The Scent of A City

I met Maryellen Burns over a year ago.  Our meetings and conversations became frequent as we discovered our common interest in food.  Not to mention her extensive Sacramento area food history knowledge (she can paint pictures that take you back to what it was like and make you smile), she’s a lively character, great cook (had a catering business for several years) and one of my closest friends, having a food literature and cookbook collection that most of us will only dream of.  Please welcome Maryellen and her Scent of A City!

When I was a kid we used to play games with blindfolds on.  Pin the tail on the donkey, blind man’s bluff, robot and controller, and blind artist – games that in general I sucked at.

The one game I loved was You are Here. Blindfolded, you’d be led from house to house and have to guess who lived there by the smell.

Rosemary’s family originally came from Portugal.  Her place smelled of saffron, chorizo and cinnamon; the Gee’s a blend of anise, cloves, garlic, Sichuan pepper and ginger.  Others were harder to discern.  Everyone’s mother cooked spaghetti the same way – canned tomatoes, hamburger, onions, garlic powder, and just a hint of oregano.  And, there wasn’t much variation in their recipes for meatloaf, fish sticks or fried chicken.  Maybe because I was blindfolded so often (my brothers used to run me into cars, with the blindfold still on) I developed a heightened sense of smell and almost always won. Eventually I was able to perceive where I was no matter where in town, just by sniffing.

A whiff of hot dogs, roasting peanuts, and beer was a clue that the Solon baseball team was home at Edmonds FieldSouthside Park, with its fragrant scent of chili peppers, cilantro, and fresh corn masa, was distinctly different from the adjacent Asian neighborhood.  It smelled exotic — sweet, sour, piquant, bitter, and salty all at the same time.  Freshly baked bread at the Wonder Bread factory announced North Sacramento.  The West End, with its bouquet of cheap alchohol, puke and urine used to make me retch, but Horst Hop Farm, in what is now Campus Commons, gave off a redolent mix of yeasty, cerealy, malt that got me drunk with pleasure.

The only time my internal odor compass was off was during cannery processing season. Every week the air was saturated with a different fragrance.  The sweet, syrupy perfume of fruit and the savory, herby, vinegary appeal of tomatoes obliterated all trace of anything else.

Most of the women in New Helvetia, the public housing project we lived in, worked in the canneries.  During World War II they flourished at important jobs on military bases, the civic sector, or in government. They hadn’t intended on working when their husbands returned, but many Vets were out of work, and it was work seasonally at the canneries or no work at all.

They toiled as tomato sorters and vegetable packers from the sultriness of early June through the blistering heat of summer and crisp cool nights of fall.  They’d complain that no amount of scrubbing or lye soap could remove the stink and stain in their hair, clothes or skin.  So, I was surprised when they’d come home with lugs of tomatoes and fruit to preserve for use all winter.

“They work in a cannery,” I thought. “Why don’t they just bring home Libby Peaches or Del Monte Tomatoes?

My brothers said it dealt with knowing how much rodent feces were legally allowed into each can but I suspect it had more to do with tradition, friendship, and community.

Tomatoes were especially cheap to preserve.  They could be purchased at the produce market on 5th Street for a $1 a bushel and yield 15 quarts or more of tomatoes.  Canning your own reduced the cost by half.

Everyone contributed to the effort. First, Edith would set a big 30-quart pot on the fire pit in our communal back yard and fill it with water.  Once boiling, someone would pour the tomatoes in and let them sit for thirty seconds.  Then two or three others would quickly scoop them up and put them into ice-cold water, so another team could start peeling and capture the juices that ran out.

While everyone else labored in the tomato-bursting heat, my mother and I sterilized quart size mason jars while standing in front of a kitchen fan.  Hundreds of quarts of fruits and vegetables were processed each September and divided up equally among families.

When we opened each jar come winter, I’d close my eyes, take a deep breath, and re-experience summer.

By the early 80’s all canneries had closed, the city enacted a lot of odor ordinances, and except for an occasional hint of Campbell’s Tomato Soup in the air, Sacramento seemed to lose its distinctive smell.

Maybe its because I’m getting older but I miss the smells of my childhood.  The aroma of See’s Karmelkorn outside the Fox Theater on K Street; strawberry fields massed on 65th Street; garlic, mortadella, salami, and bologna perfuming Pennisi’s Deli.   I even miss the smell of rotting fish on 10th Street, the stench of manure crossing the Yolo Causeway and the rice smoke that filled my throat during burning season.

What is there now to replace the scent of the city that nourished me as a child?

If I take time to truly breathe in my environment I’ll eventually find my way to newly roasted coffee at Temple, fresh-popped popcorn at the Tower Theater, and rosemary, thyme and lavender growing by the curbside.

And, in just a few weeks, when the first beans, chard, and peas begin to peek, if I put on a blindfold, and drink in deeply, I might smell spring.

Twenty-Minute Spaghetti

This is the first spaghetti recipe I made at about age eight.  It’s called Twenty-Minute Spaghetti because in the twenty minutes it takes for the water to boil and the noodles to cook the simple sauce can be assembled.  I called my mother at work to get her recipe.  I wrote it down in a childish scroll and missed a step or two when assembling it.

  • Make five minute tomato sauce.
  • Sauté onions, mushrooms and hamburger, and then toss into boiled, drained spaghetti noodles.
  • Serve with Kraft’s Parmesan cheese.

After I tossed the spaghetti with the meat, onions and mushroom, I realized I hadn’t mixed them into the tomato sauce, so just piled it on top, just like Italian families in New Helvetia ate theirs.  Of course, everyone just mixed it up in the bowl anyway, but I still thought it was the prettiest bowl of spaghetti I’d ever seen.


20-Minute Tomato Sauce


First off, I have to say that I if you’re reading Sacatomato you should already have a favorite tomato sauce, and should know how to sauté ground beef, onions and mushrooms, but if you’re the type that likes to follow recipes, here goes:


1 lb. of spaghetti noodles

Big pot of salted boiling water.


¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

3 cloves of garlic

Zest of one lemon

1 28-ounce can crushed San Marzano tomatoes with Basil.

Fresh ground sea salt and pepper to taste

Meat and Vegetables:

½ lb of high quality ground beef.

1 chopped onion

½ lb of chopped mushrooms

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano


Noodles: Put big pot of salted water on to boil.  Add pasta noodles and cook until al dente. Should take about twenty minutes from start to finish.

Sauce: While water is heating, combine the olive oil, lemon and garlic in a cold saucepan. Sauté over medium-high for 45 seconds or until fragrant.  Be careful not to burn the garlic and lemon.  Stir in the crushed tomatoes and heat to a gentle simmer.  Remove from the heat and carefully taste.  Add sea salt and pepper to taste.  If you like your sauce with a bit of heat, add some red pepper flakes. Fresh basil in the garden?  Throw some in.

Meat: Sauté beef, in its own fat.  When cooked through add chopped onion and mushroom. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


Find a nice platter.  Toss the spaghetti noodles, meat, onion and mushroom mixture together and place on the plate.  Top with tomato sauce.  Take a photo of it, because once your family or friends start plowing into it, it will look like every other spaghetti you ever ate.

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