For people born in the rural South during the first half of the previous century, smoke is the ribbon that ties memories together and the spark that regenerates those memories and makes them vivid again.
Weekly visits to the old home place on Sunday after preaching to visit my grandmother are among my first recollections. The house was a dogtrot structure; separate boxes divided by an open breezeway through the middle. The two front rooms had fireplaces. The kitchen was powered by a wood burning stove with a vent pipe through the roof.
The smoke from the fireplaces smelled different from the stove even though both were fueled by the same woodpile. Maybe the makeup of the vessels the smoke poured from created change; maybe because one was a source of heat and comfort while the other also was instrumental in food preparation; maybe it was my imagination.
According to my father, his dad would catch young men warming by the fire and pull the leg of their britches, giving them a start and slight burn. Everyone else got a good laugh. That image materializes every time I smell fire place smoke drifting through the air.
Decades later I was visiting a new home. The owner had a wood burning stove in the kitchen. His wife insisted; she couldn’t get the hang of cooking on gas or electric devices. As I watched cornbread bubble in a seasoned iron skillet, my grandmother’s ghost filled the room.
When I was a kid you could walk through the neighborhood, whether it was in the sparsely populated counties of western Alabama or downtown Birmingham, and smell leaves burning. The aroma was much more prevalent during the fall.
Families spent Saturday mornings quietly raking the leaves into a big pile and then burning them. Kids were usually allowed one jump each into the pile before dad got irritated. Today the smell is as scarce as seeing people wave to each other. Most folks mulch leaves with their lawnmower or blow them into the road or the neighbor’s yard. There is too much to do to waste time raking and enjoying a quiet morning together.
About the time porch lights ignited and mothers beckoned kids home for supper, the aroma of wood smoke drifting between the houses was visible as well as fragrant. You could look out the window at bedtime and still see the glow of the leaf pile as it slowly died.
The first outdoor grill I saw was at my uncle’s place in Texas. He was cooking steaks with mesquite. The smell was unlike any I had experienced before. My uncle was curious about how the Texas steak stacked up to previous ones. I’m pretty sure it was the first real steak I ever consumed but I told him steaks in Alabama were better. He said the mesquite tree was strong enough to carry out a hanging for anyone who didn’t appreciate good beef. He was probably joking. I grill dead meat year round and have for many years and don’t ever remember the same scent as that evening in San Antonio.
Scientifically, smoke is the result of a chemical reaction. To a lot of older southerners it is the scrapbook of our lives.