A Proustian Moment

In case anyone needs a reminder about how subjective smell can be, consider this:

Last Friday in the store, a rep came in to conduct a tasting. This is a common occurrence, allowing for the customers, and more importantly the staff, to sample what’s for sale. The tasting consisted of two liqueurs, St. Germain and Canton.

St. Germain is made from elderflowers and Canton from ginger. I’ve sampled St. Germain many times; Jeff and Louise brought us a bottle last year and it has become a favorite of Emily’s. At Christmas, she asked for a splash to tart up her Crémant de Bourgogne, turning it into an elderberry kir royale.

Canton was new to me, so when there were no customers in the store I picked up a little plastic cup of the stuff and tasted. First, of course, I held it to my nose and tried to tease out the elements in its bouquet. There was something very familiar, but I had trouble identifying it. After a second, then a third, whiff, I came up with “pineapple.” Not quite satisfied, I put the cup down, waited on a customer, then came back to try again. Again, “pineapple.”

But before I tasted the gingery liqueur, the aromas rearranged themselves and I nailed it. “Maraschino cherry.”

The fellow conducting the tasting gave me a funny look, smelled it himself, and said, “I’ll never be able to taste this again without thinking maraschino cherry. Spot on.”

As satisfying as that smell identification was, I contemplated what pineapple and maraschino cherry had in common, since in fact they don’t really smell anything alike. The answer? My mother’s regular Wednesday night mah-jongg game.

Once a month or so, when the game was at our house, my mother would quarter a fresh pineapple, cut it into slices and pinion half a maraschino cherry onto each slice with a toothpick, as a snack for the girls, as she called her friends. I was five or six years old. I was supposed to stay upstairs and watch television, but I often came down, said hello to the girls, and grabbed a few pineapple slices. I loved the sharp acidic crunch of the pineapple, still do. For a few minutes I’d stand around the table and listen to the click of the tiles and the odd sound of the bidding, with its cracks and bams and flowers. The girls would make a fuss over me, then my mother would give me a pat on the rear and send me back upstairs.

So from Canton, to mah-jongg, to the conflation of pineapple and maraschino cherry, locked up in my smell memory for over 50 years.

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