There’s No Smell Like Home
In Montréal, you can trace the arrival of immigrant groups by walking north along Rue St. Laurent from the port. An immigrant arrives, trudges past previous groups until he finds virgin territory, and there he opens a restaurant with home cooking. Other people from the old country arrive, trek up the hill past alien smells, and move into apartments on a street that smells right, just like their childhood homes. You walk through the garlic of the Vieille Cité, the soy sauce of Chinatown, the peanut sauce of Little Thailand, the taramasalata of Greece, ever northward, until you are brought up short by the newest colony, Little Haiti, which smells of—well, only the foolish look closely into the cooking of a culture that invented zombies.
Human beings live in a world of smells that is boring by dog standards, but it is still powerful enough to awaken deep memories. Proust tasted—and therefore mostly smelled—tea and madeleines, and brought his past to life. Hot rice pudding or a coal stove restores my grandmother’s kitchen; diesel fuel or sour milk returns me to hurried breakfasts in a school cafeteria after First Friday Mass. A newly mown meadow or pine trees bring back summers with long-dead parents; sea mist or mildew rebuilds beach houses that long ago succumbed to the waves. Lilac blossoms or pizza restores a first love; a swamp or napalm revives comrades whose faces have been forgotten.
An odor of sanctity has emanated from many holy people. (St. Benedict Labré, the patron saint of bums, had a different smell; his confessor couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him.) The bride in the Song of Solomon ran after the myrrh and spikenard of the bridegroom; the blind Isaac thought he recognized Esau by the earthy smell of his garments; and the temple was dominated by the smells of incense, burning meat—and blood. It was a sacred slaughterhouse and barbecue pit—the sacrifices of incense had a practical as well as a symbolic purpose. In heaven, the elders offer their golden bowls full of incense, which is the prayer of the saints.
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Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in Old English and Old Icelandic from the University of Virginia and is a senior editor of Touchstone. His latest book is Losing the Good Portion: Why Men Are Alienated from Christianity (St. Augustine's Press, 2020). He and his wife Mary (author of the Touchstone column "A Thousand Words") are the parents of six children. He resides in Baltimore, Maryland.
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