Making sense of scents


Growing up, the smell of bacon always made me recall the nights my father insisted we have Liver and Onions for dinner.  My mother would try to mask the smell with bacon to fool us into a false sense of security but we were on to her very early.  It wasn’t until many years later that I learned to associate that smoky smell with far more pleasant and savory tastes.

It made me ponder how a single smell can elicit such powerful memories.  The olfactory bulb switches on at a moment’s notice when a familiar scent touches an odor memory that has been etched into our brain.  Smells are one of the best ways to reconnect with our past.  During the cold January nights when I am forced to stand outside because my dog has yet to learn how to use the toilet, the smell of that bitter, cold winter air takes me back to the ski hills at Alpine in Collingwood.  I’ve lived in Muskoka for most of my life and experienced some extremely biting temperatures but, still, the memory that is brought to life is that of being a kid at a familiar cabin on a busy ski hill.

My mother’s purse, laden with the essence of Spearmint gum, the fragrance of a certain perfume or the whiff of something as simple as a laundry detergent has the power to create such sentimentality.  We are transported back to a glimpse of something from our past that has left such a lasting impression.  It may not even be a conscious memory but something about that lingering scent brings to mind a time that has long since passed.


(image credit)

I was given a bottle of white wine recently that I haven’t tasted in years.  When I opened the bottle and that first aroma hit my nasal passages I was immediately transported to an apartment that I haven’t seen in decades.  The scent of that Verdicchio took me back and the flood of nostalgia overwhelmed me.

Smells, feelings and memories become so intimately and easily intertwined that a person can be overcome with emotion.  Odoriferous messages flood the senses.  Good or bad, we are ferried to an alternate dimension of our own reality and held as a captive of our experiences. For the past few wedding seasons I was a cake maker.  I loved the artistry that I was able to create but, better than that, I loved the smell of the cake baking.  The aromatic smell of chocolate cake will always be the smell that reminds me of my house.  And though I don’t create those cakes anymore the smell of unscheduled cupcake baking sessions transports me to a happy place.

Of all of the senses that I am blessed with, smell seems to be the front-runner when it comes to reliving a sense of the past.

What smell takes you back in time?

8 thoughts on “Making sense of scents

  1. I don’t have that many smell associations. Although I’ll always remember the smell of the Polynesian Village in Disney World. I don’t know what it was, but the lobby smelled awful. Nobody else in my family agreed with me, but I finally met someone who also thought there was an unpleasant odor there.

  2. This post smells terrific, I mean what?

    I’m terrible at names, but good at faces. I’m even better with smells. I can remember things by smell that happened to me when I was a kid. Just don’t ask me what I had for lunch yesterday or my kids’ names.

  3. I have some smell-associations, too. Lilacs remind of my my grandparents’ house when I was a kid. The smell of corn dogs make me think of when I got ill at a state fair when I was 5 or 6. (Still can’t eat them!)

  4. Passion fruit reminds me of the times I spent with my aunt and uncle when my parents would travel overseas (and they’re not pleasant memories!) They had passion fruit vine on their veranda at a farm.

    Smells are like small time machines that can really transport us to places we haven’t thought of for ages. What a brilliant post – I’m glad I’m not the only one who associates smells with memories 😀

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