There were two signs in the window of our small restaurant.
no rest days and open all day.
My father in his workwear, a white chef’s jacket and black and white checked trousers. Never without a fluttering tea towel on his shoulder, as if he’d trained it to sit there. The speed with which he would cut onions, the look of concentration on his face, red and glowing from the heat, mouth slightly open as if he couldn’t get enough air. The kitchen full of hissing and rustling. A flash of flame shooting upwards from time to time.
I learned very early on to read the level of strain my father was under before speaking to him, in his face, in his eyes, in the corners of his mouth. Like a room within a room I wasn’t allowed to enter.
The stainless-steel surfaces, the small window hatch, the industrial dishwasher, the double deep fat fryer. The extraction system, the shaft of which hung like a huge steel caterpillar from the ceiling. The studded tiles on the floor that would acquire a film of grease throughout the day, making you slip while walking around the kitchen island.
My father would come back to the apartment late at night; I could hear him through the thin walls. He took a long, thorough shower to remove the smell of grease from his hair.
My mother in a black skirt, sensible shoes and a white, stiffly ironed bow tied behind her back. Three or four plates in one hand; a porcelain fan. A smile always on her lips, which immediately dropped from her face once she was behind the swinging kitchen door. When it was emptier in the afternoons, she would sit at table one, completely done, lay her head on her folded arms, and sleep.
With every new piece of writing about my parents, the distance between us grows. Like a track-and-zoom, where the camera moves away from the object while simultaneously zooming in. The viewer experiences ‘a feeling of vertigo’ (James Monaco).
In her exhibition Marble Project, the artist Hisako Inoue spread 80,000 chocolate buttons across a large stage. Visitors crushed the buttons with their feet, transforming them into a sweet-smelling, earthy mass. Hisako Inoue went on to create several exhibitions on the theme of scent and memory.
I’m lying in bed again, haven’t moved for a while. I don’t work some days. I’ve recently started calling them rest days. I run my hands over the bedspread, sniff the fabric. The little glass jar holding golden-yellow liquid, red twist-top lid, and a label bearing my sister’s handwriting.
From a dish washer to an author who writes about washing dishes.
Have I done this because being a writer of texts requires less physical effort? What exactly have I done? Why do I feel as uncomfortable in an art gallery as I do when having a drink with the regulars down at my local? I write these questions in my notebook. Still lying down, so the pen loses ink, and the writing slowly thins out.
I shut my notebook. It feels badly made, the pages are much too thick and the paper’s been bleached with chlorine. It’s not the tool of an author, I think. Cheap and worthless objects suddenly appear, as if exposed by a low tide. Since beginning my olfactory investigation, the things around me keep transforming into sources of shame.
I put ‘fried food smell’ in the search engine of my computer and inspect the autocomplete, which shows, among other things, what has been most searched for:
Fried food smell . . . in the kitchen
Fried food smell . . . remove
Fried food smell . . . dispel
Fried food smell . . . get out the apartment
Grease, an undeniable part of my biography – it plagues me and resists all attempts to be eliminated from my life. A filthiness that encompasses and permeates me.
‘Smells are surer than sounds or sights / To make your heart-strings crack’ (Rudyard Kipling)
Fried food smell . . . out my life
I leave my apartment for some fresh air. As I walk through the streets, I phone my sister. She talks about her job, the pressures and the stress of it. I picture her before me, wearing protective coveralls and blue plastic clouds on her feet. When it starts to rain, I wedge myself into a doorway and stay there until she’s finished talking.
A homeless man gets on the train, he’s selling a magazine. He runs from one door to the next. As the train curves, he holds tightly onto the rail. I buy a copy; the magazine is called Arts of the Working Class. The seller thanks me for the money and wishes me a nice day. I take a closer look at the issue. ‘Number 16: The Food Issue’.
At the overground station I encounter a warm, stuffy wind. I reflexively hold my breath. The square in front of the fast-food restaurant is brightly lit, a meeting place for young people. I sit in the window of McDonald’s and watch a boy eating chips. His father is sitting next to him wearing a baseball cap, playing Candy Crush on his smartphone. I briefly have the impulse to call off my study of oil, because this scene already contains everything I want to write about.
‘During deep-frying not only desired changes occur, like crusting of the outer area, cooking processes within the food and the formation of typical flavour components’ (‘Theory of Deep-Frying’, Optimum Deep-Frying: Recommendations from the German Society for Fat Science)
The words of a classmate: ‘I can smell chips, Ilija’s coming!’
I return to my apartment in the evening. I hang my jacket over the chair on the balcony. Then I take a long, thorough shower, lie in bed and immediately fall asleep. I dream that I work at the German Society for Fat Science as an ‘Oil Expert’ in the ‘Flavour Crackdown’ department.
After school I helped at the restaurant. I was young enough for work to feel like a game. I would be stationed at the dishwasher, pushing in the racks of dirty plates and pulling them back out on the other side. I turned the temperature up on the fryer, reached my hands into a big plastic bag and tossed cool strips of potato into the frying basket. My father would make a gesture (‘bit more/less’), or he nodded, and only then would I dunk the basket into the hot oil.
Every morning my mother wrote the daily specials in beautiful, looped handwriting on the freshly wiped board. Right at the top was the set menu, with soup or dessert. If the board was still wet, nothing was legible; it was only after a few minutes that the chalk would emerge from the blank board. My father named the dishes, my mother the prices. Every day there would be a brief court hearing, 12.50 or 13.50, with or without salad. Dish and price always reconciled in the end.
At some point business slowed down. My father began staring not into the kitchen but out front into the dining room, keeping an eye out for customers. I sat for hours in the window so I would look like a patron to the people walking by in the street. A fourteen-year-old ordering one small Coke after another as if he had too much pocket money. My mother was often in the office, a windowless room next to the kitchen, where we kept a bucket and tinned food. She would sit in front of a pile of invoices and paperwork wearing reading glasses and a pinched expression.
When my parents’ last restaurant closed, they divorced and my father returned to Croatia. My mother continued to work as a waitress. For a while she worked in McDonald’s.
‘Fries are like best friends – they’re always there. It’s a given. And when they’re not there, we realise that they’re worth their weight in gold!’ (mcdonalds.de)
Why does it still take so much effort to talk about all this even now? As if my fixation said something about my family and not much else about the circumstances in which we live.
My mother couldn’t smell especially well, her nose was always blocked. She had an operation because she couldn’t breathe properly. The procedure involved removing Polyps from her nose.
I listen to a voice recording I made a few months ago while I was jogging. I can’t remember doing it, and my voice doesn’t sound like mine. ‘You can never get rid of the smell, no matter how hard you try,’ the voice says, in four seconds, panting and gasping, my feet pounding in the background.
The list of details and scraps that catch my eye grows longer every day.
‘My mother didn’t like: [. . . ] old roasting fat, McDonald’s’ (Daniela Dröscher)
In a story by Oskar Panizza about a hiker who spends the night in an inn: ‘When I got up, the sun was already shining into my room and the hot, disgusting smell of cooking was coming from below [. . .]’
The friend who says ‘I worked in a burger bar ten years ago, only for a few weeks, but my clothes still smell of the deep fryer.’
The car park in front of the supermarket. Deserted, only a woman with a pushchair walking towards me. There’s nothing in the buggy apart from a bag of frozen chips.
‘We’re looking for people who are only interested in yellow’ (a poster for the Berlin Transport Company, with yellow trains, employees in yellow outfits, and a picture of some chips).
An article on the internet: ‘What’s it like when your identity is associated with a smell? We asked seven people who have the same name as popular plant scents.’
‘Ulja’ – the Croatian word for oil is very similar to my name.
After secondary school, my sister trained in a pharmacy. She now works for a pharmaceutical company, in the quality assurance department. Her job entails checking the cleanliness of surfaces and lowering her expectations. She likes live broadcasts on TV (tennis, winter sports) and drives an Audi Cabrio with the number plate NM 1975, her initials and her birth year. She spent many years saving for the Cabrio.
She once told me about a party she went to with a friend. A summer party on a large property with horses on Lake Starnberg. White tablecloths, bottles of champagne, elegant guests. ‘I was nothing but air to them.’
‘A stable smell is the typical smell in a stable, which turns out to be a very complex aroma consisting of more than 400 chemical compounds in relatively different concentrations (odour intensities) [. . .] In a figurative sense, stable smell refers to the social milieu of an individual, i.e. his origin or long-term affiliation to a group [. . .]’
I think of this entry on Wikipedia every time I read the word stable.
The moment a friend tells me on the way home from school: you can smell it. The restaurant, the smell of food. He says it like someone who just wants to help. As if I didn’t know, as if I could do anything about it.
Images from an exhibition keep rising up within me as if they actually existed. The public stamp on 80,000 fried strips of potato, transforming them into a yellow, greasy-smelling mass: ‘Deep frying project’. A pair of legs keeps slipping.
I go to the snack bar on the corner with a friend to eat chips. For the first time ever, I don’t want ketchup or mayonnaise, just the pure fried taste. I watch the man at the fryer and the motion of his hands, like I’m watching the progress of an experiment that’s commencing. Swathes of steam rise. Every now and then, he lifts the basket, waits, then dunks it back in. The sound of dripping oil being shaken off and the basket being tipped out, the chips falling into the aluminium bowl. The man sprinkles salt over them and does that distinctive tossing motion to disperse it evenly.
My friend – I had almost forgotten he was here with me for a moment – takes a sip from his Coke and says with joy in his voice: ‘Black gold!’
‘Due to the evaporation in the boundary zone between food and oil, the water found in the food is gradually transported from the inside to the boundary layer [. . .] the loss of the moisture at the surface leads to the development of the crust.’ (‘Theory of Deep-Frying’, Optimum Deep-Frying: Recommendations from the German Society for Fat Science)
My girlfriend sends me a photo. When I open it, I see a close-up of a colourful heap between the street and the curb. Someone has thrown away their leftovers. Sour chips, an empty plastic tray, ketchup. If you zoom in, you can see a strip of potato saturated in black pigment. Ants. Packed together, ignoring the vivid mound of sugar to the left. ‘These little workers know what’s good,’ my girlfriend writes under the picture. I have the thought that my project is worthwhile.
When asked in an interview if she has a morning ritual, the writer Joan Didion replies that she drinks a Coca-Cola every morning.
Roland Barthes writes in Mythologies that a French general asked for pommes frites as his first meal after the armistice in Indochina. This is not a ‘vulgar materialistic reflex’. ‘Pommes frites are an object of longing.’
Encounters and scenes from my childhood – with others in cars, with friends on the sofa, talking with teachers or parents – transform, start to sting as soon as I underscore them with the question: could they smell me then too?
Dunk in, lift out, dunk in. As a child, I often watched the fryer being switched on. When heated, the solid, whitish mass of fat would slowly liquify. First small, shiny lakes of oil form on the cloudy surface, then the block of fat breaks into shards and the basket at the bottom of the pool becomes increasingly exposed. The last remains of the solid fat collect like honeycomb in the basket’s grid, before this too dissolves into hot nectar. I never thought of disgust at the time, rather gold and honey.
Fresh rain sets in during the night. The sound of cars on the street. I open my laptop and close it again, feeling uneasy. Track-and-zoom.
The next morning I call my sister again. The sky outside the window is clear and yet colourless, as if behind steam rising from a large complex on the edge of the city. When my sister starts talking about work, my mind wanders. I see it so clearly: my sister in white protective coveralls in the kitchen of the restaurant. She pulls a small cart behind her, strokes the steel surfaces and takes samples. Some kind of oversized cotton swab in her hand. She fills a small container with liquid from the deep fat fryer. She writes something on the label.
Image © llee_wu