When I opened my house door yesterday, coming home from work, the sweet aroma of dark fruit cake instantly aroused my olfactory cells. The bandwidth in my first cranial nerve overflowed with information going to my brain. Neurons lit up and triggered a cascade of memories in my hippocampus.
That’s where the scientists think we store old memories. The scholars also say that smell is our most memorable of the five senses. I believe them wholeheartedly.
For me, certain smells bring floods of memories. Not only do I recognize a particular odour, but it rekindles flames of associated recollections. Are we all wired that way? Do certain smells remind you of specific places, events or people?
I’m not the only one:
“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered … the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls … bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”
A 19th century French novelist by the name of Marcel Proust wrote that. He was a keen dude, no doubt. I think he summed up smell and memory on an even keel with anything I’ve ever read in Scientific American.
I guess that’s the distinction between art and science. Science explains stuff by breaking it into little parts, but sometimes only art can deliver true appreciation and holistic understanding.
You’re probably thinking that dark fruit cake with a splash of Captain Morgan reminds me of Christmas. It does on ground floor level, but there are layers of archived memory that come flooding through much deeper than the mere obvious. I’m thinking that fruit cake reminds everyone of Yuletide and festivities. I’m no exception.
Dark, aromatic, moist, fruity cake has been a Christmas tradition since I was a kid. My mother and grandmother baked two or three of them every festive season all through my formative years.
I’d had enough sense even in those early years never to declare a favourite. Mother versus daughter fruitcake rivalry can get seriously out of hand. I’d never dump fuel on that fire.
Nowadays, I walk a thin line between my wife’s cake and my daughter Megan’s special creations. Megan makes a mean fruit cake, she’s a chef by trade so I suppose she has an edge. Still and all, I will never commit to which I really like best. Some things are better left unsaid. Goldie, you make wonderful fruitcake. (She reads my column.)
What about those memories that come flooding back? How does fruitcake fill my brain with images other than the obvious?
It all began with the ladies of the house, Nan and Mom, baking way too much fruitcake, enough to feed dessert to a battleship crew. That stuff is so very dense; you can only eat small portions.
Fruit cake would always be on hand and available for me to take in the woods for a boil-up lunch. Is there anything possibly better than dark rummy fruitcake on a cold winter’s morning, washed down with strong black tea? It’s fine outdoor dining at its absolute best.
Picture yourself seated on a log or stump with a steaming hot cup in front of a roaring campfire. Imagine the smells. There’s that pungent background perfume of spruce and fir that thoroughly fills the winter woods, intensified naturally by the frost in your nostrils.
You’ve been hiking hard since daylight and your body has dampened the woolen layer that protects you from the elements. The smell of damp wool, including your mittens drying on a stick near the fire, adds to the bouquet. Birch crackles and pops, marking the morning with its own distinctive redolence. And there’s the sweet and floral scent of tea, tough to describe but a welcome stimulant to any hardworking soul who tromps the woods.
You pull from your canvas bag a robust bundle, wrapped attentively in wax paper followed by brown butcher wrap, and secured with an end of cotton twine. It’s the secret ingredient to long winter snowshoe treks, the carrot on a stick that keeps you puffing up those long hills through deep powdery snow. It’s laden with calories, taste and boozy goodness. There’s no winter fuel the equal of Christmas cake.
As you unwrap the paper, its spicy, fruity, malty smell smacks you in the face and fires up your boiler even before you taste it. Dates, currants and cloves mingle with cinnamon and spices to create an intoxicating aroma even without the rum. And then there’s the taste, an explosion of earthy flavours from all corners of our planet. This is certainly a treat worthy of walking miles to indulge in.
The wonderful mystery to me is why it tastes so much better in the woods. I can take or leave fruit cake at home. When it’s on the dessert tray I often pass and reach for the cherry topped shortbreads. But on the trail, fruitcake has no equal.
Scientific American will never explain these phenomena. This is a job for poets, photographers, painters and wordsmiths. Some things thankfully can never be explained by dissection. The whole is much bigger and more worthy than the sum of its parts.
The fruitcake is so much more delightful than any one of its components, with the possible exception of the rum, which certainly can stand on its own.
And the cake is so much more satisfying when the muscles are taxed and belly spent of resources, when you are surrounded by woods and snow aside a roaring, life-giving fire. That’s how I enjoy my fruitcake, from late December until it’s all used up, probably in mid-March.
And that’s the scene that came to life in my head the instant I opened the door.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and
wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.