Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | February 9, 2013

Smell: the overlooked sense

choc chip cookies

We all have our favorite smells:  fresh-baked bread or chocolate-chip cookies, coffee, oranges, lilacs, new cars.  Scientists have long understood that our sense of smell is the most powerful of all our senses, as the olfactory nerve is directly wired to the brain.  I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of smelling something that takes us back to a particular time and place from the past — even when we can’t pinpoint exactly what the smell is or why we connect it to the memory.

English researcher Steve Pearce explains that as babies, we rely on our sense of smell to identify our mothers long before we can recognize them visually.  Pearce says that by the time we become adults, we’ve become inured to many scents and dulled our noses through abuse of alcohol, medications, and dairy products.  Plus, all of our senses just wear out as we age.  Pearce has been given some interesting assignments over the years, including trying to re-create the smell of Cleopatra’s hair for a museum and creating the smell of outer-space for NASA’s use in its astronaut acclimation chambers.  According to the few people who know, space smells a bit metallic, or meaty like a sizzling steak.  Strange!

lilac-1Companies like Essential Oils have promoted the power of scent to increase concentration (lemon, peppermint) or for relaxation (vanilla, lavender), as well as to actually heal certain ailments. Even the world of sports has begun to understand the power of smell.  A Chicago Tribune article last June revealed that jasmine works wonders on accuracy with bowling, golfing, batting and pitching.  Much has also been made of using scents for libido enhancement, of course, and it’s fascinating to note gender differences in this area.  Women in some studies responded most to cucumber and licorice, while for men it was pumpkin pie and doughnuts.  And to decrease libido?  Women, ironically, find the biggest turn-offs to be barbecued meat and men’s cologne.  For men?  Nothing the scientists tried worked in this effort.

So, why the attention to smells on a writer’s blog?  Writers are continually challenged to describe moments in their stories and poems.  Most rely heavily on sight imagery, paying passing notice to sounds or internal feelings…. but few mention smells.  It’s a pattern I notice among my students as well.  Yet how much more real can we make a child’s room in a short story simply by noting that it smells like cherry cough syrup?  Or that a garden smells of rain-soaked lilacs and mint?  The hotel room of dry-cleaning chemicals and old cigarette smoke?

My childhood home was continually filled with the smells of baking, as my mother refused to pay for Hostess or Sara Lee treats.  I’ve made much use of these smells in my poems, stories, and personal essays.  I’d open the front door upon returning home from school and be greeted by the cinnamongrape jelly of snickerdoodles, melting chocolate chips, or sugar-glazed coffee bars.  Each fall, for several days we’d be treated to the overpowering scent of grapes when she’d transform the Concord grapes growing on vines outside my bedroom window into jars and jars of pure jelly.  These are the smells of growing up, for me and my siblings.  And never fail, at birthday time, it was angel food cake.  That’s a pure, unadulterated sugar smell if ever there was one.  I can still taste those golden crumbs she peeled off the cake as it cooled, which she would drop into our open mouths like a mama bird.

My poem about angel food cake is included in a new chapbook of artwork and poetry recently published by the Northwest Cultural Council, which is headquartered here in my hometown of Palatine.  This beautiful, full-color book contains oodles of poems and artwork created by members of the council and those of us who attend the monthly poetry workshops.  Books can be purchased by emailing Kathy Umlauf at



Angel Food

I’m sure I aged a year every June,

but when I think of the cake

you made for us each birthday,

I see myself always at five –

eyes counter-high watching2751707-cake-mix-with-mixer-in-a-chrome-metal-mixing-bowl

the mixer blades whir and then

lift out of the bowl, creamy white.

Sugar filled the air as the cake

puffed in its o-shaped pan

and later cooled upside-down

on a pale green Coke bottle, like

a spaceship on The Jetsons.

It was angel food, of course,

because soon you would

nearly die and come back,

haloed and hallowed, your life

grasped like the mixing bowl

between your two able hands,

the white birthday cake

once again rising and cooling,angelfood on bottle

balanced on a bottle and then

slathered with icing, assuring

us of a future as sweet and vivid

as a Saturday morning cartoon.


  1. Another winner with me !

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