Editor’s Note: Scent of a Cellar

Editor Rebecca Martin describes the look, feel, and smell of her Grandmother Josephine’s cellar, and talks about the link from smell to memory.

| Fall 2019

jars
Photo by Getty Images/Kimbra Ritchie

Every fall and winter, I walk down into my basement pantry and grab jars of canned tomatoes, pickled okra, or peaches for supper. I stand in front of those shelves filled with food I’ve put up all summer long, and dream up a meal. Those of you who put up your own food understand the satisfaction of pulling from your own stock to feed your family.

Whenever I crawl into my dingy basement, I compare it with the best food cellar I’ve ever known: my grandmother Josephine’s — a true cellar, dug into the soil directly below the center of the house so it could double as a storm cellar. I always enjoyed getting sent into that underground place, because it was a sensory experience. The wooden stairs were steep; just a few more degrees of incline and they could’ve been considered a ladder. You could see the dirt floor approaching as you descended because there weren’t any risers. When you landed on the floor — careful not to bump your head on the low ceiling — you were surrounded by stacked limestone walls that always appeared to be crumbling, yet never failed.

By now you have a picture in your mind of a slightly seedy, cramped, late-1800s cellar, but what I wish to convey to you is the smell: musty and sweet, a distinctive combination of damp stone, dirt, and food. These days, when I’m lucky enough to stumble upon a place that smells nearly the same, I’m transported back to Grandma’s cellar, when I was 12 years old and on an errand.



That cellar sheltered the best food from my childhood. Besides holding jars of every kind of pickled cucumber imaginable, the shelves strained under the weight of jams made from fruit grown on the farm. Jars of pie cherries and peaches waited for Grandma to break out the rolling pin and rustle up some crust. Stacked cardboard flats on the bottom shelves were packed with eggs from her Cornish Rock hens — free range before anyone had even thought up that term. Even now, as I describe the cellar for you, my impressions are of complex tangles of taste and smell; the dusky scent of the room will forever be interwoven with the flavors of the meals Grandma made with its delicious contents.

After my grandmother passed away, my mom asked me if I wanted anything to remember Grandma by. I chose several of her old, colored glass canning jars. Their market value didn’t matter; my choice was about preserving those intense recollections of her cellar.






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