From the smoldering smell of a freshly extinguished match, whisking you back to the hushed awe of gathering round a pungent crackling campfire, to the sweet and spiced dance of a Snickerdoodle on your tongue, taking you back to your first batch of homemade cookies emerging soft and warm from the oven – the corollary between memory and our powerfully nuanced senses of taste and smell is unique.
Of course, the olfactory triggering of remembrances of things past is so ingrained in our collective consciousness, so parsed over and discussed in literature, that even the unemotional and detached ivory tower-dwelling denizens of science are in on the matter, with a number of papers and experiments on the subject. They hypothesize that odor induced memories enjoy a “privileged brain representation.”
Looking like a pea pod and located within the inner depths of the brain, the hippocampus appears to be the scientific explanation for what the Madeleine munching Proust knew to be true 100 years earlier. While our senses of touch, hearing and sight make their way to our memory after passing through the thalamus, it is the hippocampus, which manufactures memory and influences spatial navigation, that harbors our olfactory responses to taste and smell.
And while this certainly could prove a point of debate, there is something especially evocative about smell – and particularly about the smell of smoke. From the campfires of the old West and countless teen summer camps, to America’s carnivorous love of BBQ and all manners of meat, smoke is uniquely part of American memory, and a uniquely American flavor.
Now is the part of the article where a deep history would be launched, explicitly detailing the origins of smoking foods, for preservation and cooking and tracing its importing to this country built on imports. But whether the first caveman ate smoked Tyrannosaurus gristle or if it was the immigrant Europeans love of smoked fish, or the Native Americans’ tradition of smoking, its entrée into America is not a debate not to be had today.
Instead, what is it about smoke that is so alluring? Is it the atavistic infusion of the earth and wood into the foods we eat? Or is it our continued love affair with sugar and salt re-written?
Naturally, wood is the main ingredient in the smoking process, and as would be expected, different types of wood, often in the form of chips or sawdust, impart different flavors. Commonly used woods in America are Wild Cherry, Sugar Maple, Red Oak, White Oak, Ash, Northern Hickory, and Eastern Alder (Beech). These hardwoods are made of three main components, cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. Those two celluloses are essentially sugars, and when burned caramelize, producing the sweetness and the color. The far more complex lignin, with its vast array of flavor-lending compounds, creates the varied other nuances: whether that be spice, smoke or vanilla essences depending on the individual wood.
Historically, smoking was combined with curing or drying to preserve meat, as the smoking process only adheres to the outer surfaces of the food and doesn’t penetrate the core. In more recent times, the issue of smoking has been one of flavor.
Noting this development of flavor over function, in 1895, a pharmacist named Ernest Wright revolutionized the world of smoking with his invention of liquid smoke. Using a proprietary distillation process similar to that of whiskey, he was able to manufacture, (at first) hand label and sell bottles of condensed liquid smoke. When he moved Kansas City to launch his product, he gave new meaning to the term “grassroots organizing” and started giving bottles to farmers who came to his drugstore. They, and their friends, and friends’ friends kept coming back for more, and the Wright company still makes liquid smoke today.
Liquid smoke remains a feature in kitchens and imparts its subtle flavors in the manufacture of meat, fish, cheeses, tea, salt, pepper and other spices. Not to mention the memories of us all.
Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Penguin Books, 2004. (An excellent translation by Lydia Davis of the Proust classic)