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To outsiders, the U.S. smells like more than just freedom. These are just some of the all-American scents every expat will come to adore. Or at the very least tolerate.
Head to any sports stadium or major metropolitan area in the U.S., and there’s that smoky, chemically stabilized meat scent, like someone microwaved a Peperami. You’ll start off not quite trusting the smell—or the street vendors hawking its source. But before long, you’ll succumb and eat a hotdog bought from one of those little carts, and it will be good. Very, very good. Suddenly, that smell signifies intense deliciousness.
Whether it’s the real thing or an artificial reproduction funneled into an air freshener, sweet apple pie smell permeates America—from its cafes and fast food joints to shops and homes. At first it’s cloying, but eventually it’ll be comfortingly familiar.
U.S. supermarkets, restaurants, malls and department stores tend to smell of cinnamon. Whether this is because businesses pipe the smell in a conspicuous move to make us drool and open our wallets, or we’re just sniffing the overabundance of cinnamon-flavored products on sale in the U.S., isn’t quite clear.
Every American recipe for a sweet baked good calls for far more vanilla essence than we’d ever feel comfortable using in the U.K. The smell is delicious, if a little overpowering. Head to any bakery or cupcake shop in the U.S., and this is the dominant scent.
Around late October, pumpkins take over America. And so does their sweet aroma. But surprisingly, the unadorned flesh of these resplendent gourds doesn’t smell very nice at all. (Think rotting vegetable odor.) But put it in a pie, blend in sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, and it becomes a completely different—and delicious-smelling—beast.
Java is to Americans what tea is to Brits. So it’s reliably found in the scent mix anywhere that people gather. Here in NYC, coffee smell even dominates peak commuter times on the subway. New Yorkers think nothing of holding a paper cup the length of their arm in one hand and an iPad in the other.
Bacon and maple syrup
I’ve talked before about America’s obsession with combining sweet and savory. But this eccentric fusing of food groups has just as powerful an effect on the nose as the tongue. The most aromatic example is pancakes with bacon slathered in maple syrup. Breathe in deep next time you order a short stack.
America produces so much of the stuff the smell can be extremely concentrated. Sometimes, it’s like breathing in chip fat essential oil. This should be revolting but, sadly for our arteries and waistlines, is the exact opposite.
Public buildings in the U.S. seem to keep the A/C on no matter what the temperature is outside. So everywhere—from banks to malls—has that processed, dry air smell. Weirdly, it’s not unpleasant.
In cities like New York where it’s common for people to do their washing at Laundromats, the air can be thick with soapy flowers and chemically reproduced meadow smell. You might actually find yourself pausing at those sweet spots on the high street where the scented air is most concentrated to breathe it in.
What whiff catches your nose?
See more posts by Ruth Margolis
Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.