I am a terribly nostalgic person. It takes very little to take me back in time to a place in my memory that existed as a child. To recall a long forgotten space or place, a friend or family member, a time or a moment. Something as simple as a scent can put me back in the shoes of being a toddler exploring my grandmother’s house and finding some trinket or treasure that astounded me in my youth. Despite that fact, I can rarely find my keys; but that’s beside the point.
The thing that most commonly takes me back in time is a smell. The wafting scent of something as simple as baking pie crust, cut hay, or burning hair (more on that later), will take me back to a kitchen, a field, or a corral somewhere in my past.
Marcel Proust wrote a novel of several volumes titled “A Remembrance of Things Past” (Or Time Regained if you are a purist and very French) and in it he relayed the wash of memories that overcame him from simply biting into a Madelaine (again, something for the purist and very French) which is a type of cookie. From that one simple bite he recalled an entire history of a time and place that had been lost to memory.
A bite of something rarely takes me back in time. I grew up with simple cooking and basic food so it isn’t like I’ve ever tasted tarragon and remembered standing by the Seine watching fishermen pull nets from the French waters to sell in small markets. For me, it’s the taste of mashed potatoes, and it takes me back to dinner at least three nights a week from birth to modern day. Not that they weren’t really good mashed potatoes, it just doesn’t evoke the memories that scents do. The scent of food in particular.
Above, I mentioned pie crusts, this pulls my memory to a dozen different locations. The first is my mother’s kitchen. The smell of pie crust accompanied by the scent of carbonizing fruit filling always reminds me of family get togethers. My mother loved a good full pie, and consequently they would usually bubble over onto the stove plate and smoke horrendously, filling the house with choking gray clouds that we’d open the windows and chase out with dish towels until it subsided. Guests would arrive, comment on how our house always smelled so fresh, just like outside, as they sat down to devour their pie.
When I smell lightly browning crust I am taken back to my early youth, no more than five or six years of age. I am standing next to my grandmother in her kitchen. She has me tied up in an apron of hers that’s been wrapped around my waist a dozen times to tie the string and keep it from dragging the floor. I have a small ball of dough in my hand, kneaded nearly to non-existence, worked so much it’s gone gray; she deftly rolls out dough and places the crusts in tins, tapping them with a fork to make the holes that keep the crust from bubbling up and ruining the cream pies.
If I smell vinegar and baking crust I am taken back to my days at the Trading Post. Lorraine Pattyn was our baker and she came in once a week leading up to Crow Fair to make crusts for us. Lorraine used vinegar in her crusts claiming it was the secret ingredient to a very flaky dough. I have never been able to replicate this recipe, which she had committed to memory after fifty years of using it herself. When I have attempted the secret vinegar trick I find that my dough just tastes like vinegar, which isn’t very complimentary to a banana cream pie. I remember smelling Lorraine’s dough as she baked a dozen crusts and sat them on any flat surface in the restaurant to cool. The hiss of our little dish machine doing rack after rack of plates, the call for three cheeseburgers one no cheese, two Indian tacos and a bear paw echoing through the tiny kitchen, and Lorraine herself humming an old cowboy tune as she rolled out dough with a cracked rolling pin and went about her work with the devotion of the truly talented.
This place that I am taken back to, it no longer exists. The kitchen changed, the dishwasher upgraded, the building grew, the people moved on. This is the danger of nostalgia, it can leave you hanging, leave you standing silently, staring blankly at a wall as the world goes on about you. The bubbling fruit pies that my mother made, they are not there anymore. Family has grown up, moved on, changed habits and the need to make a million Thanksgiving pies has fallen to the wayside. The gray dough ball of my grandmother’s kitchen, it’s not there anymore. She is gone, the recipe is forgotten, and the apron is worn and threadbare and no longer has it’s strings.
The beauty of it all, though, is that in one simple inhalation, I can have it all back again. I can be in those places that don’t exist anymore. I can stand next to people who are gone, work in kitchens that have shifted, and make recipes that are in memory only. To me, that’s better than the attempt to replicate. Why change what was already so perfect.
These smells that transport me are almost always food but as I mentioned earlier, and have to comment on so you don’t sit wondering what the hell I was talking about, there are lots of scents in the environment that take me back to a time and a place. The funny thing about them all though, is that even they put me in mind of food. Cut hay, for instance. Early June is when we usually did the first cutting of alfalfa on my family ranch. When we started, the neighbors generally followed suit. I come from a very lush, green valley and consequently, the six mile drive from our ranch into town to get groceries was always alive with the smell of freshly mown hay. I’d sit in the car and breathe it all in as we headed to our local IGA to pick up pinto beans. Once they were obtained they’d go on the boil with a big ham bone, usually from the hip joint; it would cook away all day long starting its journey to become tomorrow’s lunch. The next day, reheated, you could smell the gristle from the joint thickening the pinto beans which turned the stock muddy brown. A couple dashes of Tabasco and that fiery vinegar scent would fill the kitchen. The guys would come in, talking about where they were going to cut next, when the baler should start, what the yield looked like, all of this was done with all those scents filling the room. You can see how, in one breath, you can be transported back and have your nostrils filled with not just the original scent that took you there, but each scent attached to that.
Which leads me to burning hair. The smell of burning hair, which happens frequently in my kitchen and generally leaves people feeling revolted by the scent, actually takes me back to the month of April and May. This was branding season. That smell takes me back to the giant corrals above my grandmother’s house where thirty people hustled from dawn ‘til lunch bell to get cattle marked, vaccinated, and branded. I remember standing in the billowing clouds of smoke that rolled off the calves as the hot iron marked them as ours. That smell then takes me to a fresh green lawn on a warm spring afternoon where men and women in cowboy boots and leather gloves sat down to eat smokey hams and vibrant fruit salads. To this day, Cool Whip makes me think of branding because of its generous use in the ranch wife’s kitchen. I recall the smell of heavily peppered gravy, thick and bubbling on a stove top and cakes coming from the oven to cool on open window sills.
My life has been about food, from early child hood to the present day where I work in a kitchen and surround myself in smells that make up the day in total. I wonder what I breathe in now that will take me back to where I currently stand only thirty years in the future. Will it be the sparking flare of black pepper as it’s tossed over the range flames into a pan. Will it be the molten cherries and balsamic frantically reducing on the stove to become a glaze. Could it be the ginger in the spice mix that makes up the pumpkin sponge, the yeast devouring the sugar waiting to become pizza dough, the smell of blue washing liquid getting dishes clean a dozen times over as they are used throughout the night. Will it be the dishwasher’s cologne, the beer kegs being pulled off the tap, the char that gets scrubbed from the grill. I do not know. But I do know, when it hits me, wherever I am…whenever I am, I’ll come right back to this moment and relive it all.
I can’t wait to breathe it in again.