Every Monday at the team standup, we start with a short ice breaker. We use Mentimeter to collect responses to some simple question that reminds us that we are humans with rich lives and deepens our understanding of each other just a little bit.
A few weeks ago, the question of the week was: “What are some of your favorite smells?” It worked surprisingly well to engender more interesting than normal factoids, stories, and family histories from the team.
There is a bit of a stigma on smell – maybe because it’s the one sense that is more about warnings and danger than the others – yet smells can also be associated with emotionally rich triggers and favorite times.
Anyway, it got me thinking about some of my favorite smells and the stories behind them.
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Roasted Whole Coffee Beans
Inhaling the steam of hot coffee is nice, but for me, nothing beats smelling the roasted whole beans. Doubly so these past two years, as many mornings I’ll lift up the hopper in the coffee grinder to smell the beans as a sort of “Well, I probably don’t have COVID if I can smell that” test. Funny where new traditions come from.
The smell also reminds me of my coffee origin story. Like many, it was an acquired taste born from the necessity of needing morning caffeine. One of my first 9-5 jobs was working as a civilian on a Navy base and I remember thinking I better learn to like coffee. Being in the Navy, it wasn’t just any coffee – it was strong, black Navy Coffee. You could follow the tradition all the way back, I’m sure, to what kept Lord Nelson awake at the helm. No, I didn’t ask for cream or sugar. No one offered. I still drink it black.
The Inside of A Desktop PC
The faint smell of burnt dust. The grease from the articulating CPU clip. The factory-like smell of the motherboard material. All of it brings me back. As a high school student in the United States of the 1990s, building my own desktop PC was the default hobby. That is what I saved money for. That is what I used the dial-up modem to do research on. For me, getting a car was about taking a trip to Fry’s Electronics more than anything else. It was a craft, a hobby, and a social activity: the fun of LAN parties playing Doom and Quake were the fruits of the labor.
Tom Yum Soup
Nothing warms me up better than a bowl of this soup as the weather turns in Seattle. It’s one of the few foods where the smell is more distinctive than the taste. I went down an internet rabbit hole once to find the source of the distinctive aroma, and it comes down to the root Galangal mixed with the lemongrass.
I don’t have a particularly strong relationship with Thailand or the Thai people – although it was the destination of my first extended trip after college before starting my professional life. These “bookend” moments stick with us as more memorable than average as they mark a turning point in our lives.
Toasted Everything Bagels
The mix of dried onion and garlic warmed via direct heat is an almost overwhelming scent in a morning kitchen. And it’s the breakfast of choice for my dad. It’s one where I went from an annoyed teenager at my parents stinking up the kitchen to now something that fondly reminds me of home. Funny how smells can age.
Baking Illustrated Chocolate Chip Cookies Straight From the Oven
Of course, a dessert cooking in the oven is an easy smell to love, and since Helen picked up baking during the pandemic, our house has been filled with such wonderful scents.
When it comes to my own baking, though, absolutely nothing beats the smell of chocolate chip cookies in the oven. My family growing up was not a baking family, so it was a learned art after college as I started living on my own. Chocolate chip cookies were one of the first things I ever learned to bake. My recipe of choice was from Baking Illustrated, a book that was gifted to me by a good friend:
As an aside, this is an absolutely fantastic cookbook and a great gift. It takes a scientific approach to cooking, including narratives on the 5-10 different experiments tried for each recipe to get at the why behind ingredient and method tradeoffs (this is where the extra egg yolk in the recipe comes from, making the cookies stay chewy longer according to their test kitchen).
Movie Theater Popcorn (with Butter)
This one seems like a guilty pleasure to add – as if I’m easily susceptible to the corporate machines. After all, the whole point of the movie theater popcorn smell is to get you to buy something. It’s supposed to be addicting.
Yet as I reflected on it, the local movie megaplexes were a large part of my suburban upbringing in the 1990s. The re-release of Star Wars! Toy Story! American Pie! My best friend worked as a manager at the local chain, too.
Anyway, nothing will get me to order that Coke classic (instead of Diet) than the smell of that movie theater popcorn - and I always add the butter. You got me right where you wanted me, Hollywood-Food-Industry Complex.
Old Academic Buildings
It’s hard to place the origins of where this smell comes from – a mix of high traffic communal spaces, brick, aged wood, old furniture, and history. But I love that distinctive smell of an old academic building. For me, it’s a smell of comfort, safety, and feeling in control and in charge. My alma mater UCLA was a coming-of-age experience filled with finding out what I wanted to do and making lifelong friends. One of the things I love about the institution is its connection to history and a sense of traditions, something I never had much of growing up. I suppose they also have a special place in our family, seeing as Helen and I were married inside one:
Food, hobbies, family, entertainment: the nose is a gateway to a deeper conversation and history. Next time you want to have a deep and meaningful convo – ask someone what their favorite smells are. Who 👃 what you’ll learn. 😊