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Monday, September 19, 2011

Atlanta smells

No, it's not an insult. That's a noun in the title, not a verb. Have you ever heard the "Atlanta Sounds" segment on WABE in the morning? Little snippets of noise, atmosphere, moments in daily life that register in your ear and call to mind our city, our Atlanta? I wish radio or the Internet could convey smell, aroma, just as easily. The moment you walk into Octane and the sharp, heady wave of ground and brewing coffee hits your nostrils. The hint of sugar and dough in the air outside Sublime Doughnuts as you make your way in and anticipate the overwhelming agony of picking just one or two.

I happen to live near a Houston's, and drive by most mornings as they are getting their wood-burning oven going for lunch. A more powerful marketing message does not exist. The smell of a fire, good seasoned wood, has to be one of the most compelling things on earth. It's primal, registering somewhere in our subconscious as a source of something good, something necessary for survival.

I can vividly recall house hunting in a California neighborhood near a chocolate factory, asking the realtor what that amazing smell was that permeated the air. The house was a piece of crap, but the aroma nearly sealed the deal.

When I lived in Manhattan, walking to work each day, I always made sure to wind my way by the kitchen vents outside Jean Georges around 8 a.m. Jets of air carrying the essence of stocks, reductions, sauces, who-knows-what-wonders-awaited, would hit my nostrils for just a brief few fleeting seconds, and I would be happy. Of course, a few blocks later, the hot steamy horse manure along Central Park would negate all that Jean Georges could provide. But that's New York, heaven and hell just a block or two apart.

In Atlanta, we don't have many signature smells. We don't have the saline spray of the ocean, the heavy pine of the mountains, the swampy stink of the Low Country. We do have pollen out the wazoo, but that's not so much a smell as it is a smell inhibitor. I'm sure dogwood flowers smell great, but I can't for the life of me call up the memory of that smell in my brain's filing cabinet. The "HOT DONUTS NOW" of a Krispy Kreme on Ponce might qualify, or the malty air hovering around SweetWater Brewery, but that's a dead-end road most people never see. Maybe if I drove by Fox Brothers every day, I could get my nasal fix. Maybe if Batdorf & Bronson moved their roasting facility to Howell Mill instead of a hidden away office park, I could load up on the scent of caffeine in the morning. For now, I'm stuck with Houston's. It's no Jean Georges, but it's not such a bad place to be, either.

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