In the crisp December dusk, I am walking down High Street, a dark and somewhat foreboding piece of urban turf tucked behind the Fayette Street post office. Yet the minute I swing open the door of Jeppi Nut, the perfume of roasted peanuts washes over me and I am transported back to the bright, peanut-filled Christmas parties of my Midwestern youth.
A similar experience occurs earlier in the day. In Timonium, along a suburban stretch of Deereco Road that no one would confuse with an old European village, I get a whiff of melted chocolate coming from the back of Albert Kirchmayr's new shop. Immediately, I am flooded with memories of St. Nicholas, the dark chocolate incarnation, which starts each Christmas morning perched on my living-room mantel and ends the day residing in my stomach.
Another day in the brisk bustle of Baltimore's Lexington Market, I sniff the tangerines, inhale the briny perfume of raw oysters, and feel I am in a scene from a Dickens tale. The aromas do it.
According to scientists, what is happening in these instances is that a scent travels through my nostrils to my olfactory bulb, which fires a fast message to my limbic system. The part of the brain that handles smell and taste is, I am told, primitive, a setup that resembles the cerebral wiring of a snake or a crocodile. That makes sense to me, especially now. At this time of year, we are often led by our nose. We, like the crocodiles, sniff, swallow, then smile.
Christmas is a holiday awash with lights, colors and sounds. But more than any other time of year, it is when aromas matter. Christmas has to smell right. So recently, I went around the town, laying in provisions and cataloging scents of the season.
It starts with the tree. Pine needles provide the background scent, the ever-present, evergreen aroma that sits on the edge of your consciousness as you eat the fruitcake, sip the hot apple cider or ease down the eggnog. (And if you lap up too much of the bourbon and cream nog listed with the recipes at the end of this piece, your consciousness will likely become a matter of question.)
I like to hang real food and faux food on the branches of a real tree. This gives the tree an appealing appearance, and the production process makes the house smell better.
Strings of popcorn, for example, are traditional tree enhancers. They make a tree look fatter, and this is one of the few instances in American modern life where the wide look is considered chic. The aroma of freshly popped corn evokes pleasant memories in the crocodile part of my brain and makes it hard not to chomp on the corn that is supposed to end up strung around the tree.
Yet it turns out that stale and frozen popcorn are much more willing to be impaled on a needle and pushed along a thread than the softer, freshly popped stuff. So when I am stringing corn, I pop it one day, then store it either in freezer bags tucked in the fridge, or in an old turkey roasting pan. A few days later, after the popped corn has hardened, I sit in front of the television and string corn as I watch mawkish holiday specials or brutal football games.
Truth be told, I don't string much anymore. Instead I use the leftovers, the chains of popcorn strung up in a prior yule and stored in a brown paper bag. Some folks have cellars filled with vintage wines; I have a closet stuffed with strings of previously popped corn.
The cookies on the tree are also veteran holiday performers. They look bright, fresh and tantalizing. They are actually old, bitter and inedible. The recipe calls for almost as much salt as there is in the Great Salt Lake. You make the dough, use cookie cutters to shape the cookies and bake them. Next you let them cool and then paint them. The baking part of the process smells good, the painting part doesn't. But if these salty cookies don't fall off the tree and shatter, you can store them in a flat box, and recycle them the following Christmas.
The aroma of peppermint, researchers say, perks up our brains and makes us more alert. I am not so sure about that. One Christmas when our kids were little, we hung peppermint candy canes on the tree. The candy canes did not spend much time on the tree. Mostly they resided on the floor, shattered into pieces. Back then the odor of peppermint alerted everyone not to walk near the tree in their bare feet.
While the hanging candy canes were one-year wonders, the holiday fruitcake is forever. I know the ranks of fruitcake haters are legion and I am familiar with their attempts at disparaging humor. I have heard them say that there is only one fruitcake out there that gets passed from house to house, that fruitcake makes a great doorstop, that fruitcake makes excellent ballast for sailboats and that fruitcake gets rid of garden gophers. I laugh at the fruitcake haters - not with them - each year as I make my dark loaves that will see me through the winter.