples, but I’ll stop there.

    A related story is the time I was pregnant and was briefly at a neighbor’s house. She had broccoli growing in her back yard and I didn’t go smell them, but just looking at those plants made me nauseated. I barely made it back to my driveway (just across the alley from her garden) before I lost my lunch. So if you see a lady puking in some alley somewhere, have compassion. She isn’t necessarily a drunk.

    Thankfully, those days are long behind me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Amazing that you don’t have specific odoriferous memories. I literally have dozens of both good and bad ones. The smell of an old fashioned soda fountain. The smell of a wet dog. The smell on my hands after cleaning several salmon. The different smells of different types of Christmas trees. The smell of a high school locker room. I could go on for days!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s not that I don’t remember the smells or like or dislike certain smells; I just don’t seem to have a specific memory or story to go along with it. The smell of baking bread; the smell of the pine trees in the woods; the smell of driftwood fires… it can go on and on, but there’s no one incident that tied to any of them that makes a good story.

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  11. I had an appointment with my eye doctor a few months ago. It offered a reminder of how the sense of smell is connected to disgust. When I checked in for the appointment there was a little sign that asked patients to be “considerate” by avoiding the use of perfume or cologne when coming in for eye exams. Ophthalmologists have to work close to their patients. That fact was made clear when my doctor showed up right after lunch. His lunch, I can tell you, included garlic and Mideastern spices.

    Bad smells (or even too much of a good smell) can offend people in ways not seen with sight, sound or touch. Imagine showing up at your doctor’s office and finding a little sign there that says, “We ask our patients to be considerate. Don’t comr to your appointment wearing a Hawaiian shirt with striped pants.”

    Liked by 2 people

  12. My sense of smell does seem to be getting sharper, if anything. Can drive Husband nuts. As for odor-filled memories:
    – my Grandma Britson’s kringla – reminds me, I didn’t make it in December, so should whip up a batch soon.
    – bacon, from my early childhood I imagine. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to become a vegetarian as long as bacon exists.
    – ether, from when I had my tonsils out. You don’t have places anymore where you smell ether, though, to my knowledge.
    – used cat litter, from each of my apartments once I was out on my own. It’s one reason I don’t have a cat yet, though I’m starting to look for cute kitten videos again…

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      1. Yes, those smells you get by forgetting something is on the stove. Ugh! Believe it or not, I can duplicate that with a microwave oven. I once microwaved an asbestos oven mitt. Don’t ask why. But I can say with full conviction that heavy microwaving causes asbestos mitts to produce extremely foul smoke.

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      2. Yeah, I smell that one quite a bit. “Is somebody cooking something? Oh, no, it’s just this pan I left on the stove with the burner on.”

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    1. Years ago, my sister smoked, and I remember that whenever we were in my car, when she would light a cigarette, there was a little sulphur smell of the match being struck, and every time I would think for a moment that something was wrong with the car – an electrical fire or something like that. Just for a moment, and then I’d realize it was just the match. Happened over and over again for many years.

      She quit smoking some thirty years ago.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. So glad to see someone else with that problem!! I hate the smell, but also have allergic reaction to it, but grew up with a father who smoked heavily in the house. 😦 Long story, but so glad to see someone else who understands!

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  13. it is amazing to me that all the years of cigarette smoke went undiscussed and then when it became politically incorrect the people who hated it spoke up. did you just not go out pre 1980? i was smoking so i didnt notice but today i just cant imagine sitting in a room full of smokers.

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    1. I wonder if people today remember how recently cigarette smokers had a perfect right to light up anywhere and everywhere. In the 1960s the Minneapolis Tribune had a columnist who began complaining about cigarette smoke. He was considered a crank. Then some restaurants began defining a non-smoking area (although the place would still reek of tobacco). Airlines didn’t designate smoking and non-smoking sections of planes until 1971. When I had surgery in 1971 my roommate at the U of MN Hospitals smoked cigars. I think the Minnesota Legislature was still fighting about limiting smoking in bars in the 1990s.

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  14. I had a weird thing happen last week. I sit in a cube at work that for many years was the cube of Allen, who is seriously allergic to scents. If somebody came in or sat near him w/ a scent, he often had to go home. Allen has now retired.

    Last week, a supplier came in to visit who happens to be a good friend of mine from London. So when he came in, we shared a big hug and his cologne got all over me. It was very overwhelming to the point that I actually turned on my fan for the rest of the day. When I got home the small was still so strong that I changed my clothes immediately and wrapped them in a towel before putting them in the hamper.

    Am I channeling Allen???

    Liked by 1 person

  15. So many odors trigger childhood memories: cow, pig, chicken, horse and their manures; wood smoke, pine, forge, hay, baking bread, canning, acetylene torch, welding, hot grease, etc.
    From the age of about 10 on I could not go in the hay mow ans was sick all haying season. When my mother rendered fat for soap ad when she canned beets I slept in the bar, trading repugnant beet smell of hay fever.
    A few buildings bother me. Our church has a room in it that wipes me out in about 25 seconds. I have a long struggle wth our church and scents/chemicals.
    Walking out of B&N just now I had a brief encounter, not a scent, but as bad in its way. A sixty-year-old woman walking with a forty-year-old woman, I assume mother and daughter. The mother said in a huffy tone “That was not very business-like.” That word “business-like” suddenly struck me as implying so much that is ugly.

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  16. The cabin we used to own on Lake Superior had a unique smell. I never figured out what it was . . . the glue in the plywood, the wood paneling, whatever. In between visits I’d forget about it, but the second I stepped back in the building it would hit me and I’d know I’m back!

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I don’t think I’m very sensitive to smells. When people talk about “new car” smell, I have no idea what that is. Cars don’t really smell like much of anything to me, unless they’re burning oil or smothing has been spilled in the interior.

    I’ve heard people mention the smell of cabbage cooking, but it doesn’t have a smell to me. I cook cabbage all the time, and I just mostly smell boiling water. Broccoli has a smell to me, nut not cabbage.

    I like the smell of cloves, and almond extract, and lemon.

    And bacon, of course. Ya gotta love bacon.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. New car smell, at least for the level of car I’m accustomed to, is mostly the smell of off-gassing vinyl. It’s the same smell you get from a new Barbie doll. I wonder if luxury cars with leather interior have a different new car smell? I have no experience with that, but I imagine so.

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  18. I am soon leaving my house to do some stealth smudging in a undisclosed location. I will return home smelling of smokey sage, bear root, and sweet grass. My kitchen will smell of fresh brewed coffee thanks to husband.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fresh brewed coffee can’t be beat. And smudging reminds me that at Birchbark Books we used to light bundle of sage, but it smelled a lot like marijuana and we had to stop that.

      I also loved the bonfire at the Homecoming rally in high school.

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