Scents And Sensibility

Phil Gulley appreciates the power of spring smells like Dairy Queen ice cream, fresh cut grass
Illustration by Ryan Snook

SPRING ARRIVES, a season not heralded by the calendar, but by the emergence of green, the song of morning birds, and the rising smell of leaf rot as the snow departs and the earth warms. If I were deaf and blind, I would still know spring by its fragrance. Unless I had COVID-19 and couldn’t smell, which was the aspect of the pandemic that frightened me most. Whenever I imagined having it, I never thought of lying in the hospital hooked up to a respirator, gasping for breath, but of sitting in our kitchen oblivious to the comforting aroma of home.

When I was a kid, my friends and I would ask one another, during conversational gaps, “If you had to lose one of your senses, which one would it be?” Everyone always said the sense of smell, as if that were no great loss. I was young and inexperienced and didn’t know how important it would be to hold my granddaughter on my lap and smell SpongeBob Suave kids’ shampoo or walk into our 1921 barn and inhale the lingering scent of cow, the most aromatic of farm animals. My son raises cattle, and every now and then, he asks me if I might mow his fencerows, which I am happy to do since it combines two of my favorite smells—fresh grass clippings and cows. If Calvin Klein ever made a cologne that smelled like fresh grass clippings and cows, I’d bathe in it.

When I was in high school, I dated a girl who worked summer weekends at the Dairy Queen. On Saturday nights, I would walk her home, escorting her to her front door and hugging her goodbye, breathing in the vanilla scent of Dairy Queen soft serve wafting from her uniform. That smell imprinted itself on my mind so much that even now, four decades later, I grow roused when eating ice cream. This confirms what scientists tell us, that of all the senses, smell triggers our deepest memories. I detect the faintest whiff of Dairy Queen ice cream, and the scent rushes past my thalamus with scarcely a nod, arrives at my olfactory bulb perched atop my sinus cavity, and the next thing I know I am 17 years old again and woozy with love.

It’s no surprise that scent, perhaps even more than appearance, influences our choice of mate. Laugh all you want, but a man or woman pumping out the most alluring pheromones will never go to the prom alone. Have you ever seen a beautiful woman married to a homely man and wondered his secret? It probably isn’t his sense of humor; it’s the nifty little chemicals God gave
us that give men like me a fighting chance in the romance department. Thank you, Jesus.

Of course, just as scent can attract, it can also repel. There’s a nasty affliction called trimethylaminuria, a metabolic disorder that prevents the body from breaking down trimethylamine, a chemical compound that smells like rotting fish and is present in sweat, breath, and urine. As you can imagine, people with this ailment, also descriptively known as fish odor syndrome, can suffer social isolation, sometimes leading to depression and even suicide. If I worked for Tinder, I would match people with trimethylaminuria with people who can’t smell, which is called anosmia. The latter is surprisingly common, afflicting 3 percent of adults. I have a friend named Tara who can’t smell, so I surreptitiously sniffed her husband Craig one day, but he smelled great, like motorcycle exhaust, another scent I love, just after cows and fresh grass clippings.

It saddens me to realize that I’ll never smell certain things again. My grandmother Norma made Belgian cookies called gaulettes that looked like tiny waffles. I didn’t care for their taste, being a devotee of the chocolate chip cookie, but loved their smell, which permeated my grandparents’ home. She died in 1994, and I’d pay serious money to walk in their house again and smell gaulettes one more time. When Grandma died, I inherited her cookie jar, and for several years I could detect a slight gaulette scent, just enough to conjure up a vision of my grandmother standing at the stove with her cast-iron gaulette maker, which my aunt now owns. I’m angling to inherit that thing by mentioning it every time I see her, as if by possessing my grandmother’s cookie iron, I might once again enjoy her fragrant presence.