This past weekend, my husband made French Toast. I have never liked pancakes, waffles, or French Toast because they are usually served with maple syrup and, as a youngster raised in the midwest, we only had the syrup made primarily from the fake stuff - high fructose corn syrup with flavoring - the type that turned my stomach when I smelled it. However, for the past 10 years of our marriage, I have developed a new found love for this wonderfully delicious syrup that comes from the maple trees in the northeast where we live: Vermont, New York, Maine, and Canada. Whenever we travel to these areas, we often go to street fairs and little county shops, where we will most often find and purchase a sample of local syrup as long as it was easy to carry back and we treat our maple syrup like it were a precious souvenir from that area. So on Sunday while I was up on the 3rd floor of our home tinkering around, the aroma of egg-battered whole wheat toast sprinkled with cinnamon traveled up to my sensitive sensors and immediately lured me to the kitchen with the taste of the velvety smooth maple syrup on my tongue. I devoured my little 1/2 slice of toast, but secretly wanted another, but since I am always counting calories, I did not even ask for more. That 1/2 slice satisfied my wanting. Smell and taste are housed in the olfactory system, and housed in the oldest part of the brain where memory is stored. With my new found obsession for natural and pure maple syrup, I can finally help erase my memories of the smell of mass produced maple syrup for the wonderful smell and taste of "the real stuff". Natural is always better.
The holidays are a time when we often reflect on the past year with hopes of going forward with good health and happiness. We anxiously await to participate in traditions that have been the glue to keep families together. It was my mother who instilled tradition in my family by organizing all the tasks needed before and after the festive dinner when she'd take out our china she and my father received on their wedding day. Growing up on a small farm in rural America was scent memory filled during the Christmas season: It started with a trip to the woods with my father to help select the right Christmas tree to bring back to our little farm house. The scent of pine or fir would fill the air as he sawed a straight edge at the tree's stem for balance in the stand before my siblings and I adorned it with ornaments that included peppermint sticks and strings of popcorn (both slowly disappeared over the days). Christmas Eve always meant a visit to my grandmother's house for fruitcake and cups of her spiked eggnog sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg on top. Before bed, my mother would leave ginger man cookies "for Santa" while we all lay in bed thinking about what was in those gifts until we finally went to sleep. When morning arrived, we scrambled for the tree always ripping open the biggest box first before the reality of our daily farm chores separated us from our joy of gifts. The barn--that dirty, smelly place of goats, chickens and pigs! Breakfast was a feast in itself as my father believed in big ones: Crisp smell of bacon, eggs or pancakes with maple syrup, toast and the smell of my mother's coffee. As I've entered this holiday season, I reflect on my childhood memories and of my mother who helped form them. It's those simple pleasures in life that remain the most treasured. My message to you is to encourage you to spend time with loved ones who have instilled family traditions in our lives, and to try and recall every little aroma that connects to them during those precious times.
Many are aware of what is called the "Proustian-moment" from Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" recalling a moment in time through the sense of smell at tea time. There are other authors who have given us vivid descriptions of smell that allow the reader to escape to an imaginary place. Here is an example written by Willa Cather describing one of my favorite smells that takes me back to the farm, and into the kitchen after my mother baked bread: "Everywhere the grain stood ripe and the hot afternoon was full of the smell of the ripe wheat, like the smell of bread baking in an oven. The breath of the wheat and the sweet clover passed him like pleasant things in a dream.” ― Willa Cather, O Pioneers! Freshly baked bread is considered one of the most alluring smells, and I don't know any country in the world that does not include it in their daily meal. It's no wonder that there is a saying "you have to break bread" with someone who you want to get to know. For me, bread is home and togetherness.