Two weekends ago, I met a friend for late afternoon drinks at a bar across the road. When I arrived, he’d been soaking up the sun and cider for a couple of hours already, and was sitting with a cheerful group of people I was invited to join. This included: Chester from Newcastle; Chester’s Swedish girlfriend, called Em; the bar’s owner, Dave, who is Irish; Dave’s Polish wife; my South African mate, Sean; and their friend, Gary, who is from Edinburgh. I mention the hodgepodge of nationalities only because this is one of those things I love about London – Sean also lives with a Ghanaian, an Italian, and two Czech lodgers who were all presumably drinking pints in another patch of sun.
As I was a little bit late to the party, the conversation was relaxed and winding. A popular topic, however, was what substances could be used to spike Gary’s drink without him noticing. A range of fluids were suggested, with Gary’s enthusiastic participation. This was mildly amusing, but a bit weird for a bunch of thirty-somethings to be talking about – with two PhDs amongst them, no less. It was more the stuff of the fifth-grade cafeteria table. Because four of the group were bartenders, the discussion covered what noxious liquids could be visually disguised in what ranges of seemingly innocuous beverages. I finally had to pipe up and ask: What exactly was the deal?
It turned out that one drunken night four months ago, Gary bumped his head getting into a taxi, and suffered a mild brain injury that had left him without a sense of taste or smell. The loss of smell is called anosmia, but Gary’s principal complaint was that everything tasted of, well, nothing. Although likely the hundredth time poor Gary was forced to tell the story, we all sat and contemplated this for a while.
You could eat really healthy food all the time, I exclaimed, searching for an upside. Even the icky stuff like brussel sprouts or beets. He scratched his head. Everyone says that, apparently. The problem, obviously, is one of texture. He used to really like bananas, but since the injury, he’s found himself unable to stomach one, rolling as it does inside the mouth like mush. I could understand that.
For a while, he explained, he was eating very hot curries most nights, just because the spice would tickle his throat and the sensation reminded him of what hot food was like, but the doctor said he shouldn’t. Maybe if he stuck to bland foods, his tastebuds would work harder to compensate. There was no saying whether he would regain his senses in another six months, a year, or ever at all.
Chester mentioned a friend of theirs who used to win bets at bars by biting into a lime and eating it like an apple. He never could handle a lemon, though – but Gary could! It was like an incredibly useless superpower. The spiked drinks conversation had stemmed from Gary’s worry about alcohol, and how he was wary of mixed drinks now that he couldn’t taste how strong a mix might be. Despite the teasing, his friends were looking out for him, and buying him foamy, dark beer that was meatier in his mouth than lager, even though the sensation was probably one of drinking thickened water. Whether he was tipsy or just a good-natured person, he didn’t seem too glum about the circumstances.
He was in far better humor than I would be, I realized.
If I couldn’t taste, I imagine food would be about texture, visual appeal, nutrition, and maybe, memory. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this was a devastating loss. Would you still crave salt or sugar, as I do? What if you did, but no amount of greasy burgers or ice cream would satisfy the craving? The act of eating would be reduced to its most rote and basic form – sustenance only, no enjoyment beyond what little pleasure you could derive from presentation or consistency. Actually, this sounds hellish.
I’m no foodie, but eating is one of my great and unabashed joys. I look forward to it every single day, and I love trying new cuisines, new restaurants, and new flavors. I love revisiting stalwart favorites, whether it’s the Lipton’s noodle soup my mother used to make me when I was sick, or going home and getting enchiladas at the Mexican joint near my old apartment. Smells and tastes evoke powerful memories – think of how a whiff of stale sweat and chlorine can whip you back in time to childhood summers at the pool, or the trace of your partner’s scent on a pillow can make you dreamy and lethargic as your mind snags on a late-night memory.
And then, think about never really enjoying chocolate, or olives, or cheese, or strawberries, or whatever it is you reach for for comfort and experiencing it the same way ever again. Thanksgiving, Christmas, 4th of July – all these holidays with feasts at their center – outside of your appreciation. Promotions, engagements, anniversaries, seeing old friends – aren’t these things we celebrate with food and drink? You can join in the ceremony, but while everyone else is savoring and murmuring and basking in flavor, you are sitting there with what is effectively a plate of plain tofu and mineral water disguised as filet mignon and Cabernet. Holy shit, right? To have taste and smell, and to lose them, that is like vengeance-of-the-gods kind of punishment.
Obviously, I didn’t voice any of this to Gary. But I have spent probably unhealthy amounts of time imagining what it would be like to lose a limb, or be paralyzed, blinded, or to go deaf. Mobility, sight, hearing – these are all things I’ve worried about losing, but I’d never before contemplated the loss of smell and taste. With those silly mind games one plays with oneself, as though making a private plea to the fates, I revised my previous decision that smell would be the sense I would lose if I had to surrender one. I hadn’t thought it through to the extent that it would affect taste, and how closely they are clearly intertwined.
There is one final, weird thing to say about this whole episode. As the discussion meandered along, it transpired that Dave’s mother suffers from the same condition as Gary, following a brain hemorrhage a few years ago. She has no sense of taste. Wait, I gasped, is this… a common thing? Not really, said Sean, although my dad also has no taste or smell since his motorcycle accident. Out of seven people at the table, three were either directly affected by this or had close family members who were. This is a real thing.
So, savor that sandwich. And adjust your helmets accordingly.