Bunny Mellon, the American socialite designer of the White House rose gardens and President Kennedy’s gravestone, kept pots of stewed apple bubbling away on the stove at her Virginia estate in tribute to the apple pies made by her mother. She understood the power of scent memory to create a sense of place no matter how vast the house or estate might be, taking visitors back to a simpler, less salubrious and more homely past, all the way back to childhood.
In her essay ‘Sense of Self’, Erin Byers Murray writes about childhood memories and of her mother and the many meals cooked by her, evenly divided between those cooked ad hoc with whatever was to hand, using a pinch of this and a dab of that, and the meals that were guided in like a plane via precise instructions in recipes torn from Southern Living magazine. Her mothers food tasted good but it was the functional ‘gotta get the kids fed’ style of cooking that was the bane of the lives of women, stripped of much of its sensual pleasure.
Then the accident happened that changed everything. A head injury stripped her mother of her sense of smell and taste (anosmia) when her olfactory nerves were damaged. Assessments determined that she was still able to differentiate between salty and sweet, albeit an ability which was now drastically reduced, and to a lesser degree, bitter and tart, but for some time, her mother put down the reins in the kitchen and the other family members took over.
Taste and scent memory is complex but this is what ‘saved’ Murray’s mother who, upon baking an almond angel cake by rote for a birthday some time after the accident- having made it hundreds of times before- realised that her mind’s ‘nose’ was being stimulated by the memory, imprinted deep within her psyche, of what this cake used to smell like. As almond essence dripped into the cake batter and was spun around the bowl by the beaters of the mixer, the scent that pervaded the warm fug of the kitchen might have been beyond her sensory reach but the recollection of it was as intrinsic to her as her ability to bake the cake from memory. And for Murry’s mother, it was enough- more than enough.
Her nerves didn’t magically regenerate and there was no wonderful TV movie recovery but she began to cook and that cooking was speculative and experimental, liberated from the constraints of sustenance cooking for children. What taste she did have could be challenged and stretched- made to work for her in combination with a new exploration of texture, appearance and mouth feel. The memories she possessed of the taste and scent of food commingled with this awareness of other qualities, ones she had paid scant attention to in the past. Her gustatory life became one of adventure and the stripping away of boundaries. It transcended the cultural mores of her native cuisine, took her to new places like Japan and Thailand and to many other lands with multi-faceted culinary aesthetics.
Take salt as an example of something we may use in a pretty straightforward manner even when our pantries contain several different types. Salt sharpens and delineates the flavour of other ingredients, uniting their parts into a whole greater than their sum. Salt is the bassline, the doo-wop, if you like, of our cooking and a useful facsimile of the world of the anosmic is to try to eat your food unsalted. You will be shocked by how blunted the different flavours are until, eventually, your palate adjusts. It does a remarkable job but how often so we consider what exactly that might be? Pure sodium chloride imparts intensity as its concentration is increased up to a subjective maximum above which no further saltiness is perceived. This ‘bliss point’, the stage at which the addition of salt ceases to increase our liking for a food varies from person to person- our salt preference is malleable. An anosmic would be at risk of adding increasing amounts of salt to overcome a blunted palate with the risk of distorting and overpowering other flavours in a way that a non anosmic wouldn’t be. However salt is of huge importance in sharpening a blunted palate too and many foods (soups, rice, eggs, and potato crisps), are pleasingly enhanced by it. Salt is proven to heighten the perception of product thickness (texture). it also enhances sweetness, masks chemical off-notes, counteracts bitterness, and rounds out overall flavor whilst strengthening and intensifying it.
I imagine Murrays’ mother surrounded by heaping piles of salt: wafer-like flakes of Maldon from nearby Essex which melt instantly delivering a bolus of super saltiness and the pink chunky crystals of Himalayan which are the salt equivalent of time-release pills. Then there are the colours; an Indian salt stained pansy-purple, gritty as gunpowder, or the delicate Kala Namak- tinted ashes-of-roses pink. Vastly different is the dramatic Cyprus black salt resembling a miniature Giants Causeway in a jar with its basalt hexagons that are slow to melt, crunchy and charcoal-dank. I see her dipping a spoon into a jar of Le Petit Saunier salted caramel sauce in its Breton saxe blue and white livery, rolling its sea-sweet flavour from the sweet-spot on her tongue to the salty and back again. I think of her recoiling as the sting of malted vinegar and salt hits her nostrils when it is sprinkled onto searingly hot chips (fries) or running her fingers through the delicate and translucent crystals of Fleur De Sel from the Guerande, sold in beige calico bags, drawn closed with a string. I hope she can do all of these things.
We know that if we lose our sense of smell, we lose much of our ability to appreciate the taste of foods because the two are closely linked. If you don’t believe this, cut a lemon in half and bite into it whilst holding your nostrils tightly closed. And we also see what we taste and smell as a unitary perception of flavour which is incorrect and is actually not a single ‘entity’ at all being made up of anatomically independent sensory systems.
There are psychological consequences to anosmia and what we can also lose is a sense of pleasure in life: an anosmic can become disengaged, anhedonic, dysthymic. It is also dangerous- as Murray points out, her mother was warned never to live alone because leaking gas would not be discernible to her. Think of other warning signs- the sweet acetone of diabetic urine or a hint of smoke on the air from a fire; the hot and clean electrical whiff when an appliance overheats or the curdle of milk on the turn. Think of the fact that we all have our unique smells, imprinted on our own offspring within moments of birth and we all sense when a loved one (or a stranger) is nearby because of what our olfactory equipment tells us, a primal and instinctive alert system that helps keep us safe. Fear and heightened emotional arousal is often described in terms of scent (an acrid smell of fear), and we associate certain scents (and tastes) with comfort (vanilla is a common one). Indeed as the Tutorial on the Sense of Smell states:
“The uncus, phylogenetically part of the ‘smell brain’ (or rhinencephalon), is functionally associated with the whole limbic system (which includes such brain areas as the amygdala, hippocampus, pyriforn cortex and hypothalmus), which is increasingly recognised to be crucial in determining and regulating the entire emotional ‘tone’. Excitation of this, by whatever means, produces heightened emotionalism and an intensification of the senses.”
And anosmia can highly correlate with a risk of emotional lability, impulsivity and problems with adapting behaviour to the lessons of experience. It can leave sufferers derealised, as Dr Rachel Hertz explains in The Scent of Desire:
” I felt trapped inside my own head, a kind of bodily claustrophobia, disassociated. It was as though I were watching a movie of my own life. When we see actors in a love scene, we accept that we can’t smell the sweat; when they take a sip of wine, we don’t expect to taste the grapes. That’s how I felt, like an observer watching the character of me.”
The average human being may recognize up to 10,000 separate odours but our language to describe those odours is nowhere near as intricate. It is very hard, near impossible to explain what something smells like to someone who has yet to smell it and when we describe a taste, it is informed very much by its scent and how this marries with taste in our noses and mouths.
At a basic biological level our responses to smell and the anticipation of taste aren’t that much different to that of a Labrador dog with its Pavlovian reactions- a set of responses that prevent the dog (and us) from dying of starvation or developing malnutrition due to disinterest. We want to seek food out, prepare it in a safe manner (because scent and taste is potentiated by cooking methods that also effectively kill off bugs), digest and utilise it effectively. But as humans we also possess full and sub consciousness; the free will and layers of cognition that allow us to transcend that basic stimulus-response mechanism and interpret, manipulate and filter the messages we receive from our senses.
In the first few months of independent life (as in independent from our mothers placenta) we display a predisposition towards the inherent sweetness of breast milk and all human babies show some aversion towards bitter foods (eat brassicas for a day while breastfeeding and see your newborns reaction) which is most likely an evolutionary throwback to when we needed discouragement from eating poisonous foods. The ever changing nature of breast milk, which is in part a result of the mothers diet, also primes an infant to cope with our human omnivorous diet and as their kidneys develop, a taste for salt emerges which roughly correlates with the time at which many babies begin to be weaned and are, as a result, exposed to higher salt levels. All other preferences are learned behaviour and that learning is so strong that unlike a Labrador, we may not overcome our dietary taboos and predilections, no matter how hungry.
Along with those dietary taboos, aversions, phobias and fads we develop strong gustatory and olfactory memories where time, place and food meld in such a way as to transport us back decades in time through our senses. This confluence functions as a way of reinforcing family bonds and developing new ones, as a way of heafing us to our territories (no matter how wide ranging or compact) whilst also encouraging us to fan outwards towards new people and places- a handy way of discouraging genetic overfamiliarity when we decide to breed. We learn to guard against foods that don’t suit us and help reinforce affection and attachment to the foods that we can easily grow and eat. We learn that food is love.
It is possible for us evoke the past so viscerally because of our ability to build emotional content into what we sense; conjured up by what we hear (the clink of Sheffield steel against a china cake plate, the sound of boiling water being poured into a teapot, the paper dry rustle of a corn husk as we wrap a tamale), by sight and via our tactile encounters. These memories and experiences are multi sensate, multi causal and have layer upon layer of meaning. Taste without context does not exist and I’m not sure we are capable of unpicking all the strands. Nature is not more complex than we think. It is more complex than we can think.
And the power of these memories! Walking along the banks of a Sardinian river one unusually hot late spring day, a sudden drench of rain penetrated the clay of the path. The air became sodden with water vapour and impregnated with the unmistakeable smell of the clay goblets and jugs used by our housekeeper in Mexico. As a child I was mildly obsessed with this roughly glazed pottery and I would nibble away at the gap between the top of the glaze and the rough clay rims. Bordering upon pica, the earthiness permeated the contents- water sharpened with a squeeze of local limes. All our drinks tasted of clay and were imbued with the love we felt for Maria and the bridge she created between two worlds, Latina and European. As I stood by that river I felt the heaviness of the goblet, so large in my five year old hands and my vision narrowed to what I could see over its rim. The clear light of the Sardinian mountains turned heavy, dusty and straw-yellow as I went back to our Saltillo kitchen and a light that shot in through the gap at the base of the heavy blinds, which had to be kept drawn in the day to keep out the vicious desert sun. It was confusing and surreal.
Erin Byers Murray’s mother instinctively knew what she needed to do to live fully in the world rather than continue to tolerate a gustatory existence diminished of colour, sense and the opportunity to make fresh memories. That almond cake was her Proustian moment in a far more significant way because it guided her towards a new future as opposed to Proustian wistful musings about a lost past. It is also a less frivolous example than that a stratospherically wealthy woman able to afford to keep pots of apples bubbling on the stoves of her many homes, but it is no more or less touching. Both women were negotiating the tricky present and future by invoking their sensory past.