Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Scent of Nostalgia – or boiled cabbage

Ah, the power of scent, of aroma, of a heady, remembered fragrance to transport us to another time and place….

Of all the senses, smell is perhaps the most under-rated but without doubt one of the most evocative, a fact not lost on the majority of erotica writers. Of course, when writing a sexy scene, we mention the way things look, and of course the way they feel. Sound, perhaps, apart from a spot of honest-to-goodness dirty talk, is not always the most erotic of sensations and is one I tend to think best left to the reader’s imagination. But the heady, musky fragrances, tangy flavours and salty tastes of body fluids exuded in the throes of delicious lust, now all of those roll freely from the pen to help build the moment.

And we smutty authors are not the only ones to recognize the commercial value of olfactory pleasures. How many of us, when trying to sell our house, would not resort to introducing the scent of freshly brewed coffee or even more alluring, new baked bread? Not many of us, I reckon. And why not? All’s fair in love and real estate. Supermarkets do exactly the same thing, pumping the homely, comforting odours of wholesome baked goods into the aisles to get us to park our trolleys and buy squishy bread, still warm from the ovens. And it works. We are led by our noses, first to the muffin counter, then to the checkout.

I can, occasionally, resist the bread counter, but my Waterloo is always the curry department. A few free samples, and I’m lost. I wheel my trolley out of there laden with enough pastes and sauces to feed a third world country. It’s fatal.

A while ago I had occasion to visit a prison. Not the usual, I-know-someone-who’s-inside sort of visit, but really in there, looking round the cells, chatting to prisoners - only those considered safe for the likes of me to associate with, naturally. Not the axe-murderers or violent thugs. I found myself enjoying a cup of tea and a chocolate hob-nob in a cell with a rather pleasant teenage drug-dealer… but I digress. Our little delegation wandered around, checking out the social facilities, the gym, the chapel, and we found ourselves in the exercise yard which just happened to be adjacent to the kitchen. "School dinners", my teenage dealer friend had called the yard. “It’s just like being in in the school hall. I used to like my school dinners, they were free.”

He was absolutely right. The smell of boiled cabbage wafted through the vents from the kitchens and pervaded the yard and it transported me right back to my own school days. I didn’t get free meals – my parents could afford to pay – but the rest was the same. For those few moments, it was as though I was really back there, queuing up for meat pie, mash and whatever vegetable they had on that day, though they all tasted the same. I could hear the chatter of other girls in the queue (I went to an all-girls school, which might be the subject of another post some day), and the clatter of utensils as two hundred hungry mouths wrapped themselves round that day’s offering. The food at my school was hot, it was tasty, and it was really rather nice. The lunchtime meal was a social experience because we were allocated tables to sit at and deliberately made to eat with girls from other classes and years who we would never otherwise meet. Most tables had a member of staff on too, and their role was to teach us good table manners and to be nice to each other. In general, it all worked and was a pleasant enough interlude, and the entire experience smelled of cabbage.


  1. My high school lunches weren't that nostalgic. When the new senior class began in September at the Catholic school I went to for nearly two years, they were commissioned to make a paddle in shop class. The paddle would be used at lunch hall throughout the year by the seniors to beat underclassmen who the priests targeted as having misbehaved that day. This was done daily in front of 300 other boys so it would add insult to the sore ass. My parents finally took me out of that school when I was brought home in an ambulance. I finished high school at a public school where I actually learned something that wasn't in the catechism.

  2. I like cabbage in all of its incarnations, but as a very young kid I lived in a mill town, and the small of boiled cabbage seemed to permanently penetrate the walls of the tenement houses where some of my friends and classmates lived. Not a bad thing, but an aroma that takes me back to another time and world.

  3. Hi, Ashe...

    You've posted on the wrong Tuesday. But that doesn't matter. It's a great post.

    Smells pack an emotional punch at least partly because the brain mechanisms of olfaction are very primitive, compared to our other senses. In fact, odors are processed not in the cerebrum, but in the so-called "lizard brain", the part that we share with reptiles.

    Every now and again some scent reminds me of the grade school cafeteria, too. Another nostalgic smell is swimming pool chlorine. A whiff and I'm seven or eight, back at the YMCA, taking swimming lessons!

    1. Yes, sorry. I got confused with the scheduling (holiday fever)so I'm thinking my next post should be a week today...?

  4. This is a really great post! I really agree with the impact of smells and how quickly they can take me back. It’s also weird when something doesn’t smell the way you remember. For example, I’ve been back to my old high school, and it’s not the same smell now. It’s really weird.


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