The Smells of New England
You’ve probably heard that a week or so ago, one of the big news items coming from New York was that city officials have solved the several-year mystery of why at certain times the scent of maple syrup was wafting downtown. What I don’t know is whether they thought it smelled like the fake stuff or like the real New England maple, which to me is one of the sweetest, most marvelous scents I know.
At first some people were alarmed. Buildings were evacuated and inspectors marched in, looking, I presume, for a bearded, flannel-clad Vermonter hiding out in some attic nook with his syrup evaporator and a cord of wood, just boiling away. But last week, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the smell had apparently emanated from a New Jersey factory that was using roasted fenugreek seeds in making an array of fragrances-and that from time to time things would continue to get a bit maply in the Big Apple, but no worries.
All of which got me thinking about the smells of New England I carry with me and what would happen if New Yorkers could get a whiff now and then of those. Because if maple syrup gets them in a tizzy, how about if they woke up to any of these New England scents, which we own as much as we own the mountains and rivers and forests?
Paper mills. More and more the northern New England paper mills have closed or have drastically changed their processing as the major paper companies have taken their work overseas. But the distinctive cabbage odor that came from those great smokestacks and carried on the wind for miles was once the singular smell of those company towns. Residents always said it was “the smell of money.” They were right. Most of their jobs have gone, and with them much of that peculiar, precious smell.
County-fair fried dough. Stroll the dirt paths between the stalls of the great New England county fairs and breath deep-once you’ve embraced fried dough, it stays with you forever.
Freshly split maple trees. Late spring is when many of us have our winter wood delivered, whether we split it ourselves or it arrives already split. The most welcome smell for me is when my axe bites into a chunk of maple. The forest seems to explode all around me.
Italian sausages on Yawkey Way. There are stages to enjoying a Red Sox game. First, of course, is getting a ticket. But once that’s in hand, thousands of fans mill about in the blocks surrounding Fenway Park, all sharing in that excitement of a summer night, a game ahead. And it all begins with an Italian sausage smothered in peppers and onions. If you’ve been there, done that, you know that deep, earthy smell.
Low tide on the Maine coast. The mud flats are rippled; you smell the seaweed, the clams, the mud, the water. Seagulls provide the music.
Bait barrels on a lobstering wharf. The smell a lobster craves, and will go through the gates of hell for — or at least the opening of a lobster trap — to satisfy a primordial hunger. Head Down East, hang out on a wharf where lobster boats are at anchor, and soak it in.
Freshly steamed lobster and butter. That bait results in the smell of a New England summer evening – something that has brought people to the coast for generations. The bib dangling from the neck, the little cups of melted butter, the sharp, startling smell of the meat coming away from the tail, as you hold it poised just an instant before biting.
Potato fields in Aroostook County, Maine. I picked potatoes with a few dozen schoolchildren in Aroostook many years ago. It was for one of my first stories for Yankee, and what I remember so well is the smell of the dirt: thousands of acres of dirt being dug up by all those eager hands, and the potatoes overflowing the baskets. It was simply the smell of land and heritage all wrapped in soil and spud.
Apple orchard. Think late September. A day of sun. Maybe 55 degrees. You’re reaching into a tree full of McIntoshes, and you pick the first one you’ve held this season. Bite. The crunch, the taste, and the smell all meld. Fall.
Balsam fir. Trees and wreaths piled high from the forests of Washington County, Maine. Your house is transformed. For a while you put aside the hustle and bustle of getting ready for Christmas. For now, freshly cut balsam stands in your room, hangs by the door.
Those are my 10, for now. I also wanted to say summer hay, and November woodsmoke, not to mention the fried-clam shacks of the North Shore, sun lotion on the sands of Cape Cod… but I’ll hold off, mostly because I want to know which New England scents stay with you the most.