Monday, October 23, 2006

Food Aromas

There are plenty of foods that taste better than they smell. Walk into the lobby of an apartment building full of Eastern European immigrants; you'll forget for a minute that cabbage can actually taste good.

Wake up and smell the gorgonzola.

On the other hand, there are some foods that have aromas so wonderful they can stand on their own. They can be enjoyed for the olfactory sensation even if you're not eating the item in question. I want to talk about those aromas.

Everybody has favorite food aromas. Many of them bring back childhood memories in Proustian Madeleine moments. Lots of people seem to love the smell of fresh-baked bread. For some reason that doesn't do much for me, maybe because I grew up on Wonder Bread, and even worse, Taystee Bread, which had a weird, soft, spongy consistency and no taste whatsoever.

I have two contenders for my favorite food smell: coffee grinding and garlic frying. To me these are the two most seductive, erotic food aromas. If I go into a place where coffee is grinding or garlic frying I'll stand transfixed and breathe away. Breathing can be one of life's great freebies.

Speaking of breathing, I once lost thirty pounds on the sniffing diet. No kidding. I ate plenty of steamed, fibrous vegetables, like broccoli, to fill up, and got my enjoyment from smelling foods that I would resume eating post-diet. I suppose I had a lot of willpower, but for me sniffing was better than nothing, and the smells didn't send me over the precipice into actual consumption. My favorite free smell during business hours was an italian sausage stand near my office. The guy had a grill where he cooked sausages and onions, like the kind you get at street fairs. I lurked, trying not to look conspicuous. I understand that the onions have a lot to do with the pleasurable odor sensation. Apparently street food hawkers know that the smell of onions cooking casts a wide net and draws people to their stands. Sausage and onions certainly makes my aroma pantheon.

And who can resist the smell of bacon frying? I've never asked orthodox Jews or Muslims or vegetarians how they react to the smell of bacon. Is it repulsive on principle, or is there something universally appealing? Similarly, how do Indian Brahmins who don't eat garlic react to its aroma?

Being an inveterate traveler, food odors often evoke travel memories for me. These are my Madeleines of the nose.

Seville is one of the best-smelling cities I've ever visited. The air is redolent of a combination of frying fish and oranges. There are orange trees everywhere you look, perfuming the air. Lord Byron wrote that Seville is "famous for oranges and women." Indeed, Seville is a feast for the eyes as well as the nose, and in addition to the women it has some beautiful architecture.

Cochin, in the state of Kerala, in southern India, is a major spice-producing area. Walking through the streets full of spice warehouses one is greeted by the exhilarating aroma of peppercorns in a concentration and intensity most people have probably never experienced.

A favorite food smell of mine that might not have such universal appeal is that of oily fish, like mackerel or sardines, grilling. When I was in Tokyo I stayed near Ueno Park. Nearby is an area full of pedestrian-only alleys where bars with outdoor tables serve charcoal-grilled sanma, pike mackerel. I didn't stop and eat, but I stopped and sniffed.

Some smells probably have general consensus. I'm betting that most people, like me, are suckers for coffee, garlic and bacon. Other favorites are probably much more personal, and surely many have interesting stories behind them.

So I'd like this to be an audience participation piece. Please leave a comment and let us know what food smells you're crazy for. And if there's a good story, tell it.


Blogger Scott at Real Epicurean said...

As for the smell you mentioned (Eastern Europeans) - my wife is Polish, so I'm used to the smell of cabbage cooking in the house. And yes it does smell like somebody broke wind...

My favourite smell, by far, and without any hint of a meaningful story behind it, is Tabasco. I don't know why, but one whiff is enough to make my mouth salivate profusely.

I'm not even exagerating; there must be some mental link there that makes my brain go into overdrive, stimulating my saliva glands...

9:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in a kosher home. Nowadays, though I don't keep kosher (total atheist) I'm a vegetarian (well, somewhat lapsed.) In any case: the smell of bacon frying nauseates me.
But I'm with you on the onions.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There have been studies done that suggest the aroma of cinnamon, particularly cinnamon doughnuts or pastries, make men feel amorous. Women don't seem to have this reaction to the aroma. The smell of bananas and peanut butter immediately transports me back to kindergarten. I can't imagine not being able to smell.

6:20 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I am not a coffee drinker or a bacon eater (I'm a vegetarian), but I love the smells of both.

Just the smell of coffee seems to perk me up. I can remember as a teenager being driven up Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, around Prospect Heights/Park Slope, early in the morning, and some nearby building (a coffee packing factory? is there such a thing?) would smell of coffee and it would permeate the air. A decade later, I used to drive that stretch myself early in the morning on the way to work, and I smelled the same smell and felt the same sense of exhiliration. The smell has not been there for years.

Cinammon is a favorite smell. Real estate agents sometimes tell people to use this smell when prospective home buyers come by.

I love the smell of a freshly peeled orange.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Last year in a post on Procuitto Bread I wrote:

"If ever, in a moment of aimless wondering, you pondered what heaven might smell like, I know. It smells like a combination of bacon cooking and bread baking. And if you could eat heaven, it just might taste like this bread."

9:19 AM  
Blogger swishfish said...

I agree with most of yours. I'll also add:

Melted chocolate or chocolate cake mix.

The late stages of roasting a chicken, where the kitchen is just full of that delicious smell.

Pretty much any cake or biscuit baking.

Baked lasagne.


9:19 AM  
Blogger William I. Lengeman III said...

High-quality Japanese green tea. I used to keep the empty packets from one company around for a while, just because the smell was almost as good as the tea itself. I'd also put in a vote for peanut, cashew or almond butter.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Brian Olewnick said...

When I get a swiss bacon burger for lunch and hand-propel the accompanying aromas back toward the Orthodox Jewish guy sitting behind me, he salivates and sighs.xwruve

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The grilled (NEVER boiled) hot dogs
at Papaya King 72nd+Broadway
get me salivating every single time.

The 5 gallon tubs+tubs+tubs
of olives at Titan Foods in Astoria.

My mother's Slovenian sweet bread
called 'potica'. The signature aroma of
any holiday in my childhood.

A venison steak laid into a hot,
nearly smoking cast iron frying pan.

Ditto a fresh caught brown
or rainbow trout.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sesame oil... any sauce with curry... fresh-ground nutmeg... walnut oil... meat/fish cooked over a wood fire... warm, just-cooked chocolate pudding. mmm

The entire dining room at Al Forno restaurant in Providence, which smells heavenly from all the open-fire cookery.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I could almost manage to live with the smell of freshly ground coffee being brewed on my stovetop over drinking it. I can hardly finish a whole cup in the mornings, but if I don't have the grinding, smelling, pouring routine, I have trouble moving on with the day.

I can't see how you managed to lose weight by "dining" on smells. Even when I'm not hungry, I can rarely pass up freshly baked bread or even (gasp) movie popcorn once my nose sniffs it out. I think I would have to plug up my nostrils to lose weight.

Some of my food aroma favorites: freshly made pasta sauce with basil, oatmeal cookies baking, grilled hamburgers (although I'd rather smell them than eat them), and toasted coconut.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Tery Spataro said...

I love the smell of dark chocolate, it drives me mad. I do have my favorite dark chocolates. Chocolate cake baked from scratch is wonderful too.

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Waking up in the morning to the wonderful perfume of freshly made coffee and have breakfast with my dad in the kitchen...

I've always loved the scent of coffee but I only started drinking coffee myself a few years ago. Now I can't even imagine staring the day without the perfume of the coffee and a lovely cup of it!

8:45 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

I do love the smells of cooking onions, bread and beef stew but there's another scent that I like purely for the nostalgia.

When I was in college I lived one door down from a local brewpub. It actually took awhile for my roommates and me to figure out that the scent emanating from the building every few days was the smell of brewing beer. It's a smell like no other, sort of tangy, pungent and actually not that appetizing. But, it takes me back to when I could stroll to the local brewpub and have some fresh beer and peanuts.

6:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live near the Scharffenberger chocolate factory...the scent in the neighorborhood is so divine when they're running a batch.

3:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter... Living in Memphis means the smell of BBQ is everywhere. I never miss the chance to roll down my car window and take a deep whiff...
Especially on my way to work, when TOPs puts its shoulders on the pit by 8... and you can get a sandwich at 8:30!

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll add my nose to those of the coffee-aroma lovers' out there. Like Richard, i am a veggie who loves the smell of bacon frying, and, even during the sad years i didn't drink coffee, i'd still feel happy and innervated by the smell of it brewing.

and onions and garlic frying (similar to others experiences, the essence of onions frying brings me back to my Mom's kitchen).

and i'll second movie popcorn!

and fire cooking anything, especially the meat i don't eat.

definitely bread.

i'll also add butter frying, before it burns.

and fresh basil.

habanero peppers' flowery, portentous aroma.

some aspects of vinegar -- not the smell of it from the bottle, but the mellow tones that drift from it cooking. oddly enveloping.

the smells coming from nyc's halal carts--which is probably the sausage & peppers combo you mentioned. i don't eat from them, of course.

chipotle peppers' smoky smell.

basmati rice -- what IS that smell?

cilantro -- as much a feel as a smell.


finally, i'll add to the chocolate chorus!!

Thanks, that was fun!

12:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, basmati rice. To me it smells nutty or even like popcorn. Love that aroma.

6:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Early summer in southern New Zealand. A boy at home with his mother in their public housing home at the edge of the small city. Out of an upstairs window you could see to the east the hills dotted with homes, gardens, the suburbs rolling down into the city. To the west, from another window, nothing but pasture, cows and sheep, thick brush and spiny gorse.

On this particular morning our protagonist, a blond-haired boy who shares my name, went to play in the fields with his friends from across the street, two boys, slightly older than our Dave's four years. The fields were muddy after recent rain and the rubber boots the boys wore were often stuck in the ooze. Around noon time, the boys' father came to collect them for lunch, inexplicably leaving Dave alone to find his own way home. His way barred by ever-more-gooey mud and slime, he took the only path open to him and went down the hill, away from the street and into the unknown.

Because this story is about the evocative aromas of food, let us just say that for the next few hours our boy wandered barefoot through thistles and thorns, rocks and mud, walking randomly until he was discovered by a telephone company crew working on some lines. They knew his name and where he lived—they drove him there in their truck.

Homecoming was a joyful affair. Mum was beside herself, Dad quietly fraught (he had come home from work to lead the search party). Dave's feet were badly cut and bruised from his hours of walking through fields and down stony roads. He was hungry, too.

Mum sat him on the kitchen counter and filled the sinks with hot water into which he dangled his feet. On the stove simmered a pot of tomato soup. Yes, that kind of soup—Campbell's? Well, not exactly, but a local version of the same. That heady tomato-y scent filled the kitchen, and our boy's nostrils. It carried with it all the emotions that one usually ascribes to nostalgia—those feelings of safety and well-being and security that even a four-year-old could identify. As he bent his head over the steaming bowl and the hot liquid settled into his stomach, those strong scents worked their way deep into the boy's psyche, relaxing his tensed muscles and easing the pain in his throbbing feet. Aromatherapy in action.

5:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent Foodie Blog. I really like your taste for different foods. Thanks now i will be using this along with chowhound.

1:04 PM  
Blogger BROTHER FATHOM said...

Wow... I ran into this one as I researching tate and smell for a graphic I'm doing here for a newspaper.

Let's see here...

-Jasmine: Aside from it's calming traits, I love the way is smells! Not really the masculine aroma, but it sure makes me feel like a woman is around me... I imagine angels to carry this fine scent.

-Eucalyptus: It packs a punch! It takes me back to childhood. We had a few of these trees outside my preschool. It puts me in a safe place. It's no wonder it works as a defense mechanism.

-Peach: Sometimes I enjoy the smell of a peach more than the flavor itself.

-Plum: Another tree story. A neighbors has a fine harvest every summer. The backyard never smelled so wonderful.

-Orange/Lime: I have a confession. I never throw away the peels of either of these fruits. Instead, I throw them down the drain of the garbage disposal, run room temp water and soak up the aromas! You should really try it. I love the scent so much that I never forget to do it. NEVER!

-Turkey bacon: I used to love the smell of pork as a kid. Bacon was the best. After my father remairried to a women with some muslim practices, I never saw pork in the house again. That bacon smell was replaced with turkey bacon. Honestly, I think it has a great smell in comparrison.

-Garlic Chicken: Something about the smell of that roast. It's the best. Nothing better hands down!

I'd just like to leave with a line or two. I think this was a wonderful exercise in a sense that many often take for granted. I think I'll go get a Sam Adams summertime brew tonight. This smell's for you!

7:45 PM  
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