Garlic on my Fingers and the Smell of the Kitchen

“You’ll know the answer to this question,” an unmarried male coworker said to me recently. “How do you get the smell of onion or garlic off your hands?”

The question smacked — make that smelled — of sexism, but I answered as best I could: Lemon, baking soda, salt, tomato sauce, stainless steel, alcohol-based cleanser. I gave him a variety of options.

But later that day, after peeling and chopping garlic, I sniffed my fingers. Why would I want to eliminate a fragrance that smells good. To me, anyway.

Isn’t olfactory sensation all part of the process of preparing and eating food?

I say it is. And with rare exceptions — the smell of deep frying or the smell of lobster in an unvented kitchen in winter, for example — it is welcome, at least in my kitchen.

While I have purchased my share of odor-masking and odor-eliminating candles, soaps, rubs, cleansers and potpourris, I now prefer a kitchen to smell like a kitchen.

“You can always tell a Swedish kitchen,” Grandma Annie used to say. “The coffee pot is always on and it’s always fresh.”

I thought about it and it was true. Friends and neighbors, Anna and Lillian were Swedish women married to French men. Their kitchens were redolent of freshly-perked coffee — most welcome on cold, winter afternoons.

And they almost always had fresh-from-the-oven coffee cake or rolls, too. Their kitchens were scrupulously clean and tidy, but oh, they smelled so good.

Some people’s kitchens had a certain piquant, almost sausage-y smell. I grew to like those, too.

In Annie’s kitchen, the aromas of vanilla and almond predominated, perhaps because she baked so much. When I want to evoke Annie’s kitchen today, all I do is open a bottle of almond extract. It is a powerful agent of time travel for me.

My mother’s kitchen smelled of cardamom and apples when I was a child. When I use cardamom, I am three years old again and playing in my mother’s sunny yellow kitchen.

More often than not, my own kitchen is filled with the odor of onions — and yes, some times garlic.

While I realize the smell of garlic might offend some people, I no longer worry about it on my hands after I’ve made sausage rustica or ratatouille.

There are, the way I see it, far too many other things to fuss about these days.

What does your kitchen smell like? What aromas bring you back to childhood or another time in your life?


Lydia said…
I agree -- the smell of garlic on your hands is one of the best things about cooking. The aromas I remember from childhood: lamb on the grill (from my father -- a wonderful, almost "salty" aroma); cauliflower boiling on the stove (my mother used to do this, and to this day I cannot eat cauliflower because that awful over-boiled smell haunts me); and apples baking in the oven (my grandmother's specialty, an intoxicating aroma that I still adore).
Eileen said…
I love the smell of garlic on my hands too Mimi, it's interesting that you wrote about that. To me it means something good is being made.
Anonymous said…
Hey Mimi,
One of my favorite blogs posted about this dish and site... thought you might want to check it out.
Anonymous said…
My Mom made homemade bread twice a week... a total of 8 loaves every week. I LOVED coming home from our hour long bus ride from school to the smell of fresh bread... and often times carmel rolls cooling on the counter. Yumo!
So when I first married, I would make that frozen bread, so that my home would smell like freshly baked bread.
Terry B said…
First, for those who don't like the lingering smell of garlic on their fingers, the answer is simple. Rub your hands together under cold running water. Done. Those fancy steel things they sell to remove the smell? They tell you to rub your hands on them UNDER COLD RUNNING WATER. It's the water that does the job.

My kitchen is mostly neutral smelling until Marion or I goes to work at the stove. Then it's going to smell like something wonderful. But we do have a corner cabinet with a lazy susan where our many, many spices live. A St. Louis friend visiting us opened it once and said that it smelled like the spice shop at Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis.
Fried Chicken! I haven't eaten any in years~ but it smells like 'home'. That and a fresh ripe juicy red tomato.
Mimi said…
Lydia, I have to agree — cauliflower makes me think of inner stairwells and someone yelling upstairs.

We're on the same page, Eileen. I find myself holding my hand sup to my nose whenever I've cooked with garlic.

Linda, there is nothing that compares with the aroma of baking bread. Nothing. Thanks for the link and tip.

Terry B, I've never tried to remove the smell. But I'll pass that along to my coworker who will probably read this anyhow. (Hi Kurt!)

Sandi, I sure agree with you on tomatoes! Especially in summer. I've always been tempted to buy one of those little bottles of Demeter fragrances called "Tomato." Wonder if they have fried chicken — another good one?
Jann said…
i just lost my glorious comments- and now I am running short of time!How I remember my mothers wonderful apple pies baking-what a great aroma!
Mimi said…
Makes me want to bake one myself, just thinking about it, Jann!
I've never worried or try to take the garlic smell off my hands, I enjoy it.
Mimi said…
It's perfume to those of us who cook, isn't it, Tanna?
Kristen said…
I love the smell of garlic... I agree...why remove it?
Anonymous said…
My kitchen always smells of onions, garlic and spices. On Tuesdays it smells of cake or cookies and on Fridays/Thursdays it of bread...
Anonymous said…
My kitchen always smells of onions, garlic and spices. On Tuesdays it smells of cake or cookies and on Fridays/Thursdays it smells of bread...
Mimi said…
Onions, garlics and spices offer a great trio of smells, in my opinion. It's nice to have a routine day for breadbaking, Rosa.
Terry B said…
Slightly off topic, you recently wrote about blue cheese. Yesterday's food section of the Chicago Tribune has a fascinating article on the highly praised Maytag blue cheese made in, of all places, Iowa. Maytag blue has been aged in caves since long before anyone ever attached the word artisanal to food. There are recipes too, including a martini with blue cheese [it's stuffed into the olives]. And there's a separate article about pairing wines with blue cheese. Just go to the Trib's website and click on "Food" under "Living"--poetic placement, don't you think? It will take you to the articles. Great reading.
Ronnie Ann said…
Followed my nose from Terry B's blog to this great site and voila! Garlic. One of the sexiest smells in the world. Anyone who hates the smell doesn't understand great food. My childhood memory is the oh-so fragrant garlic-meat borscht my mom used to make. Poured over a few pieces of boiled potato, it was heaven in every sense - especially on a cold day.
Mimi said…
Thanks for the tip, Terry. I will check it out later today. Love that type of food story. Right now, I am off to interview a chef for one of my own.

Ronnie Ann, you are a woman after my own heart. Yes, garlic is sexy. And I love borscht on a cold day — more on that in an upcoming post.
Anonymous said…

The smell of a cake being baked takes me back to the past. My mom used to bake cakes a lot, I used to take slices of fresh cakes to school as a snack every day. Oh, boy, it's like a trip down memory lane to me. Maybe that's why I love baking so much, it reminds me of my mom.

A smell that's around my kitchen a lot is the smell of chopped onions being cooked in olive oil - my husband says it's the best food smell in the world. I cook a lot with onions and olive oil.

May I just say what an interesting post this is?? :D
Anonymous said…
My kitchen very often smells of a burning candle, or nothing at all. I work Mon-Fri, and often only truly cook on the weekends (if there are no plans to eat out!). My Italian grandmother's kitchen smelled of coffee and anise, and until I read this post, I didn't remember that. Thanks.
Mimi said…
Thank you, Patricia and Erin.

I noticed a shift in preferences since I started taking cooking more seriously. I used to dislike kitchen smells, but now I love them.

Cakes baking! Coffee and anise! Perhaps - just maybe — a kitchen smell is a little like the kitchen's DNA. So then, every kitchen smell is totally unique and remember the smells unleash unqiue memories.
FarmgirlCyn said… SIL gets up really early to get ready for work, and starts a small pot of coffee for herself. She is quiet as a mouse, but at 4:30 am, I am awakened to the incredible smell of fresh brewed coffee.(then I go back to sleep, and have to start a fresh pot at 6:30 am!!!)

My favorite dinner time smell has got to be pizza! Homemade, of course, (tho I have never turned down take-out, then I take my alloted 2 (maybe 3) slices, and slather them with minced garlic! No one can stand the smell of me, unless they have done the same!!!
Mimi said…
My husband gets up around the same time to make coffee, Cyn. It's actually kind of nice to have that smell wake you up — if it's made just a little later.

Her's a kitchen smell I like: The musty smell of a cottage kitchen, especially one near the beach. Not food related, but still a nice scent.
Julie said…
When my husband and I first started living together he got home before me and often cooked dinner.

I thought that coming home to a house filled with the smell of garlic sautéing in olive oil (all my husband's recipes start this way) was the most heavenly thing imaginable. It sure beat coming into a cold dark house and trying to breathe life into it. This was walking into a house already filled with life.
Terri said…
Kitchens do seem to have the magical ability to take on the aroma of it's owner.
Today my entire house was filled with the scent of garlic, oregano, basil, etc. I've had my meatballs, sausage and spaghetti sauce simmering since this morning. Delightful smell.
Whenever I smell fresh baked apple pies, I'm about 5 years old again and in my French grandmother's kitchen.
Mimi said…
Yes, coming home to the smell of cooking is wonderful and infinitely better than a cold house. Although, sometimes I just like coming hom, period.

Last year, my husband had to spend two weeks in Virginia for his job. I hated coming home!
Mimi said…
Terri, I'm there, too, only in my grandma's.

But your must be wonderful today!

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