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Guest Opinion

The nose knows

West Seattle Herald of Seattle, Washington

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I once went to a Halloween party where a guy came as the Invisible Man. At least I think he did since I never saw him. But the familiar odor of garlic suggested he was there (he ate it on everything) β€” and the smell was strong enough that three people dressed as vampires left the party hurriedly (see, vampires are afraid of the stuff).

Garlic is one of those unique fragrances that smell fabulous β€” or horrible β€” depending on when and where you encounter it. On freshly prepared food it is close to Heaven; on breath β€” the following day β€” it's close to the other place.

The summertime smell of fried onions at the fair is mouth-watering β€” yet is virtually the same aroma as the boy's locker room after a RE class.

My brother loved pasta as a kid, but would always turn down the parmesan cheese. "It smells like someone barfed," he would elegantly say. No wonder he lost his waiter job at the Old Spaghetti Warehouse.

And while I know many people delight in the fragrance of now-legal marijuana, there are just as many who will note how similar the odor is to what an agitated skunk tosses into the air.

Our olfactory sense is the best we humans have at triggering emotions and memories. For example, one whiff of cigar smoke can immediately remind me of my dad. For my friend, Carl, it reminds him of his mom. "She smoked at least two dozen Nat Sherman's a day," he recalls. "Winston Churchill couldn't have kept up with her."

The fragrance of fresh bread immediately transports me to my mom's kitchen. I don't know why β€” she never baked any.

But the smell of a wet dog almost always reminds me of a wet dog.

A lot of familiar smells seem to be disappearing through the years: Baseball cards that came with bubble gum; vacuum tubes from TV's and radios; the distinctive odor that cap guns gave off. Those were bouquets worth sniffing.

And does anybody remember the smell of freshly printed-paper from a mimeograph machine? Not if you're under forty you don't. But in the olden days, teachers would often print test papers on such machinesβ€”-and if it was fresh ink, the odor was unmistakable β€” and redolent. For many youngsters, it was their first experience with getting high.

Yet, when it comes to our noses we humans are poorly equipped. We have two smallish odor patches located way up our noses. Dogs have 220 million. On the other hand, dogs think rotting food and their own rear ends smell pretty good. That seems like a fair trade off.

It is said that most of our impressions of food come not from our sense of taste β€” but of smell. Our tongues can only register sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami β€” but our noses pick up on millions more odor molecules from food. That's why food doesn't seem as tasty when you have a bad cold. It's also why when you say, "Thank you very much," to a waiter, they think you said, "Tank you berry buch."

In 2004, a man and woman research team won a Nobel Prize for their work on the olfactory system. Afterwards, they said the award smelled real nice β€” like 18 carat green gold.

Meanwhile, retailers have been using so-called "scent marketing" for years. Home sellers believe the smell of fresh-baked pies or cookies in a house make the place more appealing. For me, it doesn't make me want to buy a house β€” it makes me want to eat fresh-baked pies and cookies. I wonder if the smell of a house in a bakery would work in reverse?

Still, it is the remarkable power of smell to evoke memories that seems most intriguing.

Even to this day, whenever the fragrance of Charlie cologne comes near, I instantly recall a college girlfriend β€” Charlene, or Charlie as I called her β€” who wore the fragrance all the time.

And then there was the other college girl who smelled a bit like cooking spray.

I don't recall her name exactly β€” but I think it was Pam.

Pat Cash man is a longtime Northwest TV and radio writer and performer. Pat can be seen on the sketch show "Up Late NW" airing Saturdays on KING 5 and throughout Washington and Oregon. He also co-hosts a weekly Online talk show: He can be reached at

"The fragrance of fresh bread immediately transports me to my mom's kitchen. I don't know why she never baked any."

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Original Publication Date: November 6, 2015

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