Nothing can unlock the past with such vivid immediacy as aromas, scents, smells. They transport quicker than a Star Trek time machine.
The other day, I read a New York Times feature story about Tejal Rao, a Los Angeles-based restaurant critic and food writer. The story is about how Rao recently opened a “Personal Museum of Smells,” a collection of smells that reminds her of her Los Angeles neighborhood. Right away, she grabbed me with her opening paragraph:
“In my office,” Rao wrote, “I’m getting the muted smell of old cookbooks – like a loaf of slightly sour bread, or a package of extra thin and crisp chocolate chip cookies – plus something earthier and soggier underneath it all, which I associate exclusively with public libraries on rainy days.”
My office-library smells like that – the wonderful scent of books – new ones, old ones. Aromas of paper, binding glue, leather covers – the way the old St. Cloud Carnegie Public Library smelled.
After reading Rao’s story, I spent a couple hours taking a pleasant journey into the past by recalling favorite smells. It’s a fun way to “travel,” especially during pandemic isolation.
Diesel fumes in a split second transport me back to my exhilarating year in London. The whole of that city smells like diesel fumes (at least in 1980-81). Diesel fumes also remind me of the Greyhound buses of my youth as they arrived or departed at the depot in downtown St. Cloud, stirring in me a deep longing to see the big world.
Many smells awaken happy times I spent in the early 1950s at Grandpa and Grandma Saunders’ farm near Benson: sweet clover, Coco Castile bar soap, grandpa’s black tea brewing in the kitchen, the pungent smell of red geraniums by sunny windows, the barn when cows were being milked (old wood, earthy hay and straw mixed with a slight reek of manure).
My childhood house and neighborhood in the south St. Cloud college area can be rapidly recaptured by the following scents: pine trees and Play-Doh (happy Christmases), cigarette smoke, lilacs in spring, linoleum floors, rain falling on hot sidewalks, freshly painted rooms, a fresh-peeled orange, cinnamon rolls baking, the smell of new vinyl music albums, just-cut grass, roads being tarred, the smell of a hot rolled-up St. Cloud Times newspaper tossed by a paperboy against the front door, oil-and-gasoline (my auto-mechanic dad often smelled like that when he’d pick us up to give us whisker-burn hugs) and the dusty smell of old-car upholstery (dad’s Studebaker, circa 1955).
School days return in a flash with certain aromas: fallen autumn leaves have the smell of pencil shavings from when we’d sharpen them in classrooms, any waxed floor smells like school to me and Brut cologne (so popular in the mid-1960s) brings me right back to the busy halls of St. Cloud’s Tech High School.
Buttered popcorn? I’m right back in St. Cloud’s Paramount Theater, thrilling to adventure films or in a state of edge-of-my-seat suspense at those great Alfred Hitchcock movies.
Musty basement smells carry me back to Grandpa and Grandma Dalman’s tiny house near Selke Field in east St. Cloud. Their set of encyclopedias, stored in the basement, smelled like that, even years after I “inherited” those books.
The wonderful aroma of baking bread brings happy memories of working at Lakeland (Holsum) Bakery in east St. Cloud.
The New York Times also published comments from readers about their favorite smells. Here’s one of them:
“When I was growing up, my dad owned a concrete business. To this day, the smell of newly poured concrete at a construction site stops me in my tracks, and I think he must be somewhere near.” — Jeanne Prittinen, 60, northern Minnesota.
I invite readers to share their favorite smell-related memories, so they can be published in a future Newsleader column. Email them to Dennis at email@example.com.