Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Close your eyes. Smell.
Outside Charleston, South Carolina: We're over at my cousin's house and I'm eating for 2, but I'm not pregnant unless you count my growing "food" baby as a separate entity from myself. I've been eating my way through our visit here, giddily slurping down piles of local "cluster" oysters thrown on the grill, savoring shrimp and grits (briny, sweet meat with creamy, silky corn meal, just a bit of texture left in the grain), and then some double-cut pork chops so full of flavor and juice it was obscene (or maybe it was just obscene how I ate it - like a Neanderthal, bone in hand, right off my uncle's plate at the Fat Hen, this low-country French bistro with soul food and jelly jars of good cheap wine).
We're all from New Jersey so we try on this Southern thing like a borrowed jacket, not a bad look if a bit ill-fitting. My aunt and uncle, cousin and grandmother relocated here a few years ago and where we used to gather around our matriarch's tables at the houses on the lake, just an hour from New York City, we now fly into Charleston, wind our cars through the live oaks and descend upon Johns Island to the big house between the marsh and the swamp.
We take walks on the beach, say hello to the friendly locals and beat down deceptively and almost quaintly-named "Palmetto bugs" as they dive-bomb our heads late at night. Around this time of year, stuffed fatter than the turkey we brined, we rub our stomachs like happy Buddhas and play hyper-competitive Scrabble matches (not even pretending it's just a friendly little game), hoping that our sheer concentration and intense wordplay burns calories.
We lay out on the couches like turtles on logs, the football game our sun. We read our books (I'm just finishing up Julie & Julia, snorting out loud at her humor and her way around an f-bomb). We attack the Sunday New York Times crossword with gusto. My 96 year old grandmother throws me a bone every once in a while and lets me fill in 2 or 3 answers; she's been solving the puzzle for the better part of 40 years with very little outside assistance, although my aunt might beg to differ.
Back at my cousin's, we're finishing up dinner, stacking plates and telling stories while we dish out the pecan Bourbon pie and ice cream that no one needs and everyone wants. Out of the corner of my eye I see her 5 year old's PlayDough stash and in an impulsive move I reach over, open it up and stick my nose - no small feat - right into it. I resist taking a nibble, although I saw my childhood friends do this often (I preferred a smidgen of Chapstick for a snack, thank you very much). I then move around the group beseeching my family to close their eyes while I stick the iconic mustard yellow container under their noses.
Smell. Guess. Tell me what you think it is.
I love the part when the recognition comes over their faces; a slow, half-smile forms as they realize the smell, the unmistakable aroma of post-70's childhood.
I do this at home, when friends come over. It's one of my favorite games, my party game. I pull spices off my spice wall, un-clicking them from their magnet home, opening them up and making my guests close their eyes and guess. I start in easy with no-brainers like cinnamon and mint and work my way up, passing cumin and rosemary on the way to fenugreek, saffron and sumac.
Certain smells can turn my mood around like music can for most people. Sticking my beak into a jar of cloves is an instant serotonin booster. I don’t know why. I have no distinct memory of clove, per se, being directly connected with something wonderful. There are just those smells that do it for you.
The smell of a wood fire, marshmallows burning, crisp cold air. Coffee. Garlic and onions slowly cooking in olive oil. My wine goddess' perfume, Jo Malone Orange Blossom, one hour after application, right where her neck meets her collarbone. Chocolate, as in cookies, as in brownies, as in cupcakes. Red wines that are earthy, almost musty with a strong rush of fruit and pepper, as in Syrah. The mingled smells of cut grass and my father's Old Spice, circa 1978, as he mows the lawn. Roses, in my grandmother's garden, and the smell of the beauty salon in her hair as she bends over them.