Confessions of a Nostalgic Nose

You can talk to the hand. However, the nose remembers all

By Deborah Salomon

The most underrated sense, I believe, is smell.

Remember Al Pacino as a blind veteran dancing the tango in Scent of a Woman, rated among the best all-time film sequences? Unable to witness her beauty, he inhaled.

This opinion results from losing olfactory competence 20 years ago, after a bad cold. It happens, my otorhinolaryngologist said. Don’t argue with a 21-letter specialty. I can’t smell a pot burning on the stove. A bit gets through if I put an orange right under my nose. Fresh paint doesn’t bother me, nor would sitting behind a high school boys’ basketball bench. But I do miss meat loaf, split pea soup and . . . let’s see what else my nose recalls.

Cider mills: Apples permeate October in New England. Nowhere is the aroma stronger than at a cider mill, where whole apples are crushed into a spicy-sweet nectar. You (and the yellow jackets) can smell it half a mile away.

A maple sugarhouse: Early spring nights in Vermont mean boiling freshly collected sap until the water evaporates, leaving pure maple syrup. Forty gallons of sap boil down to a gallon of syrup. Farmers boil all night in sugarhouses — rough cabins that glow against the receding snow. The maple smell is so strong, so delicious you can practically pour it on pancakes.

Lily of the valley: When I was a child, Coty’s Muguet de Bois was a popular fragrance. My mother had a cardboard cylinder of body powder; I would put it near my nose and feel soothed, happy. The powder is still available online, as a vintage product, like Tangee lipstick. Wouldn’t do me any good now.

What happened to new-car smell? I see sprays that provide what new cars have lacked for decades. My last fragrant auto was a spiffy ’72 Olds Cutlass convertible with white leather upholstery. Subsequent Subarus and Toyotas arrived fragrance-free.

Garlic: Here’s the story. My mother-in-law despised garlic. The very word made her shudder. She was an excellent cook without it. Then I took over the big family meals, aware of but not bound by her prohibitions. I remember a holiday back in the day when a standing rib roast didn’t cost more than a root canal. Mom walked into the house, exclaiming, “What smells so good?” followed by “Everybody says your roast beef is better than mine,” from inserting garlic slivers deep into the meat, then rubbing the outside with a cut clove. I never confessed.

A newsstand, preferably on a Manhattan corner, near the subway entrance: Stacks of fat Sunday editions, abetted by comic books, Fleers Dubble Bubble gum and cigars, emitted a smell I can feel, but not describe.

As a teenager I drove often from Asheville to Durham. Approaching Valdese, the smell of bread from the Waldensian bakeries dominated the air. I can close my eyes and smell it now.

Not all odors are good or even acceptable . . . like the time a mouse crawled behind the wall of built-in-bookcases, and died. I never knew how he got in but I know how he got out and how much I paid the carpenter.

But some scents are sublime: the fuzzy head of a freshly bathed baby. Great coffee percolating (drip and single-serve appliances not the same). Rain, on a summer afternoon. A wood fire. Steak searing on a hot charcoal (not gas) grill. And the one that breaks my heart: my daughter Wendy, running through the airport arrivals concourse, arms outstretched for a hug, whispering in my ear, “Mmmm, you smell like mommy.”

The holidays loom, announced by roasting turkey with cornbread-sage stuffing, followed by balsam and spruce boughs. In my kitchen, where deep-frying never happens, the heavy, sticky smell of Hanukkah potato pancakes sizzling in oil soaks into clothes, hair, upholstery and everything else.

Look, a working nose isn’t vital, unless you’re a bloodhound, but smell does enhance other senses while imprinting the brain and stimulating memory. I am absolutely sure that this very minute you are making a mental list.

So sure I can almost smell it. PS

Deborah Salomon is a staff writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at debsalomon@nc.rr.com.

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