The Smells of Home

A brick of peat in County Mayo, Ireland. See below or click here on the sweet smell of burning peat.

The “Smell of Home”


Recently I published a blog on the wonderful smell of honeysuckle. (Click here to read it if you missed it. Also read below for a treatise from my friend horticulturist Charles Chaumont on the two plants we call honeysuckle )

I always pick honeysuckle bouquets for the two women in my life: My sweet wife DeDe and my precious mother, Mary Iles. When DeDe comes in from school, she exclaims, “I smell honeysuckle.”

I asked readers and friends to tell me of their favorite smells and received some neat comments.

Most of their comments dealt with some aspect of home and family. They spoke lovingly of aromas that took them back to grandmothers, home, and family

Here are some of them:

Many folks mentioned foods.

It’s something how the smells of food cooking can take us back to childhood.

“Cookies baking in my mother’s oven.”

“The smell of gumbo cooking on a cold winter day.” In Honduras recently, Betty Harper and Dorothy Harper cooked gumbo for the Honduran pastors. The smell of roux and file cooking took me home to Louisiana.

“BBQ ribs grilling with a mesquite fire on the grill.”

Eddy Spears, my childhood partner in crime, wrote from tree-less Texas:

“The smell of gunpowder and squirrel frying on the stovetop.”

Only a good Louisiana redneck would put those two smells together. I freely admit that I’ve often picked up an freshly fired shotgun shell for a whiff. It takes me back to Saturdays in October when squirrel hunting ruled my weekends.

I never cared much for eating squirrel, but the smell always made me wish I did.**

My favorite reader reply was from my friend Mona Gibbs in LaPorte, Texas. She shared about the smell of coffee coming from her grandmother’s kitchen across the street.

“…Nevertheless, I’d make my way across the street, grab my little spool door handle, and make my way into Maw Maw’s house for the morning coffee and visit. My brothers and sisters are all big coffee drinkers…mostly because they started out drinking coffee at early ages at this morning visit. All the adults involved in this story always tried getting me to drink coffee…lots of milk, lots of sugar, and lil’ bit of coffee…but I never did take a liking to coffee.

I still don’t even to this day. Now, I LOVE the smell of coffee, but I can’t stand to drink it… The smell brings back such good memories of these early mornings. Often at my house today, when we have company about to come over, I’ll brew a pot of coffee. If our guests drink it, great. But, if not, the coffee has served its purpose…my “potpourri” to fill my house with that wonderful smell of the memories I have as a little girl.

The smell of coffee is very comforting for me…it just brings me back to those good ol’ days… So, seeing that black bag of jelly beans this past Easter flooded my heart and mind with a wealth of memories. For a brief moment, I thought about buying a bag and setting it on the coffee table…just for the memories. But, who eats those things?! Who? Well, just an elite group of folks like my Maw Maw Granny! Instead of remembering her with the sight and smell of those black jelly beans (yuck!), I’ll just keep brewing my “potpourri” pots of coffee…and continue remembering all of the wonderful times with my Maw Maw and Paw Paw Granny…”

Thanks Mona.

Mona, like me, is a Dry Creek Baptist Camp alum. Many readers spoke of the smells of Dry Creek.

“The famous homemade rolls cooking in the kitchen.”

“The unique ‘Dry Creek’ smell of the dorms. Hard to describe, but unmistakable.”

(I’ve seen camp veterans walk into a dorm, take a deep breath, and say, “Hmm, the Dry Creek smell. I’ll home.”

My most memorable Dry Creek smell is floor sweep. It’s red sawdust coated in oil that is used to sweep dusty areas. A rite of working at Dry Creek was the sweeping of the Tabernacle after the the last night of camp.

After the job was done, we’d sit on the stage, brooms in hand and share about the week. It was always a time of laughter, tears, and memorable comments.

When I smell floor sweep, it takes me back to those nights in the Tabernacle.

If you have a favorite “Dry Creek smell”, let me know.

Several readers spoke of smells of plants:

Sweet Olive, Jasmine, and Wisteria.

Wisteria is one my favorites. All old Southern homesteads had a wisteria vine. You can often recognize where a home place was by the only things still visible: a stack of bricks where a chimney stood and a nearby stand of wisteria vines in the trees.

I still concur that the wild honeysuckle bush after a rain is the best nature-related smell of all, but wisteria with is close behind.

If you’ve never experienced either, come to Louisiana in early March and I’ll show it to you.

Here are Charles Chaumont’s thoughts on the confusion as to what a honeysuckle is:

“Enjoyed that one all over again. Now, if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s recognizing horticultural accuracy in books and stories. That’s Rhododendron canescens you have in the woods over there. In my plant materials class at LSU, I learned the common name as Honeysuckle Azalea. I miss them almost every year, but two weekends ago I got to see and smell those that I’ve planted at my camp on Ouiska Chitto.

“The true Honeysuckle is a vine that grows on the edges of wooded areas, where it usually can get some full sun. The 2 most common ones are the Lonicera japonica (Japanese Honeysuckle) native to eastern Asia, and the Lonicera sempervirens (Evergreen Honeysuckle) native to the eastern and southeastern United States. The Japanese has white flowers that turn to yellow after a couple of days, and the flower looks almost exactly like the Rhododendron canescens (Wild Azalea) except for the Azalea ones being pink.

“The Evergreen Honeysuckle has red tubular shaped flowers, and they attract many hummingbirds. The Japanese Honeysuckle smells just like the Wild Azalea, but the Evergreen Honeysuckle is not as fragrant. Japanese Honeysuckle is very aggressive-growing and can kill other plants. Evergreen Honeysuckle is more manageable and not as rampant. I can’t hardly find blackberries growing in the fence rows in LA without seeing the companion Honeysuckle.

“Know how those Wild Azaleas “move around” in the woods? A tree branch falls on a limb of the Azalea and pins it to that fertile layer of compost on the forest floor. Then the pinned limb puts out roots and begins to grow into a new plant. A trip into the woods when I was in college taught me this, when a friend and I found a whole colony of them. The smaller ones can be transplanted to the side of your house. It was the most amazing thing when we bought our camp (about 18 years ago) on Ouiska Chitto. The old outdoor chimney had a mature Wild Azalea growing on either side of it. I knew this could not have happened naturally – someone working for Ernest Clements (late head of Wildlife and Fisheries, and Public Service Commissioner from Oberlin) transplanted those from the woods nearby probably 40 to 50 years earlier.

“In school I learned it as Azalea canescens, but more recent references recognize it as Rhododendron canescens. I have 3 of them that I transplanted myself into the camp yard, along with about 40 Huckleberry bushes. They’re my two favorite Louisiana native shrubs.

Thanks Charles for enlightening us.

** Another squirrel story: During the 2008 runoff to the election, Mike Huckabee was interviewed by Tim Russert on “Meet the Press”. It was shortly before Russert’s sudden and untimely death. Russert cracked his famous grin as he asked the Arkansan Huckabee, “Is it true that in your college dorm, you fried squirrels in a popcorn popper?” Mike Huckabee grinned back, explaining that normal dorm rules were that no cooking could be done in the dorms, but he and his friends found a way around the rules. Tim Russert was amazed that anyone would fry and eat a squirrel. I was amazed that some fellows had the mental fortitude to think about using a popcorn popper for it. My thought was: Hey, I’d never thought about that?” I bet you could smell those squirrels frying all over that wing of the dorm. I know my friend Eddy Spears would have recognized it. . Political pundits made fun of candidate Huckabee with statements like, “We could never elect a president who ate squirrel fried in a popcorn popper” Some of my friends commented, “Any fellow smart enough to figure out how to do that might make a pretty good president.”

Finally, I mentioned in the original honeysuckle blog about my other favorite smells.

Here they are:

Plowed ground– There is something about freshly turned soil that probably hearkens the human nostril back to an earlier time when a garden and crops might spell the difference between starvation and survival.

Freshly mown hay. I still roll down the car window when passing a field with cut hay. It’s a sweet pungent odor that brings me back to square bales and old barns.

Cut pine kindling- That strong turpentine smell makes me feel good and reminds me of sitting by a long ago roaring fireplace with my grandmother.

The smell of a feedstore. I once sneaked into a feedstore in rural China and found the only employee asleep in a nearby wheelbarrow. We were hiding The Jesus Film as we hiked. I slipped by the snoring man and inserted a DVD between two bags of corn chops. When I moved it, the smell took me home to Beauregard Parish, which was a long long way from China on that day.

Woodsmoke. I’m writing this at a camp in California. I woke this morning to the aroma of fireplaces emitting the wonderful smell of firewood burning. It’s hard to beat.

In Ireland, they burn peat. It’s dug from the ground, dried, and used for fuel. It emits a unique sweet smell and the smoke from peat has a blue tint to it.

I brought back several bricks of peat in my luggage on my 2007 trip.

Well, life is full of so many good things. Gifts from God. Even the smells around us—which we often ignore—are gifts to sniff, enjoy, and bring back memories.

P.S .

Willard Clark stopped to wipe his face with his bandana and finally spoke, “Y’all got lots of firewood over in Ireland?”

Joe felt his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. All of a sudden he was self-conscious about his brogue and the odd way he said lots of American words. “Uh, well, uh, we don’t have hardly any trees in our part of Ireland.”


This seemed to interest Mr. Clark. ”Well, if you don’t have trees what do you burn for heat and cooking?”


Now Joe Moore had a subject he felt comfortable with. ”We burn peat for our fires.”


“What is peat?”


“It’s strips of turf cut out of the bogs. We cut it with a shovel, dry it and burn it. It has a sweet smell and burns with a blue smoke.”

Mr. Clark leaned on his ax and spat, “Burning dirt. Now that’s a new one on me. Never heard of such a thing!”


Then Clark added, “You mean to tell me you come from a place with no trees? I can’t imagine a place with no trees.”


Joe felt more at ease and decided to extend the conversation a little: “Mr. Clark, I . . .” He stopped himself. He was embarrassed that he’d called him by name. They’d never even really been introduced, and it was somewhat presumptuous to call him “Mr. Clark,” especially when he knew the man would be very happy if he just disappeared off the face of the earth—at least the Ten Mile part of it.


“Uh, Mr. Clark, we don’t have trees but we got something I bet you’d like—we got mountains. You’ve never seen anything until you stand atop a mountain and look in every direction for miles. I won’t say it’s better than tall trees, but it does give you the same sense of awe.”


Willard Clark looked at him thoughtfully. Joe wasn’t sure if calling him by his name had helped or hurt. ”You know I never been very far out of these woods. Never had no reason to go. But I have always had dreams of standing on a mountain and seeing the clouds at eye level. I bet it’s something.”

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