“I can still smell it now…”
I remember opening my eyes at 5 a.m. to the most unbelievable smells coming from the kitchen two floors down. The smell would somehow work its way up a winding staircase, down a hallway, and through a closed door—very different than waking up on a normal day in my house, which was only 30 miles away.
When I turned 5, my parents started sending me to spend time with my grandparents for two weeks during summer break.
Upon arrival, my grandmother would be waiting at the back screen door, and would call my name with a light laugh. I vividly remember the love I could see on her face each time I arrived.
Her long hug and kiss meant so much to me. I felt special in her arms nestled in her apron that smelled like clean soap.
Each day she would take my hand and walk me through her garden, filled with beautiful herbs and vegetables. She would name each one with such pride, describing them, and letting me pick the ones for that day of cooking from the ground to smell before placing them in the basket she held.
Before long, the basket was full, and she would say, “now we are ready to cook!”
Standing on a chair with grandma next to me, I stirred the pot on the stove. From the picking to the prep-work, I was exhausted but loved every minute of it.
I would not have wanted to be anywhere else than in my grandma’s kitchen, smelling the pot of soup we made together.
Many years later, when I became a mom, I wanted to give my son Matt this same gift. Every morning, I made a fresh pot of soup, so he would wake to the smell of something wonderful climbing up the winding stairs down the hall to his bedroom.
I would wake him and ask in a morning whisper, “what would you like for breakfast?”
His reply, “soup, mom! Soup!”
I remember putting a chair in front of the stove and helping him climb up so he could stir the pot in front of him and learn to make what he was so used to smelling each morning.
I believe this life experience that has never left my memory, has led me to create, to love what is around me, to embrace art and science, to love food, to invent, and to draw inspiration from my love of herbs and natural ingredients—because of what they bring to our lives. I can still smell it now.
“Soup, mom! Soup!”
At three years old, that was my go-to response when my mom would ask me what I’d like for breakfast.
The answer was an easy one as I woke up to the unmistakable aroma of carrots, onions and garlic harmonizing in a pan; the savory scent of chicken and vegetables blending with aromatic herbs; the comforting smell of the perfect bowl of soup coming together. It was the smell of home. Of love. Of warmth. Of security.
My memories of being three, four, five consist mainly of the big life events—preserved by photos and videos—flashbulb fragments I can’t quite place, and a collection of sensory artifacts that take me back to an exact moment or feeling. Without fail, the smell of soup cooking does that for me every time.
In this moment, I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my mom. I couldn’t tell you much about what I’m saying, thinking or doing, but what I’m feeling is a feeling I want to hold onto forever.
“You are what you eat.”
The sweet smell of fresh strawberries takes me back to warm summer days with my daughter Isabelle. Strawberries were one of Isabelle’s first solid foods, and their smell instantly brings me back to the age when she first started walking.
Izzy would sit at my side and use her entire hand, or two, to grasp a few berries to quickly stuff her face. It’s the memory of her red lips and the sweet strawberry juice running down her face onto her clothes—and my couch—that I miss most. It was a sweet kind of mess that I looked forward to, knowing she was enjoying the entire experience of eating her berries.
I loved watching her fumble her fingers through the bowl, feeling the textures of her fruit and squishing her fingers into the strawberry’s soft core before deciding how many to grasp. Izzy didn’t simply use two fingers to pick up her fruit, she enjoyed the mess of diving into her snack and really establishing her own interpretation of “you are what you eat.”
Now, Izzy is much more gentle, eating her fruit using a fork or two fingers. Although it’s an easier clean up, I miss the mess. I miss having to bathe her after eating and picking up the trail of strawberries she’d leave around our home. I miss her chubby little fingers, hands and cheeks lathered in strawberry juice. What I would give to slow down time and clean up another floor full of fruit.
“Our morning routine.”
My mom helmed the kitchen on a nightly basis at home. But my most memorable kitchen aroma came from the simplest meal my dad would make for me on specific occasions.
For breakfast, I ate a steady diet of oatmeal and cereal on any mundane morning.
But my dad and I started a routine – almost unspoken – that the morning of any big test at school or big baseball game, he’d make breakfast for me that day.
And by breakfast – I mean two scrambled eggs with the perfect amount of cheese and a one piece of toast. The eggs were never too dry, too soggy, or too cheesy and the toast always golden brown.
The night before we might spend some time studying and I already knew when I woke up, I’d hear him in the kitchen, with the smell of the frying pan, scrambled eggs, and toast chasing me out of bed.
Truly one of the simplest meals, but it used to trigger my mindset that on those ‘special’ mornings to keep me fueled and focused for the day ahead.
It’s human nature to take things for granted as a child. Some of my fondest memories were those spent with my grandparents.
I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by love from all sides, with two sets of grandparents that lived to see their mid 80s. There are certain smells and scents that are tied to specific memories for each of my grandparents. For example, the grandparents on my mother’s side:
In a valiant effort to wage war on winged wool-eaters, my grandmother, Stella, peppered her house with mothballs. While the smell of naphthalene may not be particularly pleasant to most, the smell of mothballs instantly blankets me in warm nostalgia. After exploring the house, I would inevitably wander out the back patio where I would typically find my grandfather, Howard, tinkering. The patio was shaded by an elevated deck; the area was large, you could probably fit 10 parked cars back there. That’s if the area wasn’t completely covered in “treasures” (junk). Memories of stepping out onto that patio are marked with notes of fresh cut grass, honeysuckle bloom, and the faint smell of gasoline.
My grandfather was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and through retirement put his effort into building machines. All kinds of machines. Some had no purpose except to provide me with entertainment. He’d craft wild spinning devices, things with switches, lights and bells. It sparked an early fascination inside me toward science and engineering. Some of the machines he built helped support their income; he’d make air machines, from scratch, that he’d lease to gas stations for shared profits (in quarters of course). Naturally, many of the machines my grandfather built were powered by fuel. There was always at least a hint of gasoline smell in my grandparents backyard (and on him). Whenever I get a whiff of petrol, even now, I think of him fondly.
On my father’s side, I had two equally unique grandparents. They were born and raised in Greece. My father and his brother came to the United States in their late teens with not much but the shirts on their backs and some automotive repair knowledge. After years of working for various car dealerships, my father and his brother pooled their money and opened a small auto-repair shop. When they could afford it, they brought their parents over to this prosperous and exciting new world.
Many years later, I was born into the family and had the wonderful experience of living with my parents and Greek grandparents until my early teenage years. Back in Greece, my grandmother was a chef at an esteemed restaurant and my grandfather owned a butcher shop.
Every single day that I lived with them, my grandmother made two fresh meals. Lunch and dinner. I woke up many days of the week to the smell of garlic and onion simmering in olive oil. There’s no smell on earth that gets me salivating like that smell and will forever remind me of my time living with them
All four of my grandparents have passed on, but their legacy lives on in memories, many of which are unlocked by particular smells. I am grateful to be able to revisit those moments from time to time.
“This stuff really does stink!!”
For most, the ever lasting smell of garlic on your hands after a day of cooking is not the most pleasant aroma. For me, garlicky hands brings me back to some of my favorite memories with my Nana.
My Nana was an absolute master in the kitchen. She could cook all of the very best Italian dishes better than any restaurant that has ever existed. At my Nana’s, I was always the lucky grandchild to be tasked with chopping up all of the garlic she needed for her menu. I didn’t mind the task as much as I minded the after-smell of garlic on my hands for what seemed like days after I was done. I used to complain and whine to my Nana all the time about how my hands would stink and nothing would help. She told me to try washing my hands with pure lemon juice, vinegar, soap and water, etc. but nothing ever seemed to work. Garlic chopping quickly became a chore I would try to avoid at all costs.
As we got older, my Nana relinquished some control in the kitchen to me so she could sit and relax while dinner was made. I became a leader in the kitchen and she helped prep the ingredients (including chopping the garlic). One day, we were relaxing after a full morning of cooking for our Sunday dinner when my Nana looked at me and said “you know what LeeLee, you were right.” Confused, I asked “Right about what Nana?” Then she smelled her hands and said “this stuff really does stink!!” shocked to hear her finally admit it, we both started laughing harder than we had in years.
Even though some time has passed and my Nana is no longer with us, I am brought back to this moment every time I smell fresh garlic. Now, I find comfort in the scent of garlicky hands as it always reminds me of her and the time we shared in the kitchen.
“Can we make pizza?”
I went to Rome and Florence, Italy, when I was in college studying abroad in Spain, and for every meal I ate pizza. The only time I did not eat pizza was when my best friend studying in Florence took me to her favorite burrito spot in the Piazza del Duomo, so then I ate a burrito almost every night–the best burritos I have ever had.
My friends joked that I should try the pasta or something else, but I was in the Mecca of Pizza and it was not going to happen. For as long as I can remember, pizza has always been my favorite comfort food, which is probably why I married an Italian American. It is music to my ears when I hear my young daughter and son ask, “Can we make pizza today?” Since my children Luke and Ella were about 4 and 5 years old, we have made homemade pizza at home with fresh dough that must be rolled out and twirled around in the air and artisanal mozzarella that we slice up and sneak pieces to eat before placing the rest on the pie.
Ella and Luke each have their own pizza pie so they can make it the way they want (and not fight over the results!). While the smell of dough baking and cheese bubbling in the oven fills the house, kids stare at their pies through the oven door, excited for them to be done. After that first bite, Luke always says, “Best pizza ever!” It is a heartwarming tradition that I hope they carry on with their children.
This is kind of a funny story. I’ll start by saying my mom is a great cook, but many years ago on Christmas Eve she was trying a new recipe that called for a hint of orange zest. Well, being distracted with kids running around the house, Mom added way too much zest. So her soup was overpowered by the smell and taste of oranges. My dad, being the gem of a guy he is – swallowed it all down, and went for seconds as he always does, and of course told her “fannnnntastic!” as he always does. So sometimes now, when i get a smell of oranges, it brings up memories of love and laughter…and how much my dad loves my mom.