The City Pantry: A Cabinet of Scents and Memories

Our Kitchen Lab project, the City Pantry: A Cabinet of Scents and Memories, is wading its way into thick description. We’re in the midst of smell. Collecting it, translating it, containing it, writing around it. In the last three days, we’ve gone to dozens of yard sales, chain supermarkets, co-ops, ethnic food markets, and hardware stores on the search for canning jars, peg board, bungee cords, scents and memories. We’ve concocted smells ranging from the backyard to the river, to the gas station. We’ve also invited friends and strangers to collaborate in the process of writing the city through its scents.

Wednesday, my collaborators Sara N. and Jimmy went to two St. Paul landmarks—Candyland andMidway Bookstore. The guy at the bookstore told them that he couldn’t smell the books. What he did smell was asphalt, the exhaust, tar, cigarettes, and the busy intersection.

The City Pantry’s internal architecture, waiting to be filled with scents and memories

Friday, Sara and I went back to St. Paul, first to Ax-Man with Jimmy, then to Grand Avenue. Stogies on Grand was to be the first of several stops, but was as far as we made it. Sara’s friend Jessica was working that day. She unscrewed almost every jar in the store in the process of walking us through tobacco and memory.  Over the bridge of her glasses, Jessica schooled us: “You take a cigar like you take your coffee. If you like it black, you’ll like it more intense.” Some of the tobacco bites with fermentation. It’s peaty—a deep scotch undertone that gets to your gut.

Jessica pinched a ½ teaspoon into her left palm, rubbed it with her right palm, and bruised the tobacco as if muddling herbs.  She told us the first time she smelled cherry tobacco she couldn’t stand it. Then someone bought some and took it into the smoking room. As he lit his pipe, Jessica was transported to memories of her grandfather. This was his smell.

Each story about smell calls up other smells.

Jessica’s memory called up one of my own—the first time I smelled pipe tobacco in a schoolmate’s house in the middle of Pennsylvania. The estate was filled with opulence and middle-school awkwardness. The smell was grounding—a soft, round olfactory cushion.

Fresh scents from the garden

I find myself increasingly attuned to smell, and brainstorming the olfactory.
How do we recreate the scents of
Spring rain
Hot asphalt
Garlic when it seeps through the walls
First love
Pollen in the spring. Honeysuckle.
Grandma’s house.

Jimmy and Sara stopped at the co-op to buy spices in bulk.  Among the teas were tiny dried tea roses. Saccharine, pungent and reminiscent of Victorian parlors.  Upon return to the studio Jimmy paged through a musty old book, Sara unwound a rope of black licorice, and the roses seeped through the plastic bag.  Out of these actions, the smells mingled to evoke a Midwestern grandma’s house. After that, for each member of the collective, they fanned the book, and held out the tea roses and licorice while participants waved their noses before the objects.  For most of the collective, it was uncanny.

What memories/places/people/times might these scents evoke?

Yet it’s interesting that not all scents are universal; in fact, they call up uniquely personal and evocative recollections.  Thinking about grandma’s house, I remember my paternal grandmother’s house in Mexico City. Abue’s house was the smell of moth balls, tomato and onion simmering on the stove, overripe fruit, and wood. Later, the tenants.

Come on down to Walker Open FieldThursday night from 6-9 pm for “Kitchen Lab: an Unveiling” and play with the City Pantry as well as all of the other Kitchen Lab projects that explore ideas such as heat, water, and curiosity. Hang around for an Acoustic Campfire performance by Mixed Precipitation’s cast of Picnic Operetta!  As a collective theWalker Kitchen Lab has been researching, developing, prototyping, discovering, exploring, questioning and philosophizing what a kitchen is and what it can be. What would you put in your Kitchen Lab.  

by Susy Bielak, Sara Nichol and James Lynch


Wednesday, June 20th 2012 – Smelling Mammaw’s Creole

GumboBlogimage One of my cousins sent this recipe around last year just after my grandmother died.

Nora Mae (Garbarino) Cart was my Mammaw, and despite the Italian and English sounding name she was Cajun. She spoke Cajun French before she spoke English. At a young age she married a man from a few towns away and went to live there for the remainder of her life. It was in this town, Iota, Louisiana, that she raised 12 kids on big pots of Shrimp Creole, Jambalaya, and Crawfish Etouffee.

When I think of these foods, when I taste them, or when I stir my roux in a cast iron pot, I think of Iota, my mother (who was considered to be the best cook in the family) and what it means to own this odd ethnicity. I mean just stirring some fat and flour – a simple but tedious task – makes my kitchen smell just like Mammaw’s. Those smells make me think of that humid little town where, from my childhood view, the men always had a beer in hand and the women were always cooking and cleaning. It isn’t all warm and fuzzy nostalgia. Like anyone’s memories of a big family, some are funny or sweet and others are still infuriating.

I was reminded of this recipe because one of the projects that the Kitchen Lab is developing is focused on the smells of the kitchen. To me the smells of the kitchen are so specific in ethnic foods – they are things that become such a part of your life that you don’t even note them until you loose them for a while and then they come back. In this way the power of smell is stealth. I hope the project becomes something that brings back these kind of strong memories for the participants. Connecting to art is as much about memories and histories we bring to the work as it is about the artist intention. Because of this, smell seems like a perfect provocateur.