There's nothing quite so cruel as not being able to smell -- or taste -- your morning coffee.
There's nothing quite so cruel as not being able to smell -- or taste -- your morning coffee.

What it's like to be tasteless

There is little, I’ve decided, more cruel than losing one’s ability to enjoy the flavors of food.

This past week, I had a more intimate look into the phenomenon of "taste-impairment" than I think I’ve ever experienced before, thanks to an epic five-day bout with the respiratory flu, which left my body tired, my sinuses plugged, and my mouth disturbingly devoid of its ability to parse the food I ate.

While I was sick, I blamed my lack of gustatory enjoyment on the fact that I simply wasn’t feeling well. But, as my recovery continued, I realized there was more going on.

My morning smoothie – made with plain kefir, frozen blueberries, ripe banana and greens -- tasted only vaguely sweet. There was no hint of the cinnamon or vanilla I added, despite the fact that I feel as if I added more than usual.  But, I could feel the tiny pearl-shaped blueberry seeds on my tongue and in between my teeth. And I noticed that the powdered greens mix – while not objectionable in its flavor – felt more powdery and gritty than usual.

My second awakening came as I stood in front of the coffee maker at work, waiting for the nutty roasted aroma of the brewing coffee to greet my nose and give me that "aaaah, I’m ready to face the day feeling." But, it never came.  

If I poked my nose directly into the coffee cup, I could conjure a vague whiff of coffee; but, I fear it was more wishful than it was real.

Nonetheless, I sipped the brown liquid in my cup relishing its slight bitterness and the feel of the warm liquid as it made its way down my throat.

And, while I normally look forward to leftover Chinese takeout when I bring it for lunch, the egg foo young I reheated was as bland as bland could be. Although there was something to be said for the experience of finding crunchy bits of fresh bean sprouts to grind between my teeth, there wasn’t a modicum of joy in the flavor of the dish itself.

"Isn’t the gravy for egg foo young supposed to be salty?" I asked my husband on the phone later that day. His response to the affirmative made me wince.

The bite of garlic bread I ate with dinner that night had a similar effect. Garlic bread is, after all, one of my personal pleasures in life. And I believe a good slice of toasty buttery bread can be life changing.

But, the only change I’d experience that night was what was in my pocket.

I could feel the crunch of the toasted bread, sense the slow ooze of the butter out of the crannies and crevices, and nearly – quite nearly – imagine the salty, garlicky goodness as it graced my expectant tongue.

But, I got nothing. Not even the subtle awareness of garlic breath at the end of the meal.

Even the wine didn’t have the power to save me.
In fact, a sip of a favorite Malbec made everything entirely worse – less because it was a bad pairing, and more because the only flavor I could parse from the ruby-red liquid was that of sour currant, a far cry from the well balanced notes of plump dark cherry, leather and smoke I could often decipher in the same glass.

Although I was sure I would eventually regain my sense of taste, I did find myself growing more and more trepidatious as the hours and days passed. I started tasting foods just to see if I could decipher them.

Chocolate – bitter, bitter, bitter.
Cheese – stomach-curdlingly sour.
Rishi peach blossom tea – like sipping hot water straight from a mug.

I grew horrified that I’d never enjoy eating again. Or worse, that I would no longer be able to cook, since I apparently had no way of knowing when a dish was seasoned enough. I felt trapped. Frustrated. And cheated.

So, you can just imagine how I felt a few days later when I realized there was something, a smell – an odor I could recognize -- wafting blatantly across the office.

It was nutty. Roasty. Earthy.
I almost fell out of my chair with excitement.

Someone was brewing coffee! And I could smell it.

I hopped up from my desk, and then sauntered – as slowly as I could bear – over to the coffee pot at the other side of the room. It was a fruitless effort to mask my excitement, especially since I practically tripped over my own two feet as I got within yards of the coffee machine.

A colleague smiled.
"It’s that kind of a morning, huh?"  he asked.

"You have absolutely no idea." I replied, taking the longest, slowest sip I possibly could. 

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