To support my efforts to produce 30 posts in 30 days for National Blogging Post Month, my friend Laura Kimball has been providing writing prompts for me and my fellow blogger, Harmony Hasbrook.

Last night, Laura gave us the following prompt:

Smell, the sense that triggers the richest, most obscure memories during the most awkward times. Write about a time when a smell triggered a deep or odd memory. What was the smell? What was the memory? And did that recollection cause you to do anything in that present moment.

I was completely stymied by this prompt. I had no idea what to write about. I sifted through memories of a variety of smells—ranging from pleasant to repugnant—but nothing moved me to write. Then a faint recollection tugged at me.

I don’t recall how old I was, but I do know that I was fairly young. I was with my mother, and she was running errands around town. She took me into our local Filipino grocery store with her, and right when we entered, an odor akin to rotting fish assaulted my nose. I gagged, and I really thought I was going to vomit. There was a bathroom in the store, and I may have run into it to retch over the toilet.

I told my mother that the store stank and that I needed to leave. She took me outside and had me wait in our car while she finished shopping. When she finally returned, she made no mention of what had happened. From then on, I would wait inside the car whenever my mother needed to go to the Filipino grocery store.

This went on for years until I was a young teenager. One day I decided that I was bored waiting in the car, and I went inside the store. The air was slightly humid and smelled of rice, bamboo, and plastic packaging. I enjoyed looking at the posters for Filipino movies that you could rent, and I picked out some rice candy.

After that, I accompanied my mother whenever she needed to shop at the Filipino grocery store. My mother made no remark on the change.

Years later when I was an adult, that particular store came up in conversation, and my mother said with anger in her voice, “You told me the store stank.”

It was only then that I realized the pain and embarrassment that my mother may have felt when I told her that I didn’t like how the Filipino grocery store smelled and even how it made me physically ill. Was it a signal to her that I was rejecting my heritage and possibly rejecting her?

I never had any issues with being Filipino, but I did often feel estranged from my culture. My parents never taught me how to speak Tagalog. We never talked about Filipino traditions or history. I wonder if mother consciously held back from teaching my about being Filipino because of what had happened in the store. Keeping me ignorant was punishment for my apparent rejection of Filipino things. Or maybe my mother was shielding herself from further disappointment.


Filed under Essays, Filipino food, Food and race, NaBloPoMo 2013

8 responses to “Smells

  1. Oh, wow, Madeline, what a great memory and post. Knowing how much your heritage is part of who you are today, I would never know that you were estranged before. As a friend who has tasted your cooking, I’m glad you walked back into that store.

    • Madeline Moy

      Laura, I’ve had to fight to claim my Filipino identity and make it a part of who I am. It’s hard work that never ends and totally worth it.

  2. deedeemama

    My heart goes out to you M. That is a tough story and not entirely resolved either. It makes me want to see you go deeper.

    • Madeline Moy

      This definitely could be the start of a longer piece. Not sure if I’m ready to pursue it, but I will eventually go deeper.

  3. Wonderfully told. Very moving vignette!


    I went home for my 20 year high school reunion, which this alone is enough to force anyone into deep reflection. For the most part I stayed with my sister who was kind enough to take me in.

    One night our Mother was with us and we decided to recreate a dish my Grandmother used to make called Sio Pao. Unfortunately, her recipe has never been written down and we were forced to try and recreate it by our collective memories.

    As the home started filling with the familiar and unique smell of the dough it brought me right back to being a kid watching my Grandmother sitting at our kitchen table making the Sio Pao. I remember even though we had a Kitchen Aid stand mixer (with dough hook) and a bread maker she insisted on kneading the dough by hand (a very arduous task).

    I was surprised at how that the smell brought me right back to those days. The memories came back so vividly, even down to what she wore. I wish I could say it was comforting to me. But it was not. It saddened me. And here is the thing about smell, it’s inescapable. I couldn’t go into another room and shut the door. The aroma would seep its way under the door and through the cracks and envelope me with the truths and memories I have denied for so long. I wasn’t going to be allowed to get off so easy, not this time. More than a decade after my Grandmother’s departure, it was time to face the music.

    I so wish that I could say that together we were able to perfectly recreate my Grandmother’s recipe and that we were able to have that small but meaningful part of her again. But we failed. What ever secret method or ingredient she used, she took with her. But then I thought, maybe we weren’t meant to get it right. After all, were we trying to duplicate a recipe or trying to recreate a memory? If the latter, was she the unknown factor that was missing in the recipe and that will always be missing? In being so focused with experimenting with ingredients, (more soy, less salt, another bay leaf) were we missing the point? Were all of our attempts in vain?

    I can’t say that I came away from this experience at peace or even purged. But I realized that, at least for me, it was too painful trying (and trying and trying) to duplicate her recipe. Actually the painful part was not the trying and trying , but the failing and failing. We would just have to start fresh and accept that the time in our lives we associated with those flavors and aromas are over and gone. We would have to come up with our own version of Sio Pao….and write the darn thing down.

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