Scents and Non-Scents
What good is a foodie without her nose?
On the third day of a nasty cold, I got tired of "sick-person food," and decided to roast a chicken for dinner. I rubbed the bird with golden olive oil and sprinkled it with sea salt and pepper, then popped it in a 400-degree oven with a couple of plump beets. Cheerfully, I curled up in a wool blanket, prepared to snooze and daydream as I waited for the aroma of browning fat and savory meat to reach my nostrils and tantalize my diminished appetite. An hour later, I delicately sniffed the air. Nothing. Had I forgotten to turn on the oven? Nope, I could hear the hissing gas and the lovely crackling of roasting poultry. I walked over to the oven, opened the door, and held my face in the escaping breath of steam. Nothing. Could my sense of smell simply be gone?
I jangled around the house, straining to detect the fragrances of various household items. A jar of grated nutmeg smelled just like my lavender dish detergent, which had the exact same aromatic notes as a box of pungent sandalwood incense: nada. I began to panic. My career as a food writer is based on my ability to detect nuances of flavor and scent. With my sense of smell out of commission, my sense of taste would be seriously dulled as well. What good am I if I can't figure out which herb a chef cleverly slipped into his Hollandaise sauce, or find the hint of guava in a glass of Viognier? I had been taking my sense of smell for granted, and like a neglected lover, it had run off.
Cooks like me, who snub kitchen timers in favor of old-fashioned sensory cues, find ourselves at a loss when the nose goes. After years of cataloguing the scents of various foods at different stages of readiness, I no longer have to think about it. Toasting nuts smell rich when they begin to brown, but the scent turns "dark" right before they burn. Eggs on the verge of overcooking have a distinctive aroma. Perfectly prepared cabbage has a sweet vegetal bouquet; it doesn't get stinky unless it's overcooked.
Usually, I can pull baking beets from the oven at the perfect moment. It's a matter of picking up just the right amount of their distinctive, earthy-sweet aroma. But now I couldn't. I knew the smell was there, filling my little kitchen and perhaps my neighbors', but I couldn't access it. Instead, I opened the oven every 10 minutes to squeeze the beets with my fingers, each time letting out all of the heat. Luckily, I could still tell when the chicken was done without sticking a knife in and releasing all its juices - I simply pressed its breast and thighs and felt that its flesh was just firm enough. I ate my dinner, but the event had lost much of its joy.
Food writers and cooks aren't the only people who are troubled by temporary anosmia - the technical term for losing one's sense of smell for a while. Everyone suffers a few ill effects when their olfaction goes astray. Sans the sense of smell, it's harder to determine when the cat's litter box needs to be cleaned, or when to take out the trash. The laundry "sniff test" goes out the window, too. And it's really tough to tell how much garlic was in the Caesar salad you had for lunch - probably best to err on the side of Listerine.
But aesthetic considerations pale in comparison to the potential dangers of a nose that no longer knows. Deadly gas leaks become undetectable, toast chars and blackens under the broiler, and it's hard to tell if the milk is still safe to drink. Hint: Chunks are bad. Sampling sushi or enjoying raw oysters with your nose on break is scary, too. Is the fish fresh? Are the oysters good? Who knows? A disturbing but non-life-threatening symptom is a reduction in sex drive, which is probably due to an inability to detect human pheromones. Guess you won't be needing those oysters, anyway.
Because the pleasures of eating are strongly linked to the complex interplay of aromas with the four basic tastes - sweet, sour, salty and bitter - people with stuffy noses and a diminished sense of smell tend to eat less. When they do sit down to dinner, foods that are usually pleasant can seem unpalatable. The basic tastes are more pronounced, meaning that a mesclun salad can come off as bitter instead of balanced, and cheddar cheese or canned soup may seem excessively salty. And in the absence of great flavor, a texture that can normally be overlooked may overwhelm. With my nose stuffed, the squeakiness of sauerkraut, a dish I usually enjoy, became unbearable.
Luckily for me and other people who suffer from colds and stuffy noses, our anosmia is not forever. When the nasal-membrane swelling abates, aromas flood back. Not so for people who were born without the ability to smell, or who lose the power permanently due to Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's or head trauma.
The good news is that anosmia sufferers find ways to compensate so that they can still enjoy food, even in the absence of subtler flavors and aromas. Playing up visual appeal with colorful fruits and veggies is one way. Another is combining salty, sour, bitter and sweet flavors in the same dish to squeeze as much excitement as possible into every bite. Changing up textures and adding other stimuli, like hot spices, can do the trick as well.
Day 10 of this cold, and my sense of smell is still MIA. But I think it may be on the way back. This morning I held a damp pile of fresh orange peels to my nose, and the aroma was dangling just beyond my ability to detect it. Sometimes when I'm distracted, I experience something that seems like a smell, but as soon as I try to hone in, it's gone. I make a point of sniffing the nutmeg each time I walk through the kitchen, just to let my nose know I'm paying attention.
Losing my sense of smell hasn't eliminated my interest in eating. But I have found myself enjoying different foods, based on enticing qualities I didn't think much about before. I greedily gobble spoonfuls of silky avocado that feel like caresses on my tongue. I nosh on wasabi peas, loving the way they make me gasp and send tears trickling down my cheeks. I linger over a bowl of cottage cheese, enjoying the texture of the curds. Eating foods at different temperatures helps, too. I chase a warm oatmeal cookie with a glass of cold soymilk. Yep, I definitely enjoyed that.
But even with these compensations, I still crave the whole package. I want my new focus on texture and temperature to blend with my attention to subtle flavors. When I let vanilla ice cream melt in my mouth, enjoying the satiny richness and the shock of cold, I still crave the delicate perfume. Even as I learn to appreciate how roasted potatoes' crisp browned edges give way to a supple interior, I miss their earthy flavor.
I've made a silent vow to my errant sense of smell: If you come back, I will remember the crucial role you play in my life. I will regularly seek out thrilling new experiences for us to share - stinky, washed-rind cheeses, exotic fruits and aged red wines - so you'll never want to leave again.
But until that happens, there's still dinner to get on the table. Tonight's menu: Thai red curry. Red peppers, pink shrimp, glowing orange sweet potatoes and verdant basil leaves will provide a banquet for my eyes. The combination of spice, sweetness, acidic lime juice and fatty coconut milk will entice my taste buds. An extra drizzle of salty fish sauce will enhance the other flavors. The curry will be warm, and the just-tender veggies will yield agreeably under my teeth as grains of jasmine rice scatter in my mouth with each bite. Time to get cooking.