When I caught the coronavirus in December 2020, I was fortunate to experience only mild symptoms (which I combated with bed rest, Tylenol, and plenty of fluids). Unfortunately, by day eight, my sense of smell and taste went from normal to nothing — in a matter of hours. What was initially an inconvenience swiftly became a powerful experience that now influences the way I live and work.
I am a food stylist: On a daily basis, I source groceries, prepare recipes, and arrange food on set for magazines, websites, cookbooks, and advertising. Thankfully, the food's appearance on camera tends to be more important than taste in this profession, but my palate is still important to my work.
I'd briefly lost some sense of taste and smell before from the flu, but this time was different. As a result of COVID, I went almost two months without any sense of taste or smell whatsoever. The first few days were shocking, but it eventually became almost ordinary, then turned into something that I wanted to learn from.
A great deal of food styling involves comparing one type or brand of products to others by studying their appearance and functionality. For example, organic and non-organic powdered sugar read differently on camera, and shredded Sargento mozzarella cheese melts differently than Kraft does. My job requires that I pick the best-looking option, but it's impossible to completely ignore taste and smell from influencing me on some level, even subconsciously.
Blind taste tests are a favorite game of mine — this was one of the first times I was scent- and flavor-blind, too. So I decided to play with my senses and see what I could learn. My first blindfolded self-experimentation at home without taste or smell was with cocktails, oddly enough. It's not like I was trying to drink away the virus, but after my stronger symptoms had subsided and I was no longer taking Tylenol, I thought I'd at least try to have some fun with my newfound diminished senses. I began with four mini drinks (a Manhattan, a negroni, a mezcal margarita, and straight vodka) that were labeled on the bottom and blindly shuffled. Turns out, I couldn't taste a difference between any of the drinks, let alone figure out what any of them were. My guesses were all over the place — I thought the margarita was vodka. But the funny part is I still liked some of the drinks more than others.
When it came to food, I found myself wanting to eat crunchy, rich main dishes, but had little interest in dessert (which I usually love). Why, without smell or taste, did I not enjoy or crave certain foods or drinks, and preferred others? I have a few hypotheses.
Though my senses have returned, I still think about what I picked up when I couldn't fully experience what I was consuming. I feel that others may be able to incorporate these observations into their own eating and drinking practice to be more conscientious eaters and drinkers — whether or not they have a sense of smell and taste to rely on.
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Does mouthfeel matter?
If you scoff when you see this overused word around food, let me tell you that I, too, used to roll my eyes at it. Though it technically references the physical sensations in the mouth brought on by food or drink, mouthfeel is the term I've found that sommeliers use when describing wines I cannot afford. I considered any strong reaction to mouthfeel an enigma, even all but made up.
I will now humbly tell you that mouthfeel turned out to be crucial when it came to what I preferred when I could not taste. The initial experiment with alcohol taught me on a different level something I already knew — food and drink don't always feel pleasant in my mouth. Vodka can burn and mezcal can be overwhelmingly smoky, distracting from the feel of the cocktail as it's sipped. Foods can be too fatty, too sour, or too sweet. They hit our palates in the same area, overwhelming that spot without balance, so much so that we forget about mouthfeel altogether.
Pre-COVID, I did not notice as consciously how the flavor of a well-balanced food hits multiple parts of my mouth instead of overwhelming a specific area — I now often find myself noticing where flavors and textures are hitting my mouth. One of the best examples of a balanced mouthfeel is a high-quality milk chocolate, due to how it begins to melt in the mouth. This change in structure from solid to liquid helps different areas of the palate begin to pick up different flavors. The next time you eat a piece, think about how the chocolate feels in your mouth as it melts; and if you have a sense of taste, try to notice where the flavors of cocoa, vanilla, sugar, and salt are coming from around your tongue.
Cravings are simply what we want
Years ago, I was told by a friend that cravings are based on nutritional needs. For example, if you were craving a glass of milk, your body needed calcium. Research, however, does not support this. In an essay on the subject, Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, notes that cravings "often have something to do with emotion and desire," as opposed to what the body needs nutritionally.
During these COVID-consumed days, I craved heavily textured meats like chewy rib eye and tender barbecue brisket; as well as crunchy foods like potato chips, fried chicken, and french fries. While I was writing this piece, my editor wondered if my craving for tougher, crunchier foods had to do with wanting to feel my knife slicing through steak, and hear myself eating, as I couldn't smell or taste. I believe it did. When one of our senses is impaired, we often have other ways to make up for this gap. When I was drinking a smoothie during this time, I remember thinking that if I closed my eyes, I had no way of knowing what I was consuming. This was completely different when I was eating a crispy fried chicken thigh.
Strangely, I had no interest in any form of sugar during this time, which is very rare for me. Breads, cookies, cakes, even alcohol weren't calling to me like they had in the past. I was eating to fill myself up and satisfy the senses I had, instead of following flavor-driven desires. When my taste did return, I found myself wanting dessert again. Though now I know that my body doesn't need (but rather my brain wants) a slice of cake when I'm craving it, it was comforting to know those signals weren't lost forever.
Spice and heat tolerance, revisited
I began my next test with spicy food, which I typically have a low tolerance for. Without my sense of taste, spicy food was practically the only way I could feel what I was eating. This is likely because spice isn't actually a flavor. "The fiery heat you feel on your tongue when you eat chiles is technically not a taste, but rather, as we will see, a response to pain," writes Nik Sharma in "The Flavor Equation."
When I ordered Indian food, I amped up the spice level from my usual 5/10 to a 9/10. When cooking for myself, I would throw in more chiles, as well as vinegar (which is technically acid, but think of the difference between eating a chile and drinking a spoonful of hot sauce: When the spice is infused in an acidic liquid, there's a wider-spread distribution of heat in your mouth). I could feel that the food was spicy, but my mouth wasn't on fire like it was when I could taste everything.
Now that my taste is fully back, I have a noticeable increase in tolerance of spice and a mildly accurate way to quantify it. I've also learned to simply notice where the heat is hitting (or numbing) my tongue and lips or stinging my nose, whether it makes my cheeks red or my forehead sweat — these observations have led to more full and complex flavor profiles explored in my cooking.
Smell has a lot more to do with taste than you'd think
Six weeks after I came down with the virus, my sense of taste came back. But for the two weeks following, I still couldn't smell anything, which ultimately diminished the flavor of food. I recently read an article about the difference between drinking out of a can versus plastic versus glass. Some people report that they taste metal when drinking out of cans. This article suggests that it is in fact the smell of metal that they are picking up, not the taste.
Smell, like mouthfeel, ultimately led me to think about what exactly is a "balanced" food or drink. At this point, I feel that when we say something is balanced, it means the flavors hit our palates in multiple areas of the mouth, as well as the nose. I found this was easily exemplified through drinks, as liquid disperses itself naturally throughout the mouth, no chewing required. In fact, bartenders note that using garnishes like herbs, fruit, bitters and finishing sprays on the tops of drinks enhances the sensory experience through smell, before one even tastes the drink.
Our sense of smell highly influences our taste and is often our first introduction into food, too. (Consider a freshly baked tray of cookies, onions sizzling in oil to start a tomato sauce, or an herb-roasted chicken coming out of the oven — don't you think of their scents first?) It's because we use more than our mouths when we taste; neuroscientist Dana Small observed that, "to our brains, 'taste' is actually a fusion of a food's taste, smell, and touch into a single sensation." As someone constantly working with food, I used to be so solely focused on taste, thinking that smell was merely a byproduct of cooking. I'll never take it for granted again.
Truthfully, it is an odd time to write this. I'm no longer sick, but the world is beginning the second summer with COVID-19 still very present — though I feel optimistic about the future. As vaccination rates climb, I hope the spread of the virus will decrease and eventually dry up entirely. Still, learning how to enjoy food without a sense of smell or taste (due to COVID, or other complications) is possible — I do hope that these tips can help us strive to eat and make more fully balanced meals that satisfy all of the senses.