Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Smell of Childhood

Ed Cullen has been writing for the Baton Rouge newspaper, The Advocate for more than thirty years. He has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered frequently since 2001, and from that came the idea to put together a collection of essays in book form. The result was the 2006 collection called Letter in a Woodpile, published by Cool Springs Press. The book offers in slightly different form forty-nine of Cullen’s essays that first appeared in The Advocate, and in some cases those heard on NPR.

A Louisiana native, Cullen’s writing brims with the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that so richly describe his hometown and surrounding parishes. His subjects are centered in neighborhoods, backyards and side streets, all enhanced by particular sounds and smells that throb with southern Louisiana authenticity.

The forty-nine essays are a spicy gumbo of observations, strolls, car rides and simple encounters over the years of growing up and living in Louisiana. In a similar manner Alfred Kazin did the same thing with New York in A Walker in the City, and Studs Terkel with Chicago in Talking to Myself. What each of these writers offer their readers is an almost tangible flavor distinct to its locale.

My introduction to the work of Ed Cullen came long, long after I’d left my Baton Rouge hometown. Four or five years ago I was listening to NPR in Tokyo and heard an essay that identified Louisiana in the first sentence. It was Ed Cullen reading his short essay, “Aroma Inventory.” It had been some time since I’d been thrust so wholly back into the sights and smells of my childhood, and I quickly made a note of the writer’s name. Some time later I discovered Letter in a Woodpile and quickly ordered a copy. Without plan or expectation I received a signed first edition shortly afterward.

Here is an excerpt from the essay, “Aroma Inventory” that caught my attention on NPR…

‘One afternoon, dripping from mowing the yard, I sat in the shade drinking ice water, and the smell of Tanker, the yardman of my childhood, ambled up.

Tanker worked hard in the summer and didn’t bathe unnecessarily. His smell was more than human. He smelled like a rotting tree in the woods, the edge of a bayou, a pile of leaves. He smelled like the oil on the blades of his push lawnmower. He smelled of sweat stained khakis, ruined felt hat, and big leather shoes his feet had pushed over to look like speedboats making tight turns.

I imagined that Tanker smelled like the pioneers in my school books.

I think of Tanker and I think of the summer smells of long ago—heat rising through the crape myrtle blossoms at street’s edge, storm drains, the exhaust of passing cars, wet dogs. When the air was still and hot, you could smell a woman’s perfume above the sidewalk three minutes after she’d walked by.’


  1. What a great story that took me, too, back to sights, sounds, and smells of Louisiana!!! I remember reading Ed Cullen and in fact, knew him.

    P.S. That is a beautiful bromeliad.

  2. Yeah, the man can write. And as I've said to you a few times, Keep blogging. Many, many of your blog entries could easily fit into a volume of your own one day.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America