Olfactory tour of Baltimore, from perfume to stench

JACQUES KELLY

June 09, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

You know you're in a Baltimore alley when the garbage bag of post-Memorial Day hard crab shells emit an odor that could make a Marylander denounce seafood.

This time of year, the heat, haze, humidity and rain combine to give areas in Baltimore scents that belong to us and nobody else. Depending on where you are, the scents reflect geography (Chesapeake Bay and the Patapsco River), industry (old smokestacks and decaying sewers) and personal taste (Old Bay crab seasoning).

Not all the scents are bad. Nobody hates those coming from a bakery. The H&S plant perfumes the air in Fells Point. Less well known is the Hauswald commercial bakery at Poplar Grove Street and Edmondson Avenue, which sends the smell of freshly baked bread over this West Baltimore neighborhood every day but Tuesday, when the ovens get a day to cool off.

But best of all, stand outside the back door of the family-owned, 50-year-old Woodlea Bakery on Belair Road in Gardenville. The nose and brain, stimulated by the smells, beckon the taste buds with the call of "Peach cake! Peach cake!"

Who can resist the honeysuckle that is now thriving on backyard fence posts? The perfume of the basswood trees (look for the yellow blossoms) the city planted some years ago on many streets is densely sweet, almost too much fragrance on a humid day.

Summer is open season for food-related smells. Even if you live in the grassy suburbs, there's a good chance you've inhaled petroleum-based starter gases from your neighbor's charcoal grill. All that ignited lighter fluid is not my idea of a pleasant porch-and-deck cologne. But outdoor chefs and their guests seem to endure willingly the worst barbecue stenches in search of the desired smoky flavor.

Some neighborhoods possess their own scents. The old vinegar works at Cold Spring Lane and the Jones Falls Expressway is often wrongly identified as a pickle factory.

There are times when invisible clouds of strong roasted coffee hang over Federal Hill and Oldtown. Credit Pfefferkorn's coffee roaster on Grindall Street just off Riverside Avenue and Eagle coffee on Hillen Street.

Locust Point in South Baltimore (near Fort McHenry) is Baltimore's sweetest smelling neighborhood. Credit the molasses vats at Hull Street and the harbor's edge. If the raw product is being unloaded from a ship's hold at the Domino Sugar plant in Locust Point, the harbor will smell like cotton candy. And if Ivory Liquid is being processed at the Procter & Gamble plant (it's on Nicholson Street between the molasses tanks and the sugar house), the locale gets a dab of strong perfume.

City markets are an olfactory Cook's tour. Most block-long market buildings have a section with seafood merchants' stalls. Visit Paca Street (Lexington Market), South Charles (Cross Street Market), Jefferson Street (Northeast Market) and Carrollton Avenue (Hollins Market).

Come summertime, Baltimoreans recognize another odor, one that for years has been referred to collectively as "that smell." It has its origins in the harbor and is pushed along by the prevailing southerly breezes. It oozes northward until it covers the city, torturing lung disease patients and just about anybody else with working nostrils.

Francis F. Beirne, the late Evening Sun columnist, once described that peculiar bouquet.

Here's his analysis: "a composite odor of decayed fish, tankage, decomposed animal matter, sulfuric acid, sludge, rendered bones, molasses waste, cocoa-bean hulls and so-called 'trace odors.' These last include nitrogen, phosphates and potash."

Enough said.

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