Friday, October 10, 2014

Time traveling

A few days ago my daughter called to get my recipe for wassail punch, a favorite family drink we love to make during both fall and winter. As a hostess, she undoubtedly wanted to have the heady smell of spices wafting throughout her home, recreating the warm, happy feelings she associates with the beverage.

Just weeks ago, summertime globetrotting photos filled Facebook profiles and pages, but now, in spite of misleading high temperatures, we are well into fall. And so begins the season of time traveling. Without boarding a plane or driving a car, we will begin traveling back in time to ordinary places and bygone events, back to old feelings turned nostalgic yet made fresh through familiar smells.

I inherited a heightened olfactory sense, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Hiking along trails, for instance, that are also frequented by goats and horses can be a nauseating experience for me, but, on the flip side, I also seem to appreciate the aroma of the backyard jasmine both sooner and longer than anyone else. For me, just one whiff of Old Spice cologne conjures up hundreds of memories of my dad. From the feel of his whisker kisses to the sound of his jingling pocket change, they all come flooding back.

So, as an odor whiz, I’m a big fan of the intoxicating smells permeating this time of year. Even with the drought dishing up endless days of unseasonably hot weather, my spice drawer still has a strong pull upon me, and, like my daughter, I yearn for good smells to fill my home. Hot cinnamon rolls and maple syrup send me back to family breakfasts in the fall. Gooey caramel apples are reminiscent of sticky childhood Halloween parties. Pumpkin bread reminds me of our first Thanksgiving as a married couple when we delivered dozens of mini loaves to our new friends in town. Apple crisp, another autumn giving treat, is something I love to share but quite often receive from a dear friend.

Already the drought has robbed me of some of the cozy cooking time I’m accustomed to spending this time of year, but it has also conceded me one very nice bonus: a legitimate excuse to get professional car washes, including the chance to choose a favorite car scent. I always choose vanilla because it never fails to take me to a happy place, but yesterday when I got my car washed my nose was confused. The workers accidentally used the baby powder scent, so instead of memories of freshly baked cookies loitering in my mind, my thoughts traveled back to the days of soft little baby bottoms and footie pajamas.

As trivial as it may seem, smelling is actually really serious stuff. In her book The Scent of Desire, Rachel Herz says, “The neurological interconnection between the sense of smell (olfaction) and emotion is uniquely intimate. There areas of the brain that process smell and emotion are as intertwined and codependent as any two regions in the brain could possibly be.” Supporting this idea is the true story of popular Australian musician committing suicide after a freak bike accident in which he lost his sense of smell. Evidently, when he lost the ability to smell his girlfriend, he also lost his drive to live.

Perhaps we crave the emotions connected with the smells as much as the smells themselves, or, as Herz puts it, “Not only do odors trigger emotions, they can also become emotions.” I recently saw this dramatized in the Disney movie The Hundred-Foot Journey in which the lead character, a very talented mother-trained cook from India, studies in Paris to become a world-renowned chef. Although prestigious, this professional schooling takes him away from the people (and the food) he loves. Homesick and alone one day, he is offered some homemade Indian food by a colleague who imported authentic spices from their common mother country. Within seconds of smelling then eating the food, emotions flood over the man, bringing him to tears.

While we may have upwards of 10,000 taste buds, we actually only discern five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. In contrast, Herz says, “The average nonchalant human nose can discriminate between ten thousand and forty thousand different odors, and professional smellers—literally called ‘noses’ in the fragrance industry—and perfumers, whisky blenders and chefs may be able to discriminate upward of one hundred thousand odors.” No wonder, then, that even a simple box lunch of Indian food had the ability to transport the chef back to his roots.

Perhaps more than during any other time of the year, these next few months my nose will send me back to my roots, too. Sooner or later cooler days will come, eventually culminating in Christmas, the granddaddy of all olfactory holidays, when my little family will gather around our fireplace hugging bowls of buttered popcorn, stirring hot chocolate with peppermint candy canes, and reminiscing about Christmases gone by. Surrounded by wonderful smells, we will let our family stories easily pour out of us and, with extra tenderness and good humor, we’ll remember those not with us.

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