It’s an old real estate ploy. You’re selling your house, and some prospective buyers are coming over to look at it. You pop an apple pie (homemade or store-bought-frozen – doesn’t matter) into your oven, timing its doneness with their arrival. They do a walk-through — sniffing about, so to speak. Optimum result? Although your house may not look like the prospective buyers’ dream home, it sure smells like it. They’re transported.  They turn to you, dreamily, and ask, “Where do we sign?”


When I had a small catering business in Manhattan in the ’90s, I made it a practice to bring almost-risen bread dough to the clients’ homes to bake off in their kitchen so that the just-baked-homemade-bread fragrance would be the first thing to greet dinner party guests when they walked through the door.  I considered this tactic part of my marketing strategy. My business, Bonnie Fare Catering, specialized in “upscale, down-home cooking.”  What could be more down-home than homemade bread?


Marketing professionals know that the nose knows.  In fact, the nose knows more than it can tell.  Of the five senses – visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory – the olfactory sense, or sense of smell, is hampered by our inability to attach language to it.  While the human tongue can distinguish only among five distinct qualities of taste – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (“meaty”) – the nose can distinguish among hundreds of substances, even in minute quantities.  However, humans have difficulty identifying and labeling olfactory stimuli.  We just can’t find the right words.


When it comes to memories, though, the sense of smell excels.


As Sarah Dowdey wrote in the online article “How Smell Works,” “a smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect their work performance.  Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the ‘emotional brain,’ smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.”


One of the in-class writing exercise prompts I now use in my Creative Nonfiction courses at UNM-Taos involves what researchers might term “olfaction-related responses to memories,” or what I just call smell-memories.  When I pass around small amounts of fragrant, common, natural substances – a slice of lemon, say, or a whole grated nutmeg, or an open jar of ground cinnamon – and ask students to write a short piece on a memory one of these substances evokes for them, the pens fly.


Curiously, cinnamon often wins. Poignant personal narratives emerge along similar lines:  Making cinnamon-sugar cookies with Grandma four decades ago, winter holiday family gatherings at Aunt So-and-So’s big house in the country while she was still alive. (This storied aunt always won top prizes for her apple pie at the local county fair, which was clearly what drew the whole family to her house.)  As Dowdey points out, “Because we encounter most new odors in our youth, smells often call up childhood memories.”  The stories that emerge from these exercises are invariably drawn from childhood.


Which brings me to mine, in brief:  My mother Lee made the best pies – especially apple pies – in the world, not just the county.  (My daughter seems to take after Lee in this respect; pie-making prowess appears to skip a generation.)  The following recipe was my mother’s favorite.  Try making it for your Thanksgiving feast. It will give everyone – especially the children – indelible memories of home and family. And keep the recipe handy in case you ever decide to sell your house.


Lee’s Paper Bag Apple Pie


Prepare an unbaked 9-inch pastry shell.  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.


Peel, core and quarter four large baking apples, then cut each quarter in half, crosswise, to make chunks. Drizzle apple chunks with 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice.


Combine ½ cup white sugar, 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg [or ground cinnamon!]; sprinkle this mixture over apples and toss. Spoon apples into pastry shell.


For the topping: combine ½ cup light brown sugar, ½ cup all-purpose flour, and ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter; sprinkle this mixture over apples to cover top.


Slide pie into a large brown paper bag [Note: I’m sure a turkey-size Reynolds “Oven Bag” would work equally well]; secure open-end tightly; place on a large cookie sheet.

Bake for 1 hour. Remove from bag and cool on a wire rack.


Have a happy – and fragrant – Thanksgiving!