Making Sense of Scents of the Past

Weird thing, the olfactory nerve.

BThis smell-sensing bundle of neurons that starts in the nose connects directly with parts of the brain strongly connected with emotion and memory. That’s why Hallmark and other stores make a killing this time of year selling candles scented with cinnamon-y chemicals that evoke warm fuzzy feelings of fall and family. We’re smelling augmented paraffin but thinking about a pumpkin pie in the oven, somewhere from our rose-colored past.

Because smell is actually responsible for a high percentage of our perception of “flavor,” it’s an important attribute to think about in the world of food marketing. Food and cocktail chefs have begun using spritzed essences to enhance the consumption experiences of their products, and, reportedly, outlets ranging from mall food courts to Disneyland have for years been pumping their surrounding air full of delectable scents to help lure us to their foodstuffs .

Here on the cusp of the Thanksgiving holiday, I was thinking about a personal scent connection of unexpected importance. Last month I wrote a post about my early inspirations in the food world: TV chefs, cookbook authors and intriguing French culinary terms. But what I skipped over was an even earlier influencer who made a truly indelible impression: my grandma.

CHer kitchen was a fantastic place for a 6-year-old to explore. Her apron smelled like Palmolive, cans of Folgers on the pantry shelf smelled dark and exotic to my young nose, and the air at 5:30 p.m. was tinged with the smoky aroma of fried sausages. Many times when I spent an afternoon with Grandma, we would bake a batch of sugar cookies together. Hers were of the thin and crispy variety, and they partially took their form due to a strong whack from a meat tenderizing mallet after each blob of dough was spooned onto the baking sheet, leaving a signature criss-cross pattern. Then as they baked, the vanilla and lemon extracts in the dough vaporized and excited my young head. After the cookies cooled, I took a plate home. To this day, everyone in my family who has tried to replicate Grandma’s thin, crispy sugar cookies has been confounded. They just don’t turn out the same. There was a je ne sais quoi about those cookies that died with her .

Similarly, her Sunday baked chicken was a mystery. What on earth she possibly did to make it that tender and melt-in-your-mouth, we still don’t know.

Those unsolved mysteries, those exciting “first times” – they fueled my food curiosities first, even before the beloved “Great Chefs of New Orleans” episodes on PBS in the early ’80s. Decades later, I’m still delighting in making food connections, exploring flavors, forging new memories. That’s what we as food marketers are ultimately selling as much as proteins and carbohydrates: emotional links to family, friends, good times, our younger selves. More so than hyping the latest consumer electronic product, this type of marketing work feels…and SMELLS… like home.

What are you nostalgic about smelling this Thanksgiving season?

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