Thursday, September 11, 2008

Smells of chestnuts

Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars

T.S. Eliot

I keep reading about people who have lost their sense of smell. My friend Seattle Tall Poppy told me about a chef/writer who was blogging about her fledgling culinary career; out for a run one day she was hit by a car and as a result of a skull fracture lost her sense of smell.

Although she is slowly recovering it, bit by bit, there are many others who never do. A friend of mine (the woman, not the dog, pictured above) has such terrible allergies and asthma that she hasn't smelled anything in years. One day, her smell came back and she ran around sticking her nose into everything. A few days later, it was gone again.

I think about these people when I smell bagels that I can't eat or when I inhale the scent of pizza cooking in a wood-fired oven. I think about them when I remember how - for a second - I wished I couldn't smell the foods I can't eat, to relieve myself of my temptations. I think about them when I realize that I would never wish this upon anyone, and I shouldn't wish it upon myself, even temporarily.

Smell is so intimately connected with memory. Passing by a bakery tempts me on one level, but it also triggers my nostalgia and connects me to places I may have long since forgotten. The scent of bread baking takes me to the Cabbagetown Cafe in Ithaca, New York, near where I went to college. I'm slurping up some vegetarian chili and eating a hunk of fresh baked bread. The smell of one sprig of curly parsley finds me instantly in my grandmother's 50's-era canary yellow kitchen where she hands me a bit after a meal and tells me it is "nature's breath mint". The smell of chestnuts? Vancouver, B.C.: We're walking along the water holding little wax bags of hot chestnuts. It's dusk and my brother is far up ahead of us. We can hear the distorted, surreal sounds of his trumpet as he practices.

There's another chef I heard about: she had a sinus infection and used a nasal gel product that contains zinc. Apparently these types of medications, of which Zicam and Cold-Eeze are examples, have been associated with the onset of anosmia: a condition that can permanently affect one's sense of smell and taste. There have been law suits and the makers of Zicam settled out of court. The woman was a private chef and culinary instructor. She had to quit her jobs.

In a few months I'll begin to know which foods I shouldn't eat anymore (I'm thinking garlic, onions and dairy). I will mourn these foods. I will miss them like you do old friends you love but realize you don't have much in common with anymore. I will miss their presence in my life even though I know the relationship has changed.

All the same, when I feel wistful, I can lean forward and breathe them in and touch a part of my past. For that, I'm lucky.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

By the way, I love all the images you've used to illustrate your posts. Did I take you to the Cabbagetown Café that first time? Man, loosing smell would be another horrible experience! I love the smell of September Air.