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Smell: Pungent

Paprika: Turning Outside In

Sunken down into the chair, beat down from the day, longingly awaiting the simmering to be done as fatigue slowly enclosed me in its grasp. The year had been simultaneously fast and long with learning to balance work and a new baby. The balance, organization, energy I had always had control over now ceased to exist. I was an outsider to this life, trying to climb my way back inside towards sense, sensibility, predictability. Though grateful and in love with this new baby that entered my life, I struggled to reconcile my former self and new self. The long sleepless nights had introduced a tiredness I had not experienced since college during the sleep deprived nights of endless paper writing, and even that paled in comparison. Bath done, dinner for the baby done, preparation for the next day done. My thoughts now floated into nothingness. Thank God for my husband who had graciously taken over the meals. His ode to perfection meant waiting…. He claimed “all good things come in time… or patience for goodness,” but it was always worth the wait. 

The dish gently placed on the table in front of me broke me from my reverie. Succulent chicken thighs nestled in dumplings and bathed in a thick, bold red and smoky sauce. The smoking dish wafted up towards my tired face and I was filled with an earthy smokiness that slowly began tinkering with long forgotten memories. My grandmother’s chicken simmering in oil and topped with paprika filled the background of the small house with its comforting blanket of old world spice as we visited my grandmother on Sunday afternoons for dinner. The molten red spice sprinkling traditional egg dishes of egg salad or deviled eggs at every Murphy-Matula (now adding Mason) gathering. I lifted the spoonful of warm liquid now parallel with every sense. I breathed in the goodness of the parikash csirke. The saucy delicacy filled my nostrils and tastebuds like a warm and comforting blanket. It was the rich, subtle earthiness that brought me back to an earlier struggle with turning outside in and the same one that then, and now filled be with a reinvigorated hope/energy. 

Paprika was perhaps my fourth Hungarian word I learned and gratefully so, for it was the same in English as it was in Hungarian (or Magyar) and easy to remember. Depending on where one put the emphasis of the syllable, it could mean pepper (as in the vegetable we ate on sandwiches with butter or cheese daily. pAPreeka) or the spice made from the crushed and ground peppers (Paaaaprika) that sprinkled the land that was Hungary. I soon learned Paprika was the heart of the land. Every person I encountered, from my roommate, her family, my colleagues to my 16-17 year old students all had a story or fact to share about Paprika. Strangely, it was not native to Hungary, but introduced by the Turks during the 16 and 17th centuries. It was discovered by herders and shepherds who had the most contact with the outsiders. They had begun to integrate the sometimes mild, sometimes fiery spice into the peasant dishes of the countryside. Ironically, it was adopted by the aristocrats in the 19th century and has become the dominant spice in most Hungarian dishes ever since. Festivals and holidays were devoted to this spice, school schedules were determined around paprika picking season, and Hungarians, a people proud of their history, had turned something from the outside, pushing and oppressing and turned it inside, reclaiming it as theirs, their culture, their heritage. 

As an outsider living in Hungary for two years, paprika became the doorway inside the culture. It gave me a sense of ownership and allowed me to contribute back to a land that had taught me balance, moderation, appreciation for the simple items I had taken for granted in life (dinner with family, talking on the phone, a TV to inform you of what was going on in the world, stores with every ingredient always on hand). I suppose one of my first transformations began in Hungary and with Paprika. Aside from crudely crushed avocado in a bowl, scrambled eggs and toast, and my innovative mustard and potato in a bowl, I had not learned to cook. After moving to Hungary, I realized this would be an essential for survival as there were no microwaves or frozen aisles, and few canned ingredients. Instead there were open markets on Saturdays with fresh vegetables piled in the back of wagons brought in from country towns and a multitude of dried beans and legumes and potatoes along with plenty of paprika. 

I slowly learned to cook with my roommate and friend, Zsuzsi, standing at my side. We began from scratch, chopping vegetables, simmering them in oil, then flour and paprika. Stirring quickly, watching for too much browning, adding in stock, potatoes, beans, vegetables and more paprika until the mild, spicy smell began to waft over the entire dish becoming familiar, becoming comfort, becoming home. Days on end, I would walk home in the bitter cold streets, before the snow fell, and start the pot, firing up the vegetables and paprika, stirring and simmering, staring into the pot. I felt the day’s triumphs, struggles, misunderstandings, laughter, and confusion slip off me into the pot simmering before me. It became a daily ritual to stir away the days of living as an outsider and beginning to sprinkle in myself into the pot, becoming part of the culture and the family. Paprikash reconciliation. 

Scraping the browned bits of paprika and chicken into my mouth, I realized my husband had brought me back to a time where paprika had become the heart of turning my outside inward. Now standing by his side, sprinkling in the paprika (of course playfully arguing over recipe vs. memory and instinct) we continue adding the paprika, providing a warm blanket in another phase and transformation into parents, Years later, we are still adding the paprika, especially on the days we need to turn the outside in.

- Jen Murphy

Olfactory Alarm Clock: Tucson Summer, 1965-1975

When the swamp cooler kicked at 7:00 in the morning it woke me with a dusty funk. Unlike the first ignition of the heater in winter when the hot air on the cold metal vent emits a choking burnt dust smell, the swamp cooler blows hot desert air through water-soaked hemp pads, creating a muddy, slightly fishy aroma.  Maybe the pads were doused in some kind of coolant or mold retardant back then, or maybe it was simply the mustiness of bacteria and mold spores that grew during winter, but hempish-chemical combination always reminded me of the inside of the Rexall pharmacy and the local hippie health food co-op at the same time.  Once the cooler got going awhile, the odor dissipated.  But despite the odd funk, the first burst of air in those ninety-degree Tucson mornings always smelled like a promise of relief.

That promise was always broken in the hundred-plus degree afternoons where we’d seek relief in the local pool.  I spent hours with the neighborhood kids, going in and out of the cool- chlorine-and-warm-pee water.  When our fingers got too pickled and pruny, we pressed our shivering bodies against our sun-warmed towels that were laid out on the concrete deck.  We inhaled the chlorinated steam rising from the cement, filtered through Tide-scented towels.   By the time we walked across the park to our cinder-block house across the street, we were hot and dry again.  I would plant myself directly under the hallway vent of the swamp cooler lifting my matted hair off my neck.  My dad invariably shooed me away, warning of catching coldor a stiff neck.”   Then Mom would pull me by the ponytail into the bathroom with a brush in her hand for a half-hour of tangled hair torture. 

Naturally, by the teenage years, I defied my parents.  Standing under the swamp cooler vent for as long as I wanted in my navy blue daisy bikini, I combed my own hair with a wide-tooth comb.  The perfumed spritz No More Tears conditioner in the swamp-cooled air created a new promise— one of peace, freedom, and independence.

- Judy Geraci




The Smell of Religion

When I was a kid, our family belonged to East San Diego Presbyterian Church. Going to Sunday services made me admire my shoes. Black patent Mary Janes. There wasn’t much else to look at. Sometimes I gazed at the tall brass pipes of the organ, but I soon wore them out as a topic. 

I smoothed my dress over my knees and felt like a frog in taffeta. I entertained myself by watching dust motes drop in slo mo from the high ceiling. Halfway down, they disappeared and reappeared through bands of red, green, and blue sunlight churched by the stained glass windows. The specks fell softly with the cachet of a secret in plain sight, and they explained the dry scent that sighed through the sanctuary. 

The highbacked, dark-wood pews smelled of corners: right angles harboring mites and must. Their cousins, the hymnals, smelled the same. This fit the songs. We mouthed the words, verse after verse, wishing for salvation.

Flowers were laid out in tall vases on either side of the altar. Sprays of pink gladioli, yellow-orange alstromeria, white carnations, magenta stargazer lilies backed by ferns. Outside, in the world, blossoms typically opened and spilled their sweet scent like wanton barmaids. But in church, flowers stalled out and festered, drowning in their own water. 

Since ceremonial food had been promised, I hoped that delicious smells were on the way. But at communion, the wafer erased itself. We had been told that it was Christ’s body showing up as bread, but where was the loafy smell -- that scent of yeast that made a person feel expansive and worthy of butter and jam? Likewise, the odor of the little tippance of communion wine danced for an instant and then evaporated too. 

From the parishioners rose the faint smell of humans scrubbed presentable: Lifebuoy soap, Brilliantine hair pomade, Aqua Net hairspray. A nip of Old Spice. Sometimes a wisp of perfume slid by that was more Saturday night than Sunday morning: White Shoulders, Hypnotique, Primitif. 

But in the summer, since air-conditioning was not, we suffered. Most people didn’t trouble themselves with that newfangled antiperspirant stuff. So we smelled. But being Presbyterians, no one spoke of it. At the end of the service, we stepped out into superheated air with the scent of abraded iron. Families drove straight home, where parents threw off their shoes and put their feet up on the hassock, fanning themselves with a pleated section of last night’s Evening Tribune. Kids kicked up a wet grass and mud smell in the backyard by chasing each other with the hose. 

But except for hot-weather sweat, Presbyterianism didn’t smell much. Scent felt excessive. Foreign. Papist.

In a short romance with the Catholic Church, I attended mass with a circle of black lace bobbypinned to the top of my head. But Catholic-smell shocked me. Ecclesiastic candles swooned everywhere, waxing the air -- a thousand tiny fires burning like Saint Teresa. Incense smoked down the aisle in steaming metal pots swung by altar boys. This was not democracy. It was a monarchy of scent and everyone knelt to it. 

And, whenever we smell something, we feel it before we can think about it. Maybe that’s why smell tells us where we belong. I eventually found my sanctuary in the piney Sierras, and most of all, in the fresh scent of the sea.

- Anitra Carol Smith

The Scent and Safety of a Screen

When you are only three feet tall, you experience doors differently. I remember standing outside my grandparents' cabin in the hot Colorado sun, my nose pressed up against the rusty metal of the old wooden screen door. I remember the sound as it slammed, the little hook closure jingling against its frame. The rust dust clouded around the screen for a few seconds following the impact. After a session standing close to the little mesh wires, I would sport an orange nose until some fastidious adult wiped it off. There was something enticing about the acrid, dusty metal smell. I often ended up licking the screen as my grandmother doddered about inside the cool log cabin. 

I waited there, in limbo, as she would say, "Go out and play. I'll be out in a minute." This meant that in all likelihood, she would never exit through that door. As I peered in from the outside, I could see her silhouette move about the room. On occasion, I got a soggy whiff of an overcooked pot roast or the startling stench of moth balls as the little molecules moved through the mesh. At other times she sat at an antique dressing table and I watched her monochrome outline as she slowly brushed her hair, the inky smell of bluing followed. Sometimes silence descended subsequent to the sudden squeak of bed springs and I knew she was down for a nap. The sun, its heat and the stillness stole the odor of pitchy pines, bitter green mountain grass, yellow cakey dandelions, and the chalk of blue columbine like an old, oily army tarp. The snap of grasshoppers and occasional shriek of a blue jay only made the quiet sound deeper, more still. The red sandy soil heated up and smelled like baked mud bread next to the doorway. 

As the afternoon wore on, I sat - my back comfortable against the stretched screen. The stark white thunderclouds fulminated and grew; my temples throbbed as air pressure increased. I leaned on the screen and watched the billowing, enormous clouds turn from white to black. The far off thunder rumbled, the vibration jingling the latch on the door. The air smelled of electric crackle, like the pop of a green pea pod. I ached from the sensual world around me, from loneliness and boredom, from the fear that my grandmother would remember I was there, from the need for my brother to return, my father, and my grandfather. 

I was the youngest, and a girl wasn't allowed to go when they waded into the South St. Vrain and fished for rainbow trout, their creels filled with pulled grass and the slimy smell of fish. My grandfather alleged girls were too delicate to stomp through the wild-flower scented meadows to his favorite fishing holes. My mother and sister were off doing girl things in the city, which left me in a kind of sexless condition - too young to participate in girl things, too much girl to go and fish. So I was there, alone with Grandmother and her Victorian hysteria, her sweet powder puffs, her anxiety attacks, her fainting spells, and slap-you-in-the-face odor of ammonium smelling salts; alone as her too, too sweet Eau de Toilette perfume drifted through the screen with her snores. Thunder outside, thunder inside, I giggled as I licked the rust, rubbed orange rust powder all over my face, and prayed she would never come out that door.

Carrie Danielson

The Smoky Back Room

Several years ago, my husband and I were spending the weekend out on Long Island, and stopped at a bakery to pick up croissants for my in-laws. I saw a sign for the small town of Sea Cliff, where I often visited my grandparents as a child. Their house was sold shortly after my grandfather died—I was thirteen back then. I hadn’t been there for more than twenty years, but was somehow able to get us there, without consulting a map. 

A man was mowing the front lawn (I suddenly had a vision of my grandfather raising the flagpole with both British and American flags. I’m told by my mother he would sometimes wake his five children up in the morning by blaring Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.) My husband encouraged me to get out of the car; the man invited me in and graciously shepherded me, room by room, through my grandparents’ old house—a place, I realize now, that was strangely dearer to me than my own childhood home.

What I most remember is a vague but real coziness: a feeling of autumn, warm shades of amber and gold, and the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Now, whenever I smell fresh tobacco, I am with him in that house, before I even register the thought “tobacco.” I know little about my grandfather firsthand—my aunts and uncles have described him as eccentric and something of a Walter Mitty character. He was a salesman in Manhattan during the Mad Men era; my mother says he frequently entertained clients at home and managed a prominent account for Campbell Soup. According to her, he was a charming businessman but also a deep introvert. 

There were thirteen of us cousins, all boys except for me and my younger cousin Bridget. He hardly spoke to us, and always called me “sis” or “lass.” I got the feeling he saw us as a mess of grandkids and may not have known my name. We knew we weren’t allowed in his study—otherwise known as “the back room.” It was often locked, filled with treasures like an old typewriter and adding machine, and the strong smell of cigar smoke. He also sometimes smoked a pipe. Every once in a while, he’d let me in there, as long as I didn’t touch anything—perhaps he trusted me more than the boys. I always wished I were more like my daring cousins, who climbed trees and sat up on the roof of the garden shed. But I was quiet and cautious, and probably less likely to break something. I liked being there with him, without having to talk. It’s the same way I feel now at parties, when I can steal a few moments to study the host’s bookshelf or cabinet of curiosities, instead of having to strike up a conversation with a stranger over Cabernet.

When I got older, we’d drive up to see my grandfather every month or so; my mother may have felt compelled to check in on him. One Easter, he left us a pot of very spicy chili on the stove and a note saying he wouldn’t be back for a few days. These disappearances never bothered me much. He bought a motorcycle after my grandmother died and would take us on rides around Sea Cliff. Sometimes he’d get up in the middle of breakfast and say things like “let’s blow this popstand and go check out the old ladies at the post office with blue hair.” He once took me out to a beefalo burger joint, where they served hamburgers made out of buffalo. 

A few weeks before my grandfather died, we spent the better part of an afternoon laughing over a 1980s movie starring Burt Lancaster about a Texas oil executive who visits a small village in Scotland. We had never laughed together like that before. At his funeral, lots of people came from the bar next door to pay their respects—he’d obviously been a regular. A torn photo of him from World War II somehow came into my possession—he’s handsome and not quite thirty, in fatigues, smiling outside a tent. As it turns out, I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a few blocks from where he grew up, running gin back and forth as a kid during Prohibition, back when the neighborhood was Irish. My son, Henry, plays in McGolrick Park, where his great grandfather and namesake might have also played as a boy. My mother said he worked hard to get rid of his working class Irish accent and spoke like a Kennedy for much of his life; it never seemed odd to me. I barely knew him, but trust the silence I knew in that smoky back room.

- Rachel Safko