Common scents guide to the city Aromas: In summer, the distinctive smells of baking bread, roasting peanuts and steaming seafood are especially rich in Baltimore.

July 25, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Thanks to Baltimore's late-July weather, work and eating habits, the summertime air becomes a perfume counter of urban aromas that engulf whole neighborhoods like a dose of scented bath salts on a soggy, humid day.

An olfactory tour of the city would include pleasurably seductive stops at the sources of baking bread, roasting coffee, fermenting vinegar, toasting peanuts and steaming hard crabs.

But mixed in would be the vapors of stuff that travel guides will never mention: the harbor after a hard rain swells storm sewers, the asphalt plants and the motionless, stagnant air that lingers over the city like a bad hangover.

"Baltimore's humidity helps bring out the smells, too," said Dr. Randall R. Reed, a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "On a humid day, it's easier to breathe through the nose and the smell gets delivered better."

The scent of baking bread is even more beguiling in the warmer weather. Two Baltimore neighborhoods get the benefit of huge, three-shift-a-day clouds of this most welcome wheat and yeast aroma.

It's impossible to distinguish between the rye, whole wheat and raisin bread and onion and sesame seed rolls baking at the H&S Bakery ovens in Fells Point. The warming smell that vents through the streets is so mouthwatering that some passers-by instinctively crave dinner.

"The smell takes me back to my grandmother's kitchen in Pennsylvania. It makes me hungry. I want to eat something when I come past the plant," said Gary Steeple, a Diamond Cab Co. driver, as he passed the Bond Street plant recently.

Over in West Baltimore, the Hauswald division of Schmidt Baking Co. is an old cream-colored brick plant at Edmondson Avenue and Franklintown Road. Three shifts a day -- 7 a.m., 4 p.m. and midnight -- infuse the streets around this busy plant with a similar appetizing air.

Known to faithful devotees but otherwise often overlooked is the "Crab Corner," the intersection of Pratt and Monroe streets in Southwest Baltimore. With two frenetic seafood houses battling for customers' takeout trade, a pungent celery seed-salt-mustard-peppery cloud of spice seems to have permeated the mortar in the bricks and cracks in the sidewalks here.

Baltimoreans tend to refer to an aged industrial plant alongside the Jones Falls Expressway as the pickle factory. They are wrong. It's a working vinegar plant at Cold Spring Lane, and it helps make this part of Northwest Baltimore smell like a delicatessen full of gherkins.

The briny whiffs can be traced to Integrated Ingredients, a firm that makes white vinegar in wholesale quantities under the Fleischmann label. The vinegar is distilled from corn alcohol produced at another location. There are wooden tanks along with big circular ones of stainless steel and fiberglass.

So the next time the air along Cold Spring Lane reminds you of pickle relish, coleslaw, chutney and chowchow, you are not far off the mark -- except there are no cucumbers or cabbage here.

One day each week a spicy, pungent odor drifts out of a brick building in the 100 block of N. Warwick Ave. in Southwest Baltimore. It's the Worcestershire sauce that's made by Interstate Cider and Vinegar Co.

"It's an old recipe that's got soya and garlic powder and coriander in it," said Jean Lanciotti, Interstate's owner.

Under the names Log Cabin and Casa Vino, her company also bottles cider, raspberry, tarragon, malt and balsamic vinegars here.

"As a child I grew up in Mount Washington, and every time we came across the Cold Spring Lane bridge I could smell the vinegar being distilled. Never once did I think I'd be in the business myself," Lanciotti said.

Science and medicine tell us that the sense of smell and memory are strongly connected. Visitors to Baltimore in the 1960s and 1970s often recall one particular smell -- that of the old McCormick spice plant that stood on Light Street at the Inner Harbor.

"The anatomy of the brain is such that the location for the sense of smell memory is very close to the location for general memory," said Dr. Donald A. Leopold, a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine associate professor who lives in Hunt Valley, where he frequently smells cinnamon, allspice, pepper and nutmeg from the relocated McCormick operation.

On days when a bulk cargo carrier ship is unloading raw sugar at the Domino Sugar Corp. plant in Locust Point, you would swear (( that somewhere in the harbor is the world's largest cotton-candy spinning machine. It's sweet, and one of the few smells that leaves a visible trail. The big scoops that draw out the raw sugar from the ship's hold release a visible brownish afterglow, a sweet cloud of fine dust that smells just like the filmy candy sold at carnivals.

On the hottest days, it's possible to pick up the traces of molasses held in tanks at the end of Hull Street by the edge of the harbor.

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