Good evening, friends and neighbors.
The day had not been an especially good one. Between a hefty workload, arguments at work, and my own physical exhaustion, 7pm last night found me wearily huddled outside in my raincoat, under the portico of a friendly beer cart.
The weather had been threatening a nice, heavy, Portland soaker all day, and now it was coming through. My body ached in places I didn’t know existed. I was angry, cold, and exhausted. Bryan, my friend at the beer cart, poured me a Cherrywood Smoked Porter. Saint Burrito was also open a few steps away. I could smell the grilling meat and yellow rice.
One porter and an ancho chile chicken burrito later, I was feeling much better.
Yeah, it could have been low blood sugar or something similar- maybe “hanger issues.”
Either way, the taste and smell of smoke helped.
Smell and taste are the two senses most closely tied to memory, and in my case “smoke” is tied to most of the good ones. I don’t remember when the connection was made exactly, but it was likely in the Scouts. One of my favorite times on camping trips was when we would be sitting around a campfire.
There would be songs and jokes- sometimes we were baking foil-wrapped bananas and apples in the coals. The whole time, the thick smoke of fallen pine and oak wood would spiral around us, curling its way up to heaven.
It was over one such fire that I cooked for a crowd for the first time- Dutch Oven Lasagna. The smoke permeated our clothes, our hair, everything.
The smell of wood smoke came to mean warmth, comfort, feeding others, and enjoying company in my mind. Whenever I smell or eat something wreathed in that scent, I go straight back to 12 years old- sitting in the woods and staring at the stars.
None of this is to say, however, that all smoke/ smoking applications are the same or even worthwhile. Flavors/scents can vary greatly depending on what is being burned to create the smoke, with different materials obviously generating different particles in their combustion and releasing different amounts of gases /water vapor.
These are the go-tos everyone thinks of for smoking, and for good reasons. Woods like oak, hickory, alder, mesquite, and fruitwoods are made up mostly of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. When burnt, cellulose and hemicellulose (being sugar molecules) caramelize and produce the variety of delectable flavors we associate with smoke. The lignin can create scent compounds that vary from spicy to vanilla-like.
These are used FAR less often, as woods like fir, spruce, and pine tend to be very pitchy. Pitch, when it burns, creates a more acrid, “somethings burning” scent that maybe a bit more pleasant to smell than to taste. Certain teas, such as lapsang souchong, are smoked over pine boughs specifically to capture this scent. Similarly, if you ever get a cosmetic product that claims a “campfire” or “smoky” scent, it is likely derived from the by-products of these softwoods.
For myself, my go-to sources of smoky scents are PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING. Culinarily, smokiness is practically its own ingredient for me, and I pursue it every way possible- usually through the use of smoked/roasted spices, or fire-roasting ingredients.
Cosmetically, that was settled many years ago. After a weekend of camping back in college, I came back and noticed that every single one of my female friends was sitting closer to me- and sniffing my hoodie. As it was, I had sat up all night by a campfire wearing it, and the hoodie was completely suffused with the scent of burning pine and oak.
Guess how long I put off running it through the wash.