Whether I’m writing about the Cajun towns of my youth (Eunice and Ville Platte) or the cities I’ve lived in since (Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans, Brussels, London, Warsaw, New York), I find that the best way to get to the true essence of a place is to describe how it smells. Exhibit A: New Orleans.
To be sure, the sights, sounds, and tastes are all key to a full description of a city – especially when describing an aggressively epicurean city like New Orleans, where I lived for five unforgettable years (1987 to 1992). For me, however, recalling the smells of New Orleans can take me back there faster than any other of those senses – even faster than memories of the tastes of of all the incomparable cuisine to be had there. And that’s saying quite a lot.
The very first smell I will forever associate with New Orleans came from a head shop at the intersection of Royal and St. Peter Streets, encountered on my first visit to the city (on Madame Larson’s Eunice High French class trip). The smell I remember most from that day is best described as sweet and earthy; an evocative perfume created by the blending of patchouli oil and incense with the comforting mustiness that develops in a place only after years of existence.
And although the shopkeepers did indeed sell accessories for enjoying various smokable substances, it was not merely a head shop. They also offered a variety of intricate curios, all manner of religious realia, little-old-lady gifts, exotically scented candles, greeting cards and other paper goods, as well as a nostril-flare-inducing array of incense and essential oils, hence the patchouli. That heady head-shop smell, for me, is New Orleans.
Adding to that mix was the warm, and often damp, air peculiar to the Quarter, giving off a smell that braces you for the less-enchanting aromas emanating from the street: fresh manure from the buggy-pulling horses (although I’ve been known to be enchanted by the smell of horse or cow manure), the piercing stench of summer-sun-baked urine (not so enchanting), an assault of stale beer and cigarettes from a bar next door, and other such olfactory celebrations.
And there are so many other dreamy smells from all parts of New Orleans: emanations from the antebellum mansions and lush allées of the Garden District; from the cobbled streets and red brick rows of the Warehouse District; from the proletariat back yards and kitchens of the West Bank and New Orleans East; and, in neighborhoods in between all that, a folk dance of exotic scents that can be traced, not only to the Creole, French, African, and Native American settlers of the city, but to all corners of the world.
Here’s a very short list* of some favorite New Orleans places I experienced with my nose (when I lived there all those years ago):
- The world-famous Gumbo Shop restaurant (it’s still there) right near that same head shop (no longer there) on St. Peter in the Quarter. At the Gumbo Shop your nostrils will flare with intoxicating smells of roux, gulf seafood, and the inimitable smokiness of the locally-made andouille.
- Turn your head in the opposite direction, and just down one block towards the River (that would be The Mississippi, for you never-beens), you’ll run into Decatur Street, where the sweet, confectioner’s sugar-dusted beignets and rich hot cocoa from Cafe du Monde help “masque” (since this is, after all, New Orleans) the horse poo, cigarette smoke and human effluvia wafting casually from all those sweaty tourists.
- The River. That river. Big Muddy: If you sit on the banks to watch the barges, steam paddle-boats, and other river craft meander along the Mississippi’s serpentine path, you’ll surely be lulled by the singular smell that can only come from the chemistry created by river water, Louisiana egrets and other birds (read: bird poo), heat-softened creosote, and camellia blossoms. This is one of my favorite smells (I think it’s the creosote, to be honest) in all the world.
- Antique woods – oak, pine, maple, walnut – of the furniture and architectural salvage parts in the shops along Magazine Street (most of which, sadly, have since been replaced by more posh boutiques, cafes and specialty shops).
- The rush of fresh MERCHANDISE! and cool air – that hits you when you take your first steps into D.H. Holmes or Maison Blanche.
- Over in the Garden District, a bounty of honeysuckle, a multitude of rose varieties, fragrant sweet olive, and magnificent magnolia blooms that send their inescapable, cloying odors swirling and drifting downward from overhead.
- The axle grease and steel from the rails that split St. Charles Avenue so the streetcar can pass; the polished wood that mingles with the perfumes and after shaves – think Old Spice and White Shoulders – of the people sitting on the thickly varnished oak slats of the seats.
- Breakfast! All hours, every day – at Camellia Grill in the curve where Magazine Street ends and St. Charles becomes Carrollton Avenue. Bacon, bacon, more bacon! Also, my favorite food group: TOAST (I especially love diner toast). Eggs, scrambled, fried, or omeletted, the chopped potatoes, onions, and sweet peppers of “home fries” (or hash browns). And, of course, gallons of rich Louisiana coffee.
- Before we leave town, we need one more run “by the Quarters” so let’s not forget the weenie-water smells from all those Lucky Dog carts pushed by people who look like they are just one blink away from falling over (and calling to mind the ever-hapless Ignatius J. Reilly).
- And (no kidding) the Takee Outee shrimp tempura, egg rolls, and pork-fried rice on Bourbon Street – and, while we’re there again, more baked urine and stale beer, bien sur.
- Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo – this is a place where bits and pieces of the detritus of random people’s lives mix with scents calling to mind the botanical and mineral potions to be had in fairy-tale apothecaries.
- The distinguished must of horsehair, the powdery-starch of costumes in the Musee Conti Wax Museum (on Conti Street – of all places).
- And finally, we end our olfactory tour of New Orleans at the French Market, which sprawls for several blocks on the edge of the Quarter: I’m picking up butter, salt, sugar, and pecans from handmade pralines; mounds of ripened melons, spotted bananas, and juice-plumped peaches, as well as locally-grown vegetables: spring onions and garlic, leeks and mirlitons, Creole tomatoes and eggplants. Once out of the food area, we’re hit with scents from piles of goods at the back of the market: handwoven rugs, tie-died scarves and tee shirts, the metallic tang of handmade jewelry in copper, silver, and gold; that rich, fecund aroma you get from the leather goods – all mixing with more incense, candles, and the baskets of potpourri.
My nostrils flare, my lungs fill, and I want to hold it all in forever. This is what it means to experience bliss. Of course I could go on and on and on, but I shan’t. I’m now imagining myself sniffing my way through so many indelible memories of my time there in a whisky-splashed night of conversation with life-long friends who still call that other-worldly place home. I guess I’ve gotta get myself a planet ticket!
*Very short because the list could be infinite. If you live in or have visited New Orleans, what are/were some of your favorite smells? Tell me in the comment section below. Also, please FOLLOW my blog, using the form, also below.
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