Sometimes a whiff from the past can release memories of people and events. In one of his cookbooks, Chef Craig Clairborne described the nostalgia evoked by the smell of chopped onions, celery, and garlic sautéing in butter, the basic ingredients for the favorite dishes of his childhood.
For me, a drift of potpourri from a department store counter is a pleasant reminder of my grandmother’s closets, where her linens were neatly interspersed with springs of lavender. Even now, a campfire rekindles memories of my three sons returning from scout camp, the contents of their duffle bags saturated with a smoky, bonfire scent. Who can forget the aroma of a freshly cut lawn, what Walt Whitman called “the handkerchief of God, a scented gift….”
Most of our aroma-triggering thoughts occur during the holidays when the fragrance of baked breads, cookies, and pies, fill the house. Each holiday season my thoughts drift back to my mother’s creation of wonderful dishes from simple, fresh ingredients.My favorite was her spoon bread—a treat she reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The tasty egg and cornmeal concoction was a Southern delicacy from her childhood days in Virginia. It was always the last dish out of the oven and a signal that we should gather quickly at the dinner table. After her death, I found the recipe among her many cookbooks and kitchen notes. The handwritten card was yellowed with age and stains of batter dropped during the preparation of those meals of yesteryear. I have tried to replicate the dish, but no matter how hard I try my spoon bread never matches my memories. I know, now, that they never will.
In Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again,” he writes, “you can’t go back to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to places in the country…which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time….” He was right, of course, which only makes the memories sweeter and more necessary.