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on the downward side of the age mountain.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Smell You Never Forget

I don’t know if any of you are, were, or fantasize to be in the food industry but there is one smell that you never forget. When I was growing up as a little girl in Iowa, I lived in Waterloo, home of Rath Packing Company. It was a meat processing plant that belched out its own unique aroma. Moving next to Deerfield, Illinois we lived in the home of Sara Lee. Now we all like the smell of cinnamon and sticky buns but multiply that by pounds and add 8-10 hours a day and – you get the point. Moving to Taiwan with its open sewers and meat markets conjure up heady memories but nothing beats the unique smell of old restaurant side towels and clothes.

That unique smell of room temperature towels packed together waiting for the laundry truck has been lurking in my data bank for 20+ years and has been awakened through a new job I have taken. I am now doing sales for a little deli a bit north and east of where I live. It is submerged in a wasteland of industrial parks with workers needing a quick bite mid-day. The back of the restaurant is generic and unremarkable. The office equally so except there is room for 3 desks. Right next to the door to the office are two laundry bags slowly gathering linen and emitting that unique smell.

It’s not a smell you can put your nose on. Not really animal, vegetable, or mineral but a layered stench that is created after the said towel has lasted an 8-10 hour shift. It’s not rancid or overly abhorrent. I felt the odor went with the culinary turf, like burning your arms on the convection oven or nicking your fingernails with a knife. These are not towels used as we do in home kitchens for days on end. They arrive with the shift and are cast away at the end.

Side towels are a cost going out and in many restaurants I worked in, you were given 2 per shift. This meant you never let those precious towels out of your sight, never got them wet (or you couldn’t pick up hot pans-forgetabout the crud incrusted oven mitts), never let anyone- especially the chef- borrow them. At the end of the shift- believe me you wanted to shed those towels. I remember at the end of some busy nights it felt like the towels had gained weight. They hung fully impregnated with food ooze.

So why am I waxing poetic about the bag of aging linens and its aroma? Because dear reader it was a smell I thought I would never encounter again. With first whiff I was back at the line remembering the meals I had created, the ache of my feet and butter slick on my forearms. It reminded me of pure joy that can only be felt when you remove your armor with the rest of the pirates and go out for a drink.

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