Wednesday, November 18, 2009

American Smellscapes: New Orleans through Olfacta's Nostrils

My only visit to New Orleans was as a greenhorn graduate student. I gave my first scientific talk at the Eastern Conference on Reproductive Behavior (a.k.a. The Sex Conference) which was held at Tulane University. New Orleans was intoxicating. I remember the music, the bars, the strip clubs, and of course the food: gumbo, jambalaya, platters piled high with spicy crawfish, Bananas Foster at Brennan’s, and the best piece of pecan pie I’ve ever had, served at 2:30 in morning with chicory flavored coffee at a diner whose location it pains me to be unable to recall.

Mmmmm . . . pecan pie.

This reverie was stirred up by blogger Olfacta’s vividly described smellscape of New Orleans
Truth be told, many of the smells of New Orleans aren’t nice.

Old cities, old sewers; it hangs in the air, sweetish and sour, the odor of humanity. It’s always there. You smell it as soon as you get out of the car. There’s garbage, too; piles of it, waiting for the plow, and manure from the horses that pull buggies filled with tourists around the Vieux Carre.
But it’s the food the aromas of cooking that make it all worthwhile.
. . .the steamy smell of seafood boil—spices, like white pepper, cayenne and thyme, added to cooking water—and crabs simmering in it. That scent poured out of the restaurants and stands as the city got ready for its (long) lunch break. I could smell shrimp and oysters frying, too. That seafood smell mixes with the swamp and river and the sewers and the garbage, and it is that which is, for me, the quintessential smell of the old Quarter.
Olfacta’s keen perceptions of New Orleans are a link in a fine, filigreed chain that reaches back into the 19th century, anchored by that remarkable journalist, gourmand, and man of the world Lafcadio Hearn. An acquaintance recalled that Hearn's “olfactory sense was abnormally keen.”
Even the construction of his nose would seem to indicate great abilities in this direction. It was aquiline and quite large, with finely cut, sensitive nostrils that had a queer trick of quivering when he became excited or deeply interested, just as do a horse’s nostrils when he is turned out in a strange pasture.
Hearn wrote a lot about smells. Between 1877 and 1887 he was a reporter for the local dailies. In one memorable editorial in the New Orleans Item he railed about the disgusting, bat-infested conditions of the Parish Prison.
Any wayfarer who lingers in the neighborhood of Congo Square about sundown, may behold the weird prison, a vast flock of winged demons hovering above it, preparing to hold their ghastly revels under a gibbous moon. He may also smell the ghoulish odor outshaken from the wings of the innumerable host of imps. The odor is never to be forgotten. It contains suggestions of many odors—decaying shoe leather, miscarried eggs and dead cats—and yet it is unlike any of these. It is an original and astonishing odor which inspires fantastic dreams of death and dissolution,—Better we think, that the wicked be favored by a speedy death than that they be slowly driven out of the world by the most indescribable of stinks.
New Orleans, like Venice, has always had an olfactory dark side. It’s the ability of the good smells to rise above it that gives the city its piquant charm. Laissez les bon temps roules.

1 comment:

Olfacta said...

Well thank you, again! I'm lucky enough to have a bunch of relatives in the NOLA area, so get to go there at least once a year. It really is like another -- much older -- country.