In my house growing up, the fall months brought up the smell of earth from the dirt basement. It’s a difficult smell to try to describe. It’s not rich like the smell of garden soil and nothing like the particular scent attached to the concrete basements of my friends. It’s the perfume of a particular brand of old Yankee house that’s been sitting on the same patch of dirt for two and half centuries---a combination of must and dirt, and more often than not, the stink of an unfortunate chipmunk that found its way through a chink in the stone foundation. In October, a month that’s goulish without even trying, our house could smell like death itself. To combat the scent of the damp and dying, my mom kept a small pot on the back burner of the stove. In it she’d pour a glug of apple cider and mix it with water from the tap. If there was an apple peel that would go into the pot, along with dried orange peel if we had any, a stick of cinnamon, allspice, and cardamom. Every hour or two, we’d add more water to the mixture, which became thick and dark the longer it simmered. The burbling spices would mask the smell of rotting vermin and simultaneously herald in the new season.
In college, when I didn’t have a stove of my own, I would buy heavily scented candles. Yes, the ones that come from stores so full of artificial scents they make you queasy. They had names like Autumn Spice and Harvest and once, maybe, I stooped so low as to cart home something called Apple Pie. I’d line up the candles on my desk at school and they’d sit, unburned, from October until Thanksgiving. The result was never the same, but the approximation was all that mattered.
These days I’m armed with a pot and a stove of my own and my method mirrors my mom’s. In our tiny apartment there’s a pot simmering away on the back burner. Fall is here and it smells so much better than a candle.