The ten best smells (our lists may differ).

July 14, 2011 § 20 Comments

I thought I’d write about the ten best smells. It seemed like an easy assignment.

I began making the list and the first thing that came to mind didn’t smell all that good—but it was a thread that, when pulled, was attached to one of my most thrilling preteen memories.

Men’s cologne: I remember dancing wrap-around in the school gym breathing in the too-much smell of cologne on a boy’s neck. That blatant and unsubtle scent is still, all these years later, the smell of, ohmygosh, I’m twelve years old and I’m hugging a boy!

Christmas Trees: Christmas Eve was always my favorite holiday. That was the day when the feeling of Christmas would wash over me—or not. I could not force it, I could only wait and hope to surrender to it. The tree did not go up in our house until Christmas Eve—weeks after many of the trees at friends’ houses Although our house had smelled of holiday baking for weeks, when the tree was brought in and put in its stand, the limbs relaxing in the heat of the house, I would sit close hoping the scent would tip me right into the arms of Christmas. (You will notice that arms, and arm-related activities figure large in several of these entries. Sorry.)

Tomato leaves: Neck sweaty, I pick tomatoes in a broad-brimmed straw hat. My bare arms brush the leaves, releasing an acrid, pungent smell I’ve known all my life. The tang of tomato leaves in the sun is the smell of my grandfather’s garden, my dad’s garden, my garden.  (Again with the arms!)

Mustiness: One of my favorites.Wooden boats smell musty. So do books. A book on a shelf is a gathering of characters—and the author—huddled together, collectively waiting. What do they do in there, play cards? Take naps? A book long-closed opens with the smell of a shuttered cabin at the beginning of vacation season.

The top of a baby’s head: Hold a baby in your arms and take a whiff. This may be the very best smell of all. It is sweet like talcum powder, new. Combined with the warmth of a pink scalp through fine hair the smell can’t be beat; it is the human equivalent of “that new-car smell.” (Arms???)

The smell of rain before the first drop falls: This is the smell of anticipation, of something building. I used an impending rain in a novel about a couple who will ultimately fall in love, although in the moment below that outcome is many pages away. Morgan(a commercial fisherman from the Keys) has just picked up Ann (a librarian from New Jersey) at the Miami airport:

Late afternoon simmers outside the glass doors.  Palm trees in planters stand motionless.  It is almost as breathless as the dog days of summer up home Ann thinks.

“Be some rain after a while,” says Morgan, squinting at the sky.

“Yes.  I can feel it.”  And smell it. A pelting shower, it will start suddenly.  The stillness will make it come.

A handful of dirt: The French have a word for the soil in which wine grapes are grown, and which gives each wine its individual flavor; the terroire. The word encompasses more than the dirt. It includes the geography, geology and climate that affect what will grow in that handful of dirt. My terroire is sandy, and less musky than the soil my father gardened in New Jersey, but both produce a fine tomato.

Bus exhaust: My husband, who is proofreading this post, points out that bus exhaust is toxic and, according to him doesn’t smell good at all, but for me it is the heady smell of trips to New York City with my Uncle Giul, my brother and sister—bus exhaust and the smell of pretzels.

A penny: Picked up from the hot tar of a parking lot a penny smells like luck. Hold it a minute and the scent of copper on your palm lasts until you wash your hands, which I can do right after dropping the penny in the jar we keep on the shelf above the kitchen sink. We call the fund “Pennies for Paris.” If we live to be a thousand we will never be able to afford to pay for that grand trip with other people’s lost pennies, but sometimes an idea all by itself, is enough. So Ray and I go to Paris, one found penny at a time.

Fresh–mowed lawn: The smell of a suburban Saturday morning.

Okay, eleven.

Home: My first best friend’s house smelled like stale cigarettes. Everyone smoked. I loved that smell. It was the smell of where Linda lived. My house? A little musty because the windows are always open and the damp comes in, and you will almost always smell something cooking. Every house has a distinctive smell. Whether your house smells of air freshener or dog or pizza I bet you would recognize that smell with your eyes closed. Smells good, right? Definitely top ten.


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§ 20 Responses to The ten best smells (our lists may differ).

  • craig reeder says:

    my earliest, and strongest smell memory is of my father shoveling coal into the basement furnace, i think before dawn……. one whiff and my mind hurtles back


    • Smell, is the thing most likely to transport us back, and it does so instantly. There is no guarding against it.


    • Love this addition to a GREAT list that has my nose twitching.

      That coal smell is unforgettable! My memory is in the kitchen of the little red house, with the coal-burning, pot-bellied stove, up on a brick base, by the back door. The black scuttle & small shovel sat full of coal, right next to the stove.


  • My most remembered smell may not be the best I’ve ever experienced, but it certainly was an evocative one. I call it “rotten pumkins” – although that might be an insult to actual rotten pumkins.

    It’s recipe? Combine a low damp cloud ceiling with coal smoke, and the by-product-essenses of tobacoo and bourbon factories. Not even school-bus exhaust could dampen the pungency of this lethal cocktail!

    Oh, to be in Louisville, KY on a cold winter school morning!



  • My husband, Jim, grows an herb garden in our side yard but I plunder his hard work much more often than he does. I love his sweet basil in scrambled eggs, and pesto — in all sorts of sauces. At least half of the pleasure is smelling my hand as I walk back into the house, as I cross through the den, as I set the leaves down on a plate in the kitchen and stand at the sink, fingers to nose, breathing in that amazing sweet, green smell. I’ll wash my hands several times as I cook, but that scent will linger even after the meal.

    My favorite use of fresh sweet basil is to lay the whole leaves on homemade pizza. I searched for the perfect pizza crust for years, kneading countless doughs, letting them rise, sprinkling the cornmeal and rolling them out, but it took me well over a dozen years before I found the one that tasted like the wish in my head. But once I had it in hand, pizza baking became the tradition in our family. Each Friday night Jim, our four children and I would stir the sauce, shred the soft mozzarella, layer the colorful vegetables: onions, bell peppers, black olives, mushrooms, and slices of tomato. Leave out any layer and the flavor wasn’t quite as nuanced, but leave out the basil leaves and all the other flavors would pale. Basil’s the spice that makes all of the other flavors burst on your tongue.

    Our children are grown now, living in all corners of the country. The silly “Muller Family Cook” aprons they wore each Friday night hang on a hook on the pantry door. Seeing them reminds me of lighting the candles each Friday night, sitting down to eat and talk long after the pizza has disappeared from our plates. The scent of fresh basil? That’s the smell of family, of close friends, of sharing a bottle of good red wine and talking well into the night.


    • I was brought in by the smell of basil and stayed for the whole dinner–but my favorite description was the one of the aprons hanging on the pantry door, which made me feel sad. All those absent cooks…


  • You and I share the same heart, Adrian.


  • Sheila Merlau says:

    There are two of my favorite smells missing: gasoline and beach air.

    I will never get used to pumping my own gas, but the smell takes me to the back seat of our family car in the summertime. On long trips across the South to visit family I would wake up in the backseat stuck to my brothers, the car window, or wrinkled comic books, and the smell of gasoline. That odor, mixed with hot, soft asphalt signaled it was the much anticipated time when we could get out and agonize over all of the many choices of softdrinks so different from the few types to which we were accustomed.

    My other favorite smell is sea air. I can be a mile away, but there’s something moist, salty, feathery and unduplicatible in the air that comes off of a large body of water like the Atlantic that makes it unique. I think it may have something to do with location of conception and birth. Neither my parents nor my husband have the ability to whiff the air and draw the delight I do, but my best friends growing up in the same seaside town have the same ability to close their eyes and conjur it up.

    I am reminded again that joy definitely can be created in the mind through memories, the senses and imagination.


    • I agree–consider those two smells added to the collective human list of best smells.

      It is surprising how many of the smells mentioned don’t really qualify as “good,” and yet they are “best” because they are evocative.

      Do we love memory so much because it is safe? Unlike the present in which anything can happen, the past is untouchable.


  • carolyn says:

    The scent of hyacinth …. driving back from the Hague and the scent from field full of blossoms in full flower in the rare spring sun as I came around the curve towards Noordwijk, made me think this was like what hit Dorothy in the poppy fields, absolutely intoxicating…… (a fleeting perfume, since after they pass field inspections, all the flowers will be pinched off so more energy can go towards forming the bulbs…)


  • Hyacinth is a powerful smell that, for me, was always associated with Easter–a good smell. But that changed.

    When my mother had a massive stroke we stopped at a grocery store and picked one up for her–you probably know the look of a grocery store hyacinth; a single scape of flowers potted in plastic in a plastic sleeve. But the smell of that lone hyacinth overpowered her hospital room. In my mind the smell is linked to her illness and death. Although it is a wonderful perfume it makes me want to cry.


  • Carl Fogelin says:

    The smells that come to mind for me are all associated with a memory, as many of yours are. I don’t know if these are favorite smells, but they do bring a smile to my face.

    The smell of Walker Gordon’s dairy farm as I walked to school in the morning. Kind of amazing since that farm was about 5 miles away, but the quietness in the air and the smell of cows reminds me of those walks I did, every day. Every once in awhile though, Firmenich would overpower the cows with shockingly in your face cherry Koolaid smell. (I have no idea what they were actually making, but that’s what it smelled like.)

    The other smell that brings back memories was the predawn smell of Ithaca NY, a mild muskiness, a nip to the air, dead still quiet, a feeling of anticipation for the new day. I use to run through the city to crew practice every morning. While I can’t really say exactly what it smelled like, I’d recognize it in an instant if I smelled it again.


    • I missed those smells being bussed to Princeton High.

      I agree with you that smells attached to memory are recognized in an instant–and they get past all your defenses–suddenly you are right there, even though “there” is a place that probably long ago changed and moved on,


  • Sheila Merlau says:

    People from the church brought an Easter lily when my father had just been diagnosed with leukemia. “Take that ‘ol smelly thing outta here when you leave.” was my father’s request the next day when it was time for me to leave him and come back to Tallahassee. I ‘ve always thought the lily and its distinctiive fragrance were invasive reminders to him of his immortality.
    But now, 40 years later it suddenly occurs as I write this that he had very bad hay fever, and maybe he just didn’t want to sneeze!


  • nschauer says:

    I really like the focus of the article. Exploring smells engages the reader and allows the writer to follow a gentle yet random stream of thought. At first glance it seems an informal, off the cuff piece. That is part of the beauty. It’s tender but not sentimental.


    • Thanks. In truth, my path in writing–and in thinking often is random. I liken my way of working to throwing a ball at a wall and watching it ricochet off walls, floor and ceiling, making note of what it hits. But the writing itself is always carefully worked. I am an experienced editor of randomness.


  • Angie Bell says:

    Mustiness is great when you are in a bookstore – if you’ve never been to Chamblin’s in Jacksonville, you must go! I agree with bus exhaust, but my memories are of a youth choir tour one summer as a young teen. One that I must add is Dove soap – that is the smell of my grandma’s in Georgia when I was little.


    • Do you think manufacturers know how hard-wired we are for associating smells and memories? If they could expose us to the smell of their product at a moment when we were intensely happy they’d have customers for life. I thnk Vicks Vapo Rub smells good because it reminds me of days when I didn’t have to go to school but got to lie around marginally sick drinking gingerale and being read to.


  • […] You might like this earlier post about the ten best smell list.  Share […]


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