All the Sweet and Surprising Smells That Remind Us of Home | Atlas Obscura

By August 19, 2018Interesting

Does a certain perfume always bring you back? JESS WATERS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

WHAT DOES HOME SMELL LIKE to you? It’s a simple question, but the answer for any individual person can be as unique as a fingerprint. We recently asked Atlas Obscurareaders to tell us about the specific scents that always transport them home, and we received hundreds of responses—no two exactly alike.

Many of you described a blend of several aromas, while others were triggered mostly by cooking smells (turns out an awful lot of you grew up in homes that smelled like cabbage). Below, we’ve collected some of our favorite responses. As you read, perhaps you’ll be inspired to try to recreate your own smells of home, at, well, home.


Potpourri

Moth balls, arthritis cream, and boiled cabbage

“My 80-year-old little Polish immigrant grandmother came to live with us and brought these with her. I was a 12-year-old American boy coming of age and of course for me, at first it was an invasion, until I got to both appreciate her as a person and also eat her delicious cooking almost every day! Forty years later, if I smell any of these I can see her still in the kitchen in her apron singing polkas to herself and rolling out dough.” — Joseph Healey, Edwardsville, Pennsylvania

Pine Sol cleaner, freshly mowed grass, cigar smoke, and Mom’s perfume tray

“Pine Sol permeated the air in the kitchen on Mondays and Wednesday mornings. On Saturday, the clean aroma of freshly mowed grass wrapped around the yard like a pungent blanket. My uncles sat outside in the evening, smoking wonderfully fat cigars, their laughter pressing cocktail breath on my cheek, with loving embraces of family joy.” — Barbara Ann Engel, Birmingham, Alabama

Toasted peppers, suave hairspray, wet concrete, laundry detergent, hot cast iron

“Saturday mornings, getting ready for church, screaming, things being broken, playing outside.” — Brianna Lomeli, Austin, Texas

Benson & Hedges menthol cigarettes, Steak-umms, and Heinz Baked Beans

“How hard my mother had to work (after my father financially abandoned us) to keep us from going homeless.” — Mike Quindlen, Baltimore, Maryland

A clean home is a good-smelling home.
A clean home is a good-smelling home. PEXELS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Cleaning Products

Washing powder, earthenware pots, brown sugar

“The little local store that sold clay pots and cleaning products. My grandma’s pantry.” — Patricia, Leamington Spa, England

Clorox bleach

“Reminds me of going to bed with clean, dried in the sun, Clorox-smelling sheets that my mother hand washed.” — Pat, Ocala, Florida

Lemon Pledge

“My stay-at-home mom was a consummate neat freak and we lived in an early 1900s house full of wooden banisters, accents, and furniture, so I always associate Pledge (or in later years Lemon Pledge) with the smell of home.” — Amanda, Northeast Pennsylvania

Many of you mentioned that the smell of cabbage reminds you of home.
Many of you mentioned that the smell of cabbage reminds you of home. PIXABAY/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Food

Rotting cabbage

“The smell of rotting cabbages will always remind me of the house my Hungarian grandmother lived in when I was a child. It seems like she always had a pile of green cabbages rotting in the bottom of her refrigerator. They were so potent they stunk up the entire house, even though the fridge remained closed. She also kept her milk out of the fridge, so the smell and taste of unrefrigerated whole milk will always remind me of her, too.” — Jenny Respress, Boise, Idaho

Roasted red peppers

“Every fall in my country people would make ‘ajvar,’ a traditional winter dish with peppers. I knew as a kid playing outside on hot summer evenings that school is approaching if I could smell the sweet, roasted scent.” — Ivana, Serbia

Cardamom

“My grandmother was from Sweden and brought with her many Swedish recipes, one of which was bullar or sweet rolls. Flavored with cinnamon and cardamom, she made this every week and would often ask me to help her crush the cardamom seeds with the mortar and pestle. This scent immediately transports me to the kitchen of my youth and reminds me of the special bond I had with my grandmother.” — Ellen Ashton, New Hampshire

Hot milk

“The smell of milk cooking immediately transports me to my paternal grandmother’s kitchen in Nürnberg, Franconia, Bavaria. Spending time there as a child in the 1960s and 1970s I would watch her heat milk for her coffee. More than once it foamed over the lip of the pot, if she didn’t watch it closely.” — Brigitte Mor, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Garlic

“I grew up in a small town off of Highway 152. If you’ve ever driven through a California truck stop that reeked of garlic on a dusty August afternoon, you’ve been through my hometown. […] I lived in that town most of my life. I remember walking in the hills in June, my first kiss, funerals, birthday parties, births, broken hearts. Hell, it seems like my whole life is tainted with the sweet stench of that bulb. Garlic and I have a history, an understanding. There’s an almost sorrowful romance to garlic. An entire town’s nostalgia wrapped up in a pizza topping. No vampires, though.” — A.V. Eichenbaum, Seattle

Freshly ground coffee

“Sunday mornings with parents and sisters and the sun is shining in our kitchen while the radio plays Zwischen Hamburg und Haiti on Radio Bremen.” — Christian Hlasek, Oldenburg, Germany

Leftover Thanksgiving turkey, mixed with motor oil

“We always had thanksgiving at my grandma’s house in northern Wisconsin. There wasn’t enough room in the refrigerator but it was cold enough that we used the attached garage as an extended refrigerator, placing most of the Thanksgiving leftovers out there. The smell of turkey mixed with garage smells is one of my most enduring smell memories. A few years ago we had dinner with friends the day after Thanksgiving and they have a fridge in their garage. When I opened it and smelled the turkey mixed with garage, I was right back at grandma’s!” — Kerri, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Celery and onions frying in butter

“My mother making stuffing on Thanksgiving.” — Gloria, Alexandria, Virginia

Skittles

“Green skittles remind me of when I lived in a small Reno apartment, two beds and one bath, and my mother was a single mom. The memory reminds of my 4th or 5th birthday, my mom was sick and she told me to go in her closet and I saw a small black guitar that I lost years ago. Her room smelled like lime Skittles. That’s why I’m upset that Skittles replaced lime with green apple.” — Trevor Schoefer, Fallon, Nevada

Freshly shucked corn

“Every summer, us kids would have to shuck corn cobs and the musky soil and sweet corn smell still makes my head spin with wonderful flashbacks.” — Kris Weaver, Los Angeles, California

Cheese fondue

“Gran had lived in Switzerland for a while and worked in Davos at a sanatorium for children, I think sometime during the ‘50s. There she had learned how to make kaasfondue, cheese fondue, without alcohol (because of the children she cared for). Mostly we ate it during the holiday season, in her nice Scandinavian-like kitchen on the big and chunky round table, special linen on it. I have her recipe and always when I make it, I know it will taste great when my kitchen smells the same as hers!” — Attie Vrijhof, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Parmesan cheese

“I grew up not far from a Kraft parmesan cheese factory in Wausau, Wisconsin. When the wind was right, the whole neighborhood would smell like parmesan cheese. It takes me back to our middle-class neighborhood of 1950s ranch homes, narrow streets, and playing with childhood friends. The smell itself was nothing fantastic, but the memories certainly are!” — Eric Brinkmann, Kimberly, Wisconsin

Fried hamburgers, covered in mustard

“They were less like hamburgers and more like hockey pucks. Walking in the door from school on lunch break and having the salty, greasy, mustardy smell smack me right in the face. There are a couple of diners in the city that have the same fragrance. Whenever I experience it, I’m instantly eight years old and back in our kitchen.” — Yolanda Brantley, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Garlic, onions, meats, etc., simmering for hours

“The distinct aromas of old-school Puerto Rican recipes, which you only occasionally smell nowadays because few people have the time, patience, or inclination to make those intricate recipes come to life anymore.” — Catherine Ortiz, New York City, New York

Nothing smells quite like a mother's perfume.
Nothing smells quite like a mother’s perfume. MOHAMED HASSAN/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Perfume

Rose

“To be more specific my mom’s signature tea rose perfume she’s worn for decades now. We live over 2,000 miles apart sadly, but any package she sends manages to smell like her and makes me miss her so much more. Also the smell of her poundcake when I make it. Man I miss her. The plan is she’ll be living near soon *fingers crossed*.” — Michelle Stepp, Olympia, Washington

Chanel No. 5 and Tide laundry detergent

“My mother and spending the day away at the local laundromat washing load after load of clothes. Makes me very happy and peaceful.” — Cora Fields, Iowa

A waft of Joy perfume

“My mother always wore it and it followed her on a gentle cloud. She died years ago but I still have her last bottle on my dresser. When I mentioned it to my daughter some time ago, she said, ‘Oh, I know! I go sniff it sometimes when I need to feel Dee around me.’ I had been doing the same thing since we lost her.” — Peg, Virginia

Chanel No. 5 and leather

“Whenever my mother went somewhere special, she wore soft leather gloves. She had been given some Chanel No. 5 as a gift that she used it sparingly on her wrists as it was very expensive. The scent of the perfume lingered in the gloves. I liked to smell her gloves when I was small. The combination of the leather and perfume evoked a sense of mystery because I was never quite sure of where she was going (or had where she had been). My world was small—home, school, and the woods where I played with my friends. But my mother’s gloves awakened a need within me to see the world for myself. And I did. But nowadays, when I think of that combination of smells, my world shrinks to the kitchen table in the house where I first picked up her gloves and felt the softness of the leather. The smell still lingers.” — Dawn Upham, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Is fall the season that feels the most like home? Yes.
Is fall the season that feels the most like home? Yes. PXHERE/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Plants

Sagebrush after a summer rain in Eastern Montana

“The clean air, after the rain settled the dust on the farm.” — Jeff Cramer, Ely, Nevada

Hot sun on fallen pine needles

“In 1932, my great grandfather built a rough hewn cabin in Cedar Pines Park, near Crestline in the San Bernardino mountains. No indoor plumbing, wood stove, river rock fireplace. Every summer our extended family would spend two weeks living in the woods, sleeping out on the open porch under the trees and stars. Each night before bed we would leave birdseed and peanuts along the porch rail and awaken to watch the blue jays and chickadees and squirrels feasting on their breakfast. Any time I smell the scent of the sun-warmed pine needles, I am transported, in my olfactory lizard brain, back to those summers at the cabin.” — Joni, Gold Country, California

Dry earth and sun-scorched oregano and thyme plants, jasmine blossom, and petrichor

“I associate these smells with Greek summers, my childhood holidays. For better or for worse, these things never change and can instill a sense of home, of belonging and identity. I also think of home when I smell decomposing carcasses of roadkill, sadly a frequent feature of summer road trips in Greece.” — Angie Athanassiades, Athens, Greece

Gardenias and honeysuckle

“When I was a child in Mississippi (I’m 55), our house had a hedge of gardenias under my bedroom window, and every fence was covered in honeysuckle. In the humid evening, it was almost, but not quite overpowering. It has stuck with me all my life, even though we moved from that house when I was in 4th grade. Every time I smell gardenias and/or honeysuckle, it’s a time machine back to a wonderful childhood spent in a small Mississippi town, where we played outside all day long, returning home at dinner and no one worried. A place where we collected bottles on the side of the road to buy penny candy, where I went to Woolworths counter with my gramma for BLTs. Thanks for the memories :).” — Lisa Gonzales, Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Anything has the capacity to produce a smell that can make you wistful. Even a dumpster.
Anything has the capacity to produce a smell that can make you wistful. Even a dumpster. LAVIANO IMAGES/CC BY-SA 2.0

Pleasantly Unpleasant

Dumpsters

“It’s that particular odor that (usually empty) garbage dumpsters can take on—a vaguely sweet musky smell. It reminds me of pre-adolescence, living in New Orleans. My family would frequently go to the French Quarter Flea Market to sell craft items and household stuff we didn’t want. Sometimes I’d get to wander around the streets near the French Market a bit and I’d smell those dumpsters in the alleys. If I encounter that smell now it takes me right back there.” — Stephen Posey, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Mildewed canvas

“We moved houses quite often when I was young but every summer we always camped out in the same, big mildewed tent. It smelled best—I mean worse—in the morning dew. Camping was always a relaxed and happy time for us, in the woods, by a lake or at the seaside. I guess you could say that I am fonder of mildew than most people I know.” — Andrea Ipaktchi, Iran

Musty cardboard

“We keep our holiday decorations in cardboard boxes in a basement that is not the driest place on Earth. Over countless years, the boxes have absorbed that unmistakable funky dampness. Whenever I smell musty cardboard, it’s Christmas.” — Joseph Ditta, Brooklyn, New York

Cigar smoke

“It meant dad was home from the sea. He was a merchant seaman who would be gone for long periods.” — T. Gallegan, Delaware

‘Mussel mud’

“I grew up on the east coast of Canada (Prince Edward Island) and whenever the tide was out and the sun was shining, the flats that the mussels were on would start to smell and it’s not a great smell, like rotten seaweed, but I love it. Whenever I’m back home I hope for the perfect day for the smell but I know the locals that live there don’t. It reminds me of summers at the beach and sunny, salty days by the ocean.” — Jodi, Ottawa, Ontario

Hay bales mingled with manure, leather, and old wood

“I don’t think I’ll ever find it in a scented candle, but one can hope. Hard work, love for animals, and sexual awakening. I had my first tryst in that hayloft.” — Kelly Tabor, Columbia, South Carolina

Household chores such as mowing the lawn can be a smell explosion.
Household chores such as mowing the lawn can be a smell explosion. SKITTERPHOTO/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Machinery

Small gas engines

“Our family has a summer cabin on a lake. The smell of engine fumes reminds me of many happy childhood weekends spent boating, swimming, jet-skiing, four-wheeling, mowing the lawn, etc. Ahhh…” — Anne Laverty, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Oil on railroad tracks

“I am from Russia, so when I smell this oil I feel transported to Russia. There are a lot of railroad tracks in Russia and our dacha was close to railroad tracks (you could take a 20 minute train ride to get form the town to the dacha), so in the summer when we came in my dad’s car, the smell of the oil on railroad tracks when we were passing through was very strong. It is crazy but I love this smell because it takes me back in time to my childhood.” — Anastassia, East Moline, Illinois

The vacuum when it’s running

“It’s the combination of the mustiness of the carpet from a week’s worth of dirt and the smell of the vacuum’s plastic parts and bristles working. […] Cleaning the house on Saturday mornings while my dad plays his Motown CDs through his floor speakers, windows open.” — Amanda, Cleveland, Ohio

Even Pirates of the Caribbean's scents can inspire a wistful feeling of home.
Even Pirates of the Caribbean’s scents can inspire a wistful feeling of home. CLIFF JOHNSON/CC BY-SA 2.0

Huh!

The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland

“The ride’s musty smell reminds me of my grandmother’s basement in Northern Wisconsin!” — Kathe B., Southern California

Subzero air, caught in the fur of cats

“Our ‘cat door’ was a kitchen window. The cats would sit on the the top of a wooden ladder propped against the outside house wall. On very cold nights we had to be quick: open the window, scoop up the cat, close the window. I’d bury my nose in their fur as I welcomed them home, inhaling the cold night air. Now in Mexico, I still have cats but no frigid nights.” — Constance Stoner, Oaxaca, Mexico

Wicker

“Rocking my baby sister in a wicker bassinet and my mom’s bizarre and undying love for wicker furniture.” — Kristen, St. Louis, Missouri

Source: All the Sweet and Surprising Smells That Remind Us of Home