The Aroma of Comfort: Food, Scent, & Memory
Lost in a Tomato Jungle
The hot earthy smell of the tomato plants was overpowering and I was lost in their jungle. The plants towered over my head, I was surrounded by prickly green stalks and red round fruit. I could not see my grandmother but I knew she was near. I was bewildered in this unfamiliar place, but felt safe. The vegetable garden was enclosed by a tall wire fence and metal gate. It was a hot Arkansas summer day, and I was just shy of being six. I had been flown from New York City that morning, by myself in a window seat, and now we were picking tomatoes to have with lunch.
Later I would be taken to stretch out for a nap under a light coverlet on a daybed on the shady side porch, and brought a glass of milk with ice cubes floating in it, which I would think strange and very funny. But now Grandma waded through the dense network of stalks, the leaves releasing an aroma that smelled like a basement, or a rainy day, or a bucket of lake water. “Let me show you how to pick tomatoes,” she said, and her strong hand took mine and wrapped my fingers around a sun-heated piece of ripe fruit.
The Connection Between Smell and Taste
If you lose your sense of smell (called anosmia) – through sickness, injury, radiation – taste becomes a challenge. When I had Covid it was not the illness that deprived me of the joy of eating, but the medication (for which I was honestly grateful) that filled my mouth with a metallic taste I could relieve only with lemon ice pops. Something as simple as a stuffy nose can shut down the connection between smell and taste.
Aroma and Comfort
My earliest memories of food had as much to do with the fragrance of cooking as the flavor that followed. The warm heady aroma of my mother’s roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the sharp scent of the vinegar when my father whisked together salad dressings, the biscuits and cornbread that signified a holiday meal. I didn’t like to see the sliced garlic my dad added to too many dishes – the thin diagonal slices looked like little eyes to me and I pushed them aside to the edge of my plate – but his food smelled good, always and every day.
As an adult I came to love the scent of roasted garlic. It’s the smell of comfort and of the homes I’ve had from childhood through my adult life. The first meal I cook in any new place – a new house, a vacation rental – is of chicken roasted with whole cloves of garlic. The traditional name is Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic, but for the amusement of my children I called my variation Chicken with a Hundred Cloves of Garlic, and from there upped the exaggeration to a Thousand. It’s as simple as could be, so simple that I once taught a ten year old boy how to make it, and he reported that as it was cooking the next door neighbors came over to see what smelled so good.
A simmering stew, baking bread, freshly sliced oranges, cumin seeds stirred in a hot pan, fresh herbs pulverized in a mortar – which of these scents, or which others, evoke in you the memory and anticipation of comfort?