I’m a Food Critic, and I Lost My Sense of Taste During COVID | Cafe | St. Louis | St. Louis News and Events
I had four bites in my bagel when the COVID hit.
It had been three days since I was diagnosed with the insidious virus, and with absolutely no desire to eat and no energy to fight back, I gave in to my seven-year-old’s insatiable appetite for St. Louis Bread Co. delivery . She thinks her mac and cheese is manna from heaven; I’m less impressed – so I wasn’t entirely sure if my problems trying the bagel were my taste buds or just the food.
As a sensitive person, I had sadly watched as the pandemic progressed as COVID-19 long-distance drivers detailed what it was like to lose their sense of taste and smell without any idea if or when they would return. My uncle is one of them. A passionate home cook whose backyard pork steaks have the taste of my youth, he lost his ability to enjoy food shortly after testing positive for the virus last July. He has not tasted anything since then.
And here I was, a quarter-eating Asiago bagel in hand, wondering if I too should suffer the same fate. As a food critic, my mouth is my moneymaker. Not being able to taste was not only a source of personal anxiety; the serious question arose whether I could carry on in a role I was no longer equipped for. Do I have to quit my job? Can I even be in food journalism? What do I do for work? A number of worst-case scenarios flooded me faster than I could pronounce the words “You Pick Two”.
The professional questions, however, were nothing compared to the existential fear I had of not being able to eat. If I couldn’t taste who was I? Eating has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my parents weren’t exactly gourmets and chose to be thrifty over taste. The Hamburg helper was in regular rotation and Olive Garden – where we would only go on special occasions – was considered haute cuisine. Even so, I noticed glimmers of size here and there: the Schnucks Station restaurant’s beef frankfurter, split in half and covered with grill marks, let me see the limp, boiled pork hot dogs of the private label that I normally serve were, were inferior version of the form. The wonderfully marbled ribeye that accidentally came out medium sized at Western Sizzlin’s was so juicy and crusted with salt that I first asked why my dad insisted on ordering his well-made one. I never went back.
It was no surprise that when I was old enough to make money and make my own decisions about where and what to eat, I went down the rabbit hole. Nor is it surprising that I ended up in the restaurant business. For over a decade, I’ve soaked up as much knowledge as possible and savored my way through a never-ending banquet of culinary delights provided by chefs, managers, and talented staff who serve as both the foundation and inspiration for my thinking and thinking write about food.
These are the things that go through your mind when faced with the sudden, traumatic experience of losing your taste. But instead of telling where I had been, I was more preoccupied with where to never go again. It was entirely possible that I would never enjoy food again, a confusing thought even for the casual eater. It was a spiritual death penalty for someone who dedicated his life and work to Dionysian activities.
I hadn’t even put the bagel down before I started accounting, which was supposed to be lost. Ham was the first thing that came to mind. After crying real tears of joy over Parma ham several times, I spent the first few minutes of loss grieving that I would never taste this sweet, salty wonder again. Next came coffee – that calming daily constant that fills my kitchen with its heady aroma and luscious texture that it gets when I half fill a healthy piece of food (or, if I’m feeling really wild, cream). Cheese and garlic bread, beef shashlik, Al Tarboush’s garlic puree – I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.
I was scared but not yet convinced that it wasn’t just my mediocre lunch and not my taste buds that was the problem. Hopefully I went to the refrigerator, poured myself a large spoon of Frank’s Red Hot, and closed my eyes. Nothing. When people say that COVID is causing you to lose your sense of taste and smell, it doesn’t mean it is suppressing them. It’s gone. One minute you’ll be sipping a mediocre ten-vegetable soup and the next a light switch will turn off. I could have tasted water as I swallowed the spoon of hot sauce – no tingling, no burning, no saliva from its vinegar heat. Nothing was registered except for the cold temperature and the liquid texture. I went to the bathroom and put my nose in a bag of super scented lavender Epsom salts. I thought that maybe it was just my taste and not my smell. It was wishful thinking.
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I lived like this for a few days, puffing shampoo and trying strange things in my refrigerator in the hopes that something would break through. As the days turned into a week, then another and another, the feelings of despair turned into resignation. It was like a bad acid journey where you are convinced that you will never come down and have to live your life in a permanent hallucinogenic state (definitely not from experience, mom). I let go of fear and tried to embrace life without taste. I could do that. Sure, I would be missing out on one of the greatest sources of joie de vivre, but there were others. I have my daughter who is the light of my life and my partner who fills my world with delicious pleasure. I am ashamed to admit that the insecure side of me wistfully pondered what it might be like to finally be torn apart. Why bother eating something decadent when you can’t enjoy it?
Then, about three weeks after COVID turned my world upside down, I noticed something while drinking my morning coffee. I had drank it black since I lost my taste and smell, and this morning that first sip tasted godly. I put in cream and sugar and could only see a hint of sweetness. Later that day I could feel the salt and vinegar – very simple flavors, but it was a start. Contrary to the speed at which it was leaving, it took a while for the flavor nuances to become noticeable, but now they were gradually returning. Two months later I am happy to report that my senses have completely recovered.
I can’t imagine how desperate those who haven’t recovered from this experience could be. I caught a glimpse of a life with no taste or smell, and it was like living in black and white. In my spiral, I googled every piece of information about the phenomenon and read numerous stories about long-distance drivers who had not been able to enjoy food and drink for almost a year. There is currently no cure for this, and since it is not viewed as a matter of life or death, people are treated with a “sucks; try odor therapy” approach.
But while it may not actually kill your body, I can tell you that it sinks you into a pretty dark place where you lose the light that illuminates life and live every day on the hope that the next bite is the one who’ll bring you back – and if you do, you’ll never complain about eating Bread Co. again.