Memory and Scent

My Background

I’m feel somewhat vulnerable for discussing this, but the topic is so fascinating to me, I feel like there is at least some benefit in putting some thoughts down about it. I have a strong affinity for smells; I can’t say I am in anyway unusual from other people in this regard, except that with people in my close circle, I have never met someone as interested in smells. I’ll provide some examples around food, perfume, and wine.

In my early years growing up, my parents ran a sandwich shop in the back of my dad’s family’s bar. Having lived in New Jersey, they called it a “Hoagie Shop,” a term some folks, I’ve learned, will look at you strangely if you use it. A lot of these submarine sandwiches were made by my dad and my grandmother, who I remember seeing running the meat slicer. They’d wrap the sandwiches in white butcher paper and tape it closed after dowsing the shredded lettuce with vinegar and oil.

When these sandwiches came to me at home for a meal, the first thing that hit you was the smell of vinegar; but it was worth taking the time to inhale the other aromas emanating from the package. Too much time has passed for me to be able to put my finger on the actual smell itself, but more than once, I have had what I’d call scent memory flashbacks to those sandwiches. The memories are among my fondest from my childhood around smell.

Some years ago, in France, we booked a tour to visit the Beaujolais region and visited several wineries for tastings. Our guide knew a lot about wine in the region, but moreover, he was almost fanatical about how you were to actually go about tasing wine. He had seven steps he described, and the first experience of actually tasting the wine was at level 5(!). The final step was an upward swirl of the glass into the air, once the wine was gone, for what he claimed was the best part: the post-drink sniff.

I laughed when he described this to us, but not because it looked weird. Yes, swirling your glass as you thrust it into the air upward did look strange, and I would never recommend doing it in public as people will most certainly stare at you. But the point was to introduce fresh air into the wine glass and let that react with the wet sides of the glass, releasing a great bouquet from the trace amounts of wine. He asked me why I was laughing. I told him that I already did this when I’d tasted wine at home.

He became intrigued. “Who taught you this? I thought I’d come up with it!” he said, wearing concern between his eyes and forehead. “I just stuck my nose in, no one told me to do it. The smell is the best part of wine, I think.”

By the end of our tour, he’d announced to three of the vignerons and the other couple that I had a special nose. “John here,” he said, with his obvious French accent, “has quite zee nose.” His test was to have me proclaim was recognizable elements were in the glass. He agreed with most of what I said, but I gave him two more flavors he did not list out, and then he looked at the winemaker.

“Il est vrai,” or some such thing came from the vigneron. He agreed with me on the additional flavors I’d smelled. Our tour guide toasted me on my profound nose.

Upon hearing this story, my mother confirmed I had a big nose. “No, he meant I could smell well,” I told her. She chuckled.

Of course, in high school, it seemed a right of passage to start wearing aftershave or colognes as you began to shave. I grew up right before Axe body sprays had really taken off, thank god. But it didn’t stop me from going crazy in exploring new scents I could wear. My dad had been a habitual wearer of after shave; in the late 1970s it had been Old Spice; in the eighties, it transitioned to Obsession for Men by Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren’s Polo, the green bottle. He’d never had anything with a sprayer, but instead splashed the juice on liberally in the morning. The trail of scent was always hanging in the air as I’d descend the stairs after he’d left for work. It was strong to my young nose. But by high school, learning there was more than these two scents out there was fascinating to me.

Given different circumstances, I am not sure, but I may have been interested in exploring some type of career involving scent or perfume.


Just as some chemicals involved in the sandwiches my parents used to bring me as a young kid flip a switch in my brain, so do other scents and smells. It’s obvious that if I smelled some Polo cologne I’d think of my dad. Two of my favorite scents in the early 1990s were Dior’s Fahrenheit, which I felt was so unusual at the time, and had a cool bottle. The other was Fendi Uomo, which came in a chunky rectangular bottle that was made to look like marble and gold. The center of the bottle was clear, where you could see the cologne.

One of my close friends in high school recently visited a family friend; this man kept a collection of scents in his bathroom and my friend unearthed an old Fahrenheit bottle from a wicker basket. He sprayed it on himself and was taken aback. “John,” he told me, with some passion in his voice over the phone, “it was you. 1991. It was so weird, but that smell took me right back to our junior year.”

One of my other closest friends from high school this past week sent me a special gift. He’d ordered a small decant of the Fendi from the 1990s, which is no longer made. My nose isn’t nearly as refined with perfumery as it is with the mostly foody elements recognizable in wine; I can’t begin to describe the different elements in this scent (but doing so, I think, would be a fun project!), but the scent has this uncanny ability to pull me back through the decades. It’s not that it’s just recognizable, it’s that a whole host of emotions and feelings come back with the olfactory experience as well. It’s wild, really, the range of emotions that come with each new inhalation.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised about our scent memories. I can only imagine animals like dogs and cats use olfactory memory and recognition to recognize their owners, to find their way back home.

I am sure human ability to associate scent with a time, place, or person isn’t new to you. But this has got me thinking about our purposeful use of scent to trigger memory, at least to events, times, places, or people with whom we can’t always be near.

There was no special steps my parents took to have me focus on the smell of those delicious hoagies as a child. It was by chance that I’d smelled those sandwiches, decided I liked the way they smelled, and now have this positive association with those smells when I encounter them today. The smell of Fendi Uomo right now brings me back to my first car, driving around town with my friends. The question I have, I guess, is around the legitimacy of introducing reproducible scents in situ, say, as part of an amazing vacation. It might be that we choose to wear a new perfume on this vacation so that that scent is tied to everything we see and do. Maybe this is a crazy idea, I can’t say.

Lost Scents

My last rumination on scent and it’s role in my own life is around those smells that cannot be reproduced or recaptured. What if Fendi Uomo wasn’t something we could buy anymore? What if one of the sandwich shops here in town didn’t smell anything like those hoagies from my childhood? Or if my favorite Burgundy wine was no longer available for export to the U.S., or worse, wasn’t any longer made? There’s a rather tragic element to this for me. And I suspect that if smells and scents didn’t matter so much to you, if you didn’t have a big nose, so to speak, that it might not appear tragic at all.

I think of this in comparison to our vision and visual memories. Let’s say the picture of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine running beside it brings back great memories for you of a Parisian vacation. You might have an affinity to images of the Eiffel Tower. (Perhaps I’m subject to clichĂ©s, but a big picture of the Eiffel Tower lives beside me on the wall in my office.) As you walk around Paris, you can’t always, but can often see the tower. After visiting Paris I experienced too many new things that washed over me as pleasant experiences. The sounds of police cars and ambulances with their unique sirens, the French language being spoken around me, great food, and beautiful architecture. Seeing the Eiffel Tower in person of course is the best, but even that visual representation is something important to me.

It’s not the tower that really means much; instead it acts like an icon of Paris in general.

What if the tower were destroyed? Or all the images of it disappeared? Not seeing it again might really affect me, or anyone else who favorably thinks of this Parisian icon.

You might think this is really strange, but there is a particular smell to the Boston T subway that I have a great affinity for. It’s especially pungent on areas of the Green line. I might not be able to tell you the audible differences between the subway lines if I was placed in one, blindfolded, but by the smell, I could tell you if I was in the Boston T. My experiences in that city, I guess, at some point, were so profoundly important to me. I am sure whatever that smell is isn’t healthy to inhale, but I still like it. To me, Boston without that smell wouldn’t be Boston.

That the Chinese have built a copy-cat Parisian city, complete with its own Eiffel Tower might seem strange to us. Would being there evoke the same emotions? While we might know that it isn’t authentically Paris, I am guessing we still might carry some of the same emotional responses from those we first experienced when going to Paris—just as the Fendi I am wearing isn’t the same exact bottle I’d used, or doesn’t really take me back in time toward being a seventeen year old kid with a black car.

We do live in a society, today, where I think our collective desire to hold onto things and keep them with us is part of our current evolution and societal norms. Many of us are not content only experiencing music on the radio; we collect records, or CDs, or buy into streaming services where we can always go back to an exact copy of our favorite song and relive it. Whether or not it reminds us of a beach vacation with our first love or not, we value having more of something we’ve already had or experienced. It’s why we use our cell phone cameras and probably have cloud accounts of tons of pictures.

The one thing we cannot have is our youth. It’s probably not surprising that seeing people return to their youth in movies is a popular trope, whether it is science fiction or some other trickery to put us back into a version of our younger selves. But as much as we may chase our youth through Botox injections, or by wearing old clothes, or anything else that reminds us of our younger selves, we really can’t go back in time.

I do think it’s tragic if scent is such a powerful thing, as it is for me, to have the power to trigger old memories and not only the memories, but the emotions from those memories, that not being able to put our fingers on those smells and scents is horrible. If there was an iTunes for our lifelong memory of scents, I’d get it or buy it. The smell of pink erasers from the first grade? Sign me up. The smell of someone I admired on a first date? I’d buy that. The ability to visit Boston in my mind while sitting here in Virginia? Sure, why not!

Take Aways

The fact that I can relive my high school emotions and experiences through wearing a scent I consider a special gift and privilege. I don’t know if scent works this way for everyone but it does for me and I am grateful for the experience. But, it isn’t the same as going back to high school. The hoagies from the local store aren’t the same as the ones my parents used to make me. And every experience on the Boston T isn’t a great one. Sometimes it stinks, actually, being hot, sweaty, and tired out, just wanting to get back home or to the hotel.

Which is why the take away for me of thinking about scent and smell is to not bank our happiness from theses olfactory experiences by presuming we’ll get to revisit them again. What I am saying is, when all the Fendi Uomo is gone, it’s gone, and be okay with that. The smell of the night blooming jasmine in Maui was an incredible experience. And while I did come home and want that smell around me all the time, maybe it’s okay that I’ll only experience that in a tropical oasis like Hawaii. And if I go back, and it’s gone, well, that’s okay too.

Rather than pining for these smells again, my advice is to take the time to savor them when they come. This is hard advice to give, as I know it will be hard advice for me to adopt myself. But I do remember hanging out in Maui by the beach, the breeze coming at me with that heady scent of jasmine. I am not sure the smell itself is enough; I’d like to experience everything again, the sun, the ocean smells, the sound of surf. And if I can’t experience that again, well, I can reflect on that experience and that I was fortunate to experience it and enjoy it.

As much as I’d know I’d take another Hawaiian vacation again, that nostalgia for the past is also a filter to new and exciting experiences that I could experience as well. The question for me is, is the attraction to scent too strong to ignore, exploring all those amazing things I’ve smelled and experienced in the past?

For as long as my olfactory sense(s) have on triggering not only my memory and former emotions, I can’t say I will be too successful. But opening myself up to new experiences at the expense of losing myself in nostalgia is nevertheless good advice for all of us.