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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Scents Of Life

The night before last, Trent mentioned something that we hadn't eaten in a while that he was really hoping I would make the following day. He said we hadn't had Shepherd's Pie lately. Actually, what we eat is more correctly called Cottage Pie since it is made from beef, shepherds being much more difficult to catch, and all. Seriously, though, Shepherd's Pie tends to be made with mutton or lamb while Cottage Pie is made with beef. In the tiny bit of research, AKA knowledge confirmation, that I did before starting to write this, I discovered that the term Cottage Pie came first and meant both types of meat used in a dish with a mashed potato crust. The term Shepherd's Pie came later, and also meant both types of meat. In more recent years, purists have decided the name should only refer to mutton or lamb pies since those are the animals that shepherds tend, but for most people, the term still covers both types of meats.

So late yesterday afternoon I started to make a Shepherd's Pie to fulfill Trent's request. As I began cooking chopped onions (local, Colorado grown, and wonderful) in a large skillet, I thought about the way the smell of onions, and all foods, really, changes as they cook. The onions start with a sharp and pungent fragrance that soon develops into something related, but entirely different. The biting fragrance is gradually replaced with something more mellow. If the onions are cooked to the point of beginning to turn brown, another layer is added to their lovely scent. While I was stirring these lovely onions and reveling in their beautiful smell, I began to feel different than when I had begun the chopping.  Cutting had been a necessary preliminary task. But the cooking onions smelled like warmth, comfort, happiness, and home. Their fragrance carried the promise of delicious and fulfilling food that would bring satisfaction on multiple levels. There's something about the smell of cooking onions that just makes the world and everything in it seem all right.

This took my mind back to the years when I worked doing shop-floor sales and training of sales staff at The Body Shop. During my time there, a line of aromatherapy products was released, and of course I had to teach myself some things about aromatherapy. (Incidentally, I found it so fascinating that I really wanted to go back to school and become a licensed aromatherapist or herbalist!) I bought some books to learn more about the various oils and their uses, but what fascinated me the most was what I learned about what scents do to our brains. Things that we smell go directly to the limbic portion of our brains, which is the most primitive part of that organ. The limbic system includes the amygdala, which is involved in emotional responses, memory, and hormonal secretions to the brain. It also contains the hypothalamus, which controls the molecules that make you excited, or angry, or sad. There's also the hippocampus, which sends information to our long-term memory for storage, and fetches it when needed.

Little wonder, then, that cooking and eating food can make us so happy. With each stage of the assembly of my Shepherd's Pie, another layer of flavor, as well as scent, was filling my nose, my brain, and my home. The onions, corn, beef and gravy, the mash, the melted cheese, had all worked their magic in our brains before we even tasted a forkful. Without even taking a taste, our sense of well-being had been fed. The smells of foods, while not the only ones to trigger our memories, are among the most evocative. Food plays a huge part in everyday life, but it is often the centerpiece of celebrations or major events. When we smell certain foods or spices, they can take us back to specific foods and the holidays on which we eat them. To this day, a whiff of vinegar can have me sitting at Gram's kitchen table, dying Easter eggs. The combined smells of hot dogs, freshly-mowed grass, and roasted peanuts takes me straight to the baseball field.

And of course there are other smells that transport us as well. Every so often, I like to get a whiff of Coty Airspun Face Powder. It takes me straight back to Gram powdering her face before leaving home to go, well, anywhere. It makes me both happy and sad. The crisp, earthy smell of fallen autumn leaves. The scent of freshly laundered clothes dried outdoors. One that both Trent and I miss terribly - the smell of our dog Paris' tummy. It always smelled clean, fresh, and sweet, and we loved it. Lilacs, roses, trees in bloom. Sweet, unsmoked pipe tobacco. A summer day after a rain. Fresh sheets. A loved one's favorite perfume. Canola fields in Hungary. A grocery in Paris. I could go on for days and still forget some little scent that delights or disturbs me. But in the meanwhile, my nose will continue to play an important part in the experiences of my life.