mad in pursuit


Smell of Onions Frying

Take this journey back with me in time. Based on a journal entry from several years ago, the images are still strong for me... growing up... a powerful sense of belonging... a blossoming sense of independence and mastery.

It's about 3 minutes long:


Original Text (4.14.00)

I've always loved the smell of onions cooking in a frying pan. They signify slowing down and taking care. You really can't sauté onions too fast unless you have a taste for something charred and if you don't take the time with the heat turned low the rest of the meal is tortured by their raw crunch. They simply have to cook at their own pace.

When I was young the smell of onions being sautéed signaled the kind of meal I loved: chili or, if we were lucky enough to have leftover beef, hash.

sweet aromaThe aroma of onions is the chatter of the pressure cooker and the blackness of winter evenings through a steamed up kitchen window. There is probably a television droning somewhere, sisters arguing, brother and dad talking soccer, Lowell Thomas announcing the news on radio, but the smell of onions takes me elsewhere.

Frying onions, chattering pressure cooker, steamy dark windows: the memory takes me into the streets. Wending my way home from high school on winter evenings.

I went to Xavier High School for Girls, adjacent to St. Louis University in the center of the city. Sometimes my grandfather picked me up on his way home from work but I often stayed late for activities or to study at the university library.

The library was new, a big block of a building. I'd usually go with a girlfriend and we'd find a table to spread out our papers and index cards and books. We were always doing research for English class, struggling to synthesize the wisdom of literary critics without plagiarizing them. We worked under harsh deadlines and I still remember the sensation of achy tiredness and the minty aftertaste of No-Doze. The library smelled like a swimming pool. I don't know what combination of books, carpeting and wooden furniture added up to that chlorinated conclusion but I always thought of it that way. And I always felt like I was floating along under water in there, in that squared-off container for a sea of knowledge. Some nights it was a drag but it was a comfort too: all the answers were there in the books and I was learning to dig them out.

When we'd had enough, we'd leave the library into the urban night. The direct way home was a hike down West Pine and over Grand to catch the Lindenwood bus on Market street — a good mile or so. But I was always carrying about 20 pounds of books and the skirt-and-bobby-socks uniform meant chapped thighs in cold weather. And the lonely walk along Grand passed too many dark spaces and abandoned warehouses.

Better to catch the Lindell bus with my girlfriend, go all the way downtown and transfer to the Lindenwood bus on Sixth Street outside Stix Baer & Fuller.

Rush hour in winter: darkness and city lights. Lumbering loud buses with their stinking exhaust. Honking horns. Why is this sensory image so powerful for me? I was standing on the balcony at our hotel in Quito in 1998. The sun had set. It was rush hour and a flood of "going home after school" images flowed over me. Why is the memory more potent than going home in Daylight Savings Time? Maybe going home in daylight is more light-hearted. Dawdling is expected. You might be going somewhere your parents tell you will be fun: like, ugh, softball practice.

Going home in darkness is more purposeful. The lights are on for you. The red tail lights have a destination. You've had a full day of business in winter — no spring fever, no gazing out the window at rustling trees. Night presses in and you make the transition. You may have an evening of studying ahead of you, but first your family will be waiting for you in the kitchen with the steamed window, the chattering pressure cooker, and the sweet smell of sautéed onions.

Drop me a line!