What does East Texas smell like?

Smokey barbecue, with notes of pine and pasture.

Stopped to smell the roses lately? Maybe not. The virus is creating a double predicament to our enjoyment of scents: We may be staying home to avoid infection or have lost the ability to smell as a symptom of infection.

Even the Texas Rose Festival didn’t happen this year, like many iconic East Texas events that have been canceled, postponed or reimagined online.

While a virtual dinner party or movie night is a way to keep people connected during the pandemic, it’s missing the smells feedback we rely on for a full experience. It’s just not the same if you can’t smell the buttered popcorn or bask in the aroma of a friend’s country cooking. 

Although most of us rely more on sight when we recall significant people, places and events in our lives, there is scientific evidence to support that our sense of smell also plays a vital role in memory recall.

The olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that interprets information as smell, is linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion (the amygdala) and the part of the brain that is associated with memory (the hippocampus). 

This might explain why the fragrance a new coworker is wearing has you thinking of grandma or why the smell of ink and paper can take you back to the third grade. 

We asked East Texans to name their smell triggers — scents that remind them of life in the piney woods region, and why. 

Here, you will see responses we collected, paired with my photographs to help bring the smells to life. We hope to inspire olfactory memories of your own as your nose tells you, “What does East Texas smell like?” 

“The air —  it just smells different here. It smells like vegetation, the color green, woodsy and pine needles. I moved to West Texas for a time and it smells like ozone out there because there are very few pockets of green anything out that way. When you get past Lufkin, the air begins to change and this thick aroma fills your nose and it’s just the smell of east Texas,” said Lacy Young. 

“The savory scent of burning wood brings back all the memories of birthdays spent around campfires and how the smell of smoked wood stains everything it touches,” said Joy Owens.

“Greenberg smoked turkeys,” chimed in Howard Galletly.

“Every time I open my windows I smell memories,” said Traci Jones. Jones recalls the nights she would spend with her grandparents on a country road in Mineola. She and her dad would use her grandfather’s telescope to view the stars.

“Coffee, pool water and the air at night. All these remind me of visiting my grandparents in Mineola when I was a kid. They had a pool and beyond that was just empty land and woods. It’s a very distinctive aroma I always associate with Texas. Even when I lived in other places, I would smell the air and say, ‘It smells like Texas tonight.’” 

“Soft, oil sand roads that lead to pump jacks and tank batteries out in the woods. This was on the northern outskirts of Longview in the 70s, near Blue Ridge Parkway on Gilmer road. As kids we’d ride our bikes down these service roads,” said Jim Noble 

“Pungent blacktop backroads, slick and sizzling in deep summertime. To this day I am filled with a nostalgic sense-memory anytime I smell it.

I ran those roads ragged throughout my teen and early adult years. Sometimes it was the quickest way from point A to point Z, sometimes it was the scenic road less-traveled-by when I needed a little space.

Sometimes, when you’re a country boy living out in the sticks, it was the best way to get nowhere while you dreamt of ending up somewhere, ” remembers Matthew Prosser 

“Pine,” said Emily Mann — along with a chorus of others who agreed with her.

“The smell of pine sap. I remember playing in the woods as a kid, poking it with sticks, then smelling the sap on the end of the stick,” recalled Elijah Anderson.

“The smell of freshly baked bread that wafts through the air from Flowers Baking Co. in the mornings in downtown. I loved being downtown exercising before sunup. That’s when the aroma of baking was the strongest,” recalled Carlina Villalpando.

Racks of fresh baked bread is stored at Del Pueblo Supermercado in Tyler.

A couple of blocks from Flowers Baking Co. is Del Pueblo Supermercado y Carniceria on West Erwin. Those driving to work that way enjoy waves of delicious baked goods aromas morning after morning. For those who line up at 7 a.m., there’s the added aroma of coffee with their bread — a treat for multiple senses.

Ezequiel Carballo is the baker at Del Pueblo Supermercado y Carniceria in Tyler. Store owner Pedro Zarrag said fresh breads and pasties are baked from 1 a.m. to 11 a.m., and customers wait outside the doors at 7 a.m. to get their bread for their breakfast with coffee.
Fresh baked breads and pastries are stocked in the display shelves at Del Pueblo Supermercado in Tyler.
Baker Ezequiel Carballo at Del Pueblo Supermercado y Carniceria poses among the fruits of his labor, made throughout the night hours and into sunrise the following day.

Aristeo Rodriguez, a 1999 John Tyler High School graduate, has memories connected to grass and sports. “The smell of fresh cut grass reminds me of my high school marching band days of Friday night football.” 

Jose Najera of Jose Najera Lawn Services, and his son Angel Najera cut the grass at Tyler Animal Emergency Clinic.
Jose Najera of Jose Najera Lawn Services, trims the grass edges at Tyler Animal Emergency Clinic.

“Fresh cut grass. The spring is my favorite time of the year. When baseball starts we gain our time back and outside activities restart,” said Kilton O. McCracken Sr. 

When it came to food aromas, there’s one variety that has East Texans by the nose more than any other: smoked meat.

Stanley’s Barbecue smoke wafting over the hospitals and TJC. I lived about a block from TJC for three years, and there was more than one night when I could catch the scent drifting over from Stanley’s, usually while I could hear the marching band practice too,” said Emily Phelps

“I can’t help but crave some smoked brisket every time I drive by Stanley’s and smell it cooking,” added Josh Keenan. 

Dispatcher Tom Callens’ work route to UT Health East Texas EMS, a dispatch center, takes him along Glenwood Blvd. Most days, a blanket of aromatic smoke hangs over the road, thanks to Bar-B-Q Hernandez, also known by locals as Tacos y Más.

The smell of barbecue goes far and wide beyond Tyler city limits.

“My oldest son has a house at on Lake Palestine. He always has a selection of different types of grills on his boathouse deck. Pellet grill, gas grill, infrared grill. He is a master at smoking and grilling for extended family and close friends of about 30-people gatherings on his boathouse in the warmer months. 

This brings the memories of the smells of his self made barbecue sauce, ribs that melt on your mouth, boudin, cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped chili peppers, steaks or even hot dogs and burgers when the grandkids were younger,” said Sandra Boynton.

Ukeko Williams, co-owner of McGee’s BBQ, hands off an order through a COVID-friendly plexiglass shield.
Gerald McGee, co-owner of McGee BBQ, cross chops a rack of ribs.

Barbecue aromas waft over south Tyler, too. McGee’s BBQ in Gresham is literally a hole in the wall. To find it, you have to go inside Liberty Crossing gas station, pass the cashier, pass the Lotto tickets, go around the corner from the drink machine, and then you’ll see their service window cut into the wall. The smiling face of owner Ukeko Williams is there, ready to take your order.

Williams says every item on the menu is a hit, whether it’s the smoked chicken, garlic potatoes, seasoned ribs or even the buttered toast, crisped by her partner, Gerald McGee. “We’re a small little corner in a gas station, but we are great food,” said Williams.

Some contributors recalled East Texas pastures along country roads. While several focused on the smell of wet dirt roads, others recalled wafts of animal and vegetation — from hay to horses to cows chewing cud.

Bales of hay are stacked at a Bullard home.

“Around Jacksonville, there were tons of weeds with little white flowers that the cows loved to eat. Early mornings, that was the smell of Texas to me!” said Cecilia Rodriguez-Bush.

“The smell of rain coming in on a pasture,” said Rex Thompson.

For Jayne Buckert, the smell of East Texas is “fresh rain, sweat, pastures and road kill.”

“I love the smells of wet dirt after a rain; fresh cut grass also when riding in the country and you get in a low spot, there is a certain smell. It’s kind of a sweet smell and it’s only in the summer,” said Kim Allen.

“The smells of roses from the Rose Garden. I often go to the Rose Garden, especially in the spring and fall just to smell the roses. I take friends and family from out of town to visit there every time they’re in Tyler,” said Diya Ariyanti.

“The smell of the air right before the thunderstorms. I remember as a kid the red clay smell, and any time I hear that a storm is coming, I can’t wait for that smell,” said Ac Lira.

Sarah A. Miller is an independent editorial photographer and journalist with over 10 years of experience in newsrooms across the country. She lives in Tyler with several roommates and three quirky cats. Sarah loves being a community storyteller and getting to document the everyday lives of people in East Texas.

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