Stories from a Slow Food Nation

Scent of a City

A whiff of hot dogs, roasting peanuts, and beer was a clue that the Solon baseball team was home at Edmonds Field.

Scent of a City, by Maryellen Burns

Produced for We Are Where We Eat

Scent of a City

When I was a kid we used to play a lot of games with blindfolds on.  Pin the tail on the donkey, blind man’s bluff, robot and controller, and blind artist – games that in general I sucked at. 

The one game I loved was “You are Here.” Blindfolded, you’d be led me from house to house and have to guess who lived there, by the smell.

Rosemary’s family originally came from Portugal.  Her place smelled of saffron, chorizo and cinnamon; the Gee’s a blend of anise, cloves, garlic, Sichuan pepper and ginger.  Others were harder to discern. Everyone’s mother cooked spaghetti the same way – canned tomatoes, hamburger, onions, garlic powder, and just a hint of oregano.  And, there wasn’t much variation in their recipes for meatloaf, fish sticks or fried chicken. Maybe because I was blindfolded so often (my brothers used to run me into cars, the sides of buildings, or down steep steps or hills with the blindfold still on) I developed a heightened sense of smell and almost always won. Eventually I was able to perceive where I was not only in my own neighborhood but elsewhere around town, just by sniffing.

A whiff of hot dogs, roasting peanuts, and beer was a clue that the Solon baseball team was home at Edmonds Field. Southside Park, with its fragrant scent of chili peppers, cilantro, and fresh corn masa, was distinctly different from the adjacent Asian neighborhood.  It smelled exotic -- sweet, sour, piquant, bitter, and salty all at the same time. Freshly baked bread at the Wonder Bread factory announced North Sacramento.  The West End, with its bouquet of cheap alcohol, puke and urine used to make me retch, but Horst Hop Farm, in what is now Campus Commons, gave off a redolent mix of yeasty, cerealy, malt that got me drunk with pleasure.

The only time my internal odor compass was off was during cannery processing season. Every week the air was saturated with a different fragrance.  The sweet, syrupy perfume of fruit and the savory, herby, vinegary appeal of tomatoes obliterated all trace of anything else.

Most of the women in New Helvetia, the public housing project we lived in, worked in the canneries. During World War II they flourished at important jobs on military bases, the civic sector, or in government. They hadn’t intended on working when their husbands returned, but thousands of Vets were out of work, and it was work seasonally at the canneries or no work at all.

They toiled as tomato sorters and vegetable packers from the sultriness of early June through the blistering heat of summer and crisp cool nights of fall. They’d complain that no amount of scrubbing or lye soap could remove the stink and stain in their hair, clothes or skin. So, I was surprised when they’d come home with lugs of tomatoes and fruit to preserve for use all winter.

“They work in a cannery,” I thought.  “Why don’t they just bring home Libby Peaches or Del Monte Tomatoes?”

My brothers said it had to do with knowing how much rodent feces were legally allowed into each can but I suspect it had more to do with tradition, friendship, and community.

Tomatoes were especially cheap to preserve.  They could be purchased at the produce market on 5th Street for a $1 a bushel and yield 15 quarts or more of tomatoes.  Canning your own reduced the cost by half.

Everyone contributed to the effort. First, Edith would set a big 30-quart pot on the fire pit in our communal back yard and fill it with water.  Once it got to boiling someone would pour the tomatoes in and let them sit for about thirty seconds.  Then two or three others would quickly scoop them up and put them into ice-cold water, so another team could start peeling and capture the juices that ran out.

While everyone else labored in the tomato-bursting heat, my mother and I would sterilize quart size mason jars, rings and lids, while standing in front of a fan in the kitchen.  Hundreds of quarts of fruits and vegetables would be processed each September and divided up equally among the families.

When we opened each jar come winter, I would close my eyes, take a deep breath, and re-experience summer.

By the early 80’s all the canneries had closed, the city enacted a lot of odor ordinances, and except for an occasional hint of Campbell’s Tomato Soup in the air, Sacramento seemed to lose its distinctive smell.

Maybe its because I’m getting older – we lose much of our olfactory senses as we get into our fifties -- but I miss the smells of my childhood. Especially, the aroma of See’s Karmelkorn outside the Fox Theater on K Street; the strawberry fields massed on 65th Street; the garlic, mortadella, salami, and bologna perfuming Pennisi’s Deli. I even miss the smell of rotting fish on 10th Street, the stench of manure crossing the Yolo Causeway and the rice smoke that filled my throat during burning season.

What is there now to replace the scent of the city that nourished me as a child?

I know that if I take the time to truly breathe in my environment I’ll eventually find my way to newly roasted coffee at Temple, fresh-popped popcorn at the Tower Theater, and rosemary, thyme and lavender growing by the curbside.

And, in just a few weeks, when the first beans, chard, and peas begin to peek, if I put on a blindfold, and drink in deeply. I might smell spring.

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