The Olfactory

I always thought the word “olfactory” was weird. It just seems to me like it’s a factory, for, well, ols. When you put it that way, it sounds weird, right? 🙂


adjective ol·fac·to·ry \äl-ˈfak-t(ə-)rē, ōl-\ : of, relating to, or connected with the sense of smell


Latin olfactorius, from olfacere to smell, from olēre to smell + facere to do

First Known Use: circa 1658


:  of or relating to smelling or the sense of smell <olfactory nerves>

When I want to learn more about something, I often search for lesson plans for kids. Early education teachers tend to have a way of taking a very complex concept and turning it into something digestible for a small but burgeoning “why” mind. Professor Chudler, a neuroscience faculty member at the University of Washington, describes the olfactory, by way of olfaction in a very cool way. Take a look. Our sense of smell is directly linked to a membrane called the “olfactory epithelium.” And, as we all know, the sense of smell is directly linked to the ability to taste something. Without smell, the taste is muted. It’s not rocket science, although it is pretty cool. Who hasn’t pinched their nose to take a dose of cough medicine before? 🙂
This was the most kid-friendly and non-scientific photo I could find on the olfactory bulb. 🙂 Credit:
Smell is an incredibly important sense, one I would argue is more important than, if not the most important of, any other, especially since it is believed to be the first sense developed. Don’t get me wrong; I love my other senses and would never voluntarily give them up, but the sense of smell is something that I have become more and more reliant upon, especially as I get older. Which, apparently is a good thing, since there have been some recent studies linking smell capacity to Alzheimer’s. We all know the link between the sense of smell and impending death, or even how the brains of animals (humans included) use smell in fight or flight. People look at me strangely when I tell them that I can smell things that they can’t, or that I can smell things from a mile away. And while sometimes “from a mile away” may be a bit of an exaggeration, it’s not always. I have always had a keen sense of smell, and for that, I am quite thankful.

Recently, I’ve taken to setting the timer as noted on a recipe, but instead, use it only as a guide. Sure, it should be a “guide” because every oven is different, but some people use it as an excuse to keep opening the oven door, checking over and over again, letting out all the heat, or lifting the lid on the pot, hoping for a sign of dinner being done … or both of these at the same time, while bringing someone else into the kitchen to ask them, “does this look done?” (Notice this question asks the person to use one of the main senses, yet rarely can we tell when something is “done” just by “looking” at it). And, while I have certainly engaged in these (un)savory practices before, more and more now, I rely on my nose. When the cake smells done, chances are it is. When the rice has that sweet tangy smell, it’s ready. And, as we all know, when it smells like it’s burning, it probably is. 😉

Seriously, though. I think about my sense of smell a lot, but particularly as it relates to memory. One of my favorite smells in the world is fresh cut grass, but you should probably know now that if you also love this smell, you really love the smell of death. Yep. Death. Oh, and it’s probably causing depletion of the ozone layer, too. But, the thing about fresh cut grass for me is the memories of my childhood. Memories of being a family, out in the yard, my father mowing and my sister playing and my mother brewing sun tea. For me, it’s about having a home, a garden, a place to be. And I have these kinds of memories a lot – something that just flashes me back to being a kid again. The smell of onions sauteeing in the pan and remembering the amazing meals that came from it, whether it was gumbo, white beans, jambalaya, pork chops, smothered potatoes or something equally as tasty. Sometimes it’s the smell of Bisquick dough, right before I make drop biscuits like my dad made. Other times, it’s fresh-hot-out-of-the-oven cornbread or blueberry muffins with a slather of butter. Whatever it is, all I know is that when we make these “comfort foods,” our brains choose them and choose to remember them for at least one main reason: emotion.

So, I challenge you. With the holidays coming, think about how your menu choices are influenced by your memories. We always say things like, “it smells like the holidays in this kitchen!” or something smells like “Thanksgiving in a cup” or “Christmas on a plate.” It may not be that time of year (although as I write this, clearly it is), but if we smell turkey and cranberries and sweet spices like cinnamon in May, we are still instantly transported to a time when life was “good” … when it was “easy.” There’s a reason that traditions exist. Emotions are powerful. Our holiday meals are prepared with the same recipes, the same lovely green beans with almonds, the same forever-baked turkey, the same candied yams, the same honey-baked ham, the same mashed potatoes, the same …. everything … not because we aren’t inventive or don’t want something different, but because when push comes to shove, we just want the comfort of the known, the comfort of knowing that we have predictability, control, expectations that we can meet. For once, we can be sure everything is as it was: safe, kind, and oh so tasty. Or at least that’s what our memories tell us. It’s nostalgia at its finest.

While we will continue to strive towards posting every Tuesday (look for #TastyHumidFoodieTuesday), we wish you a happy holidays, filled with love, kindness and a whole mess of good smells that bring you right back to being a kid again. And, if you’re feeling sentimental, here are a few posts to sit down to with a warm cup of hot apple cider:

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