A Matter of Taste

By Beacon Staff

There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe for you how much I hate having a summer cold.

Aside from the usual symptoms of colds – the sneezing, stuffy nose, etc. – my taste buds and sense of smell, for the most part, go MIA. And for someone in my profession, that’s a big problem.

The particular “buds” that are missing in action are the ones that detect sweet, savory and the recently discovered fifth taste: “umami.” Just the night before composing this, my wife and I were eating a garden salad – every single item on the plate came from our garden – and the only thing I got from it was the outrageous and intense spiciness of the banana peppers we’re growing.

Those juicy cherry tomatoes popped in my mouth, but there was nothing. The chives from the herb garden – nothing. The two different kinds of lettuce – zip. Very disappointing (not to mention the entrée and sides).

When you’re around food day in and day out, you also can tell when something’s right – but more importantly, when something’s wrong – just by smelling.

There’s a well-known chef in Chicago (Grant Achatz), who suffered from tongue cancer. I cannot imagine a worse fate for a chef than that. My taste buds will return to normal function within a few days and for that, I am grateful. But to think that I could lose them forever to that hateful disease makes me shudder.

Fortunately, Chef Achatz had some great doctors and went through a careful routine of chemotherapy and he’s now back in his kitchen better than ever. I’m guessing here that it was chemo only because radiation therapy probably would have destroyed the buds forever.

A friend who’s an advanced amateur cook and wannabe television chef is in remission for throat cancer. Same deal for him. But the recovery time for his taste buds will be measured in years rather than days, weeks or months. Fortunately for him, he doesn’t depend on cooking to make his living.

When I quit smoking cigarettes more than 20 years ago, I noticed a gradual heightening of my senses of taste and smell. It reminds me that in the seventh year after quitting, I was the winner of a game show on Food Network because I could taste and name specific separate ingredients in a mystery dessert placed in front of me.

You wonder why wine experts swirl a glass and stick their noses deep inside that glass and then take a sip and swirl that on their tongues? You can call it whatever you want, but it’s more than a ritual. It’s important to pick up the notes of fruit and soil and metals and other components absorbed into the vines and the fruit before the wine was made.

I had an aunt who told me that she never remembers having a sense of smell, so she couldn’t identify an illness or accident as a point when she may have lost it. That sense is so integrated with taste, to have one and not the other is unimaginable to me. To have neither – just take me out back and shoot me!

So this week, this is my paean to my senses of taste and smell. As I write this, I am in day three of the cold. By day five I should begin experiencing the return of both.

I guess I should probably tell you that not being able to taste or smell my food hasn’t stopped me from eating. And wouldn’t this be a perfect opportunity to lose a few pounds?

Yeah – it would.

But I’m hungry. And I have my memories.

Follow me on Twitter @KitchenGuyMT