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Audio: This town smells, an ode to the olfactory of New Orleans

When people fall in love with New Orleans — a phenomenon that happens on a daily basis around here — they’re wont to wax poetically about the familiar qualities that make this city such a special and enchanting place.

But all of this gushing tends to leave out a single and singular fact of life in the Crescent City: This town, for lack of a better word, smells.

And not always in a bad way. In fact, New Orleans, as experienced purely in an olfactory manner, is one of the most wonderful — and sometimes terrible — places on the planet. And yet, for some reason, people tend not to focus on this fact. So I’m going to do that here, right now.

For me, it all starts with the trinity and the Pope. No, I’m not talking about religion; I’m talking about cooking. The base for all great Cajun and Creole dishes is our local version of mirepoix, a classic combination of chopped carrots, celery and onions used to start stocks, stews and so forth in traditional French cuisine. Only in New Orleans, this “trinity” substitutes green bell peppers for carrots, and adds garlic (“The Pope,” owing to the bulbs’ similarity to a papal headpiece). Sauteed in oil (or “erl,” as we say), the aroma produced is immediately recognizable to anyone who grew up in South Louisiana.

Proust had his madeleines; I have the holy trinity. That smell immediately ushers forth countless memories of youth, my mother dutifully sauteeing the trinity to begin something that, inevitably, would be enjoyed by the family with unsparing alacrity and glee. If we were lucky, it’d be her famous crawfish etouffee. I have friends from college who to this day still ask me for her recipe. It’s that good. And it all starts with that inimitable punch to the smell center of the brain…which just happens to be the same part of your brain that processes memories. There is no small coincidence there, friends.

And food-wise, it’s not just the scent of sauteing trinity that rings my nostalgia center like a cathedral bell. The same happens if I get within a block’s radius of boiled crawfish, beignets, fried shrimp or warm French bread. Then there’s coffee. I spent my latter high school years studying in local independent coffee houses, long before the advent of venti iced mocha pumpkin-spiced skinny frappuccinos. The smell of the place — the richness of the dark beans with chicory — will always bring me back to those beautiful moments, if only for a short spell. No matter what city I’m in, be it Portland, Austin, Brooklyn, or Sydney, Australia, the aroma of roasting coffee beans will always transport me to my teenagehood in New Orleans.

Then, of course, there are the distinctive smells of the Big Easy that aren’t easily — or even possibly — replicated elsewhere. Our abundant natural splendor factors in heavily here. This city isn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but anyone who isn’t entranced by the olfactory dynamite that sets off during a New Orleans spring probably doesn’t deserve to be here in the first place. Between the Confederate jasmine, the sweet olive, gardenias, magnolia flowers, and, if you’re lucky, blooming angels’ trumpets, it’s difficult if not impossible for a person’s nose to not fall headlong in passionate love with this town. The aromatic pulchritude of New Orleans is unrivaled by any place I’ve been in the world, and always will be.

Then we have the smells of Carnival season: cheap plastic beads, cotton candy, king cake, diesel fumes, that unmistakable green and skunky aroma of something illicit somewhere, and — this must be mentioned — the singular scent of Popeyes chicken and biscuits. In all seriousness, the smell of Popeyes is unique unto the world, especially in comparison to other, lesser, fried chicken restaurants. You can smell Popeyes from two blocks away and know exactly what it is. Matter of fact: Being able to do this at the drop of a hat should be a litmus test for anyone wanting to call themselves a “local” in this city.

Which is not to say that all New Orleans smells are favorable ones. Two steps onto Bourbon Street will readily confirm this fact. Along with all the glorious scents of the Crescent City, we also have that heady perfume of Rue Bourbon, a pungent brew of stale beer, cigarettes, manure from the tourist buggies and police horses, hot garbage, hobo body-odor, and that unmistakable smell of whatever horrifying toxic black brew lives in the craggy potholes of the Quarter. If one were to distill the essence of this combination into an atomizable liquid, I’m sure it would quickly be banned by the Geneva Convention as an agent of chemical warfare. I’d deign to use that on even my worst enemies, it’s that horrifying.

But for all the cringing these scents might cause, they’re worth it for the good ones, the magical ones that so readily transport us to the New Orleans of our youth, the ones that enrapture, ensnare, and envelop us so deeply and completely in a way that no other city can. So you can keep your madeleines, Marcel. I’ve got my sautéed trinity, my Confederate jasmine, my boiled crawfish, and, yes, even Bourbon Street.

And I wouldn’t trade those for the world.


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