Taste Lost and Found

One Memorial Day weekend, I lost my sense of smell.  Bad colds sometimes do that to you. But this was different. Two weeks later, my cold was gone but it had apparently delivered a knockout punch to my nose.
A ten-beer sampler at a local microbrewery tasted like ten variations of faintly flavored water. Ice cream was cold but nothing more.
A month later.  Still nothing.
There’s no good time to lose your sense of smell, but summer is the worst. I’d waited all year for the short window that yields tender stalks of my favorite vegetable, asparagus. Juicy corn and chin-dripping tomatoes awaited me finally, after months of what I refer to each year as our “orange period:” dinners consisting of sweet potatoes, squash, rutabagas, and carrots, the upper Midwestern winter staples, in dozens of iterations.
For me, summer is a smorgasbord of flavor and variety. Our weekly CSA box brims with vegetables that appear, like a Broadway star, for but a few weeks only. But without my nose, it became the year without summer.
Anosmia is the medical name for loss of smell. It affects millions of Americans, some temporarily and others permanently.
Taste is dependent on smell. When food is chewed, odors travel to the back of the mouth where a properly functioning olfactory system translates them into flavor. A malfunction can cause taste to remain intact—that is, the mouth can distinguish temperature, texture, and among sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. What’s missing is flavor—the sense that lets you savor the chocolaty undertones of your stout beer and the tang of tomato salsa. Sometimes the smell and taste loss can be restored if it is linked to a specific problem like diabetes. But if the loss resulted from olfactory-nerve damage from a head trauma or, in my case, a viral infection, there is no reliable cure, save for time and hope that the nerves will regenerate.
Slowly, my sense of smell came back. An overall blandness yielded to subtle shades of salty and sour. By early fall, eating had become almost fun again.
But not everything was right. The rewiring of my olfactory nerves had a faulty connection.
Washing my hair with some orange-scented shampoo one morning, I felt nauseated by the smell. Citrus, but particularly oranges, had become disgusting in my newly reordered brain. After months of not smelling them at all, oranges came rushing back at me with a vengeance.
I avoided them at first. It’s easy to do when you live in Wisconsin and try to eat locally. But orange-scented products and orange wedges in drinks and garnishes appear in a surprising number of places and had me running for the door.
I thought maybe I could retrain myself to like oranges. I’d “trained” myself to eat other things by introducing them regularly into my meals, like raw tomatoes. I drank small sips of orange juice for a week, screwing up my face in disgust with each swallow and shoving the glass across the table to my husband to finish. I ate orange wedges and garnishes, choking them down one bite at a time and chasing them with water to drown out what had insensibly become a horrible flavor.
And it actually worked. Almost a year later, I could drink a small glass of orange juice and eat an orange wedge without feeling nauseous. I still don’t order orange juice for breakfast and I can’t remember the last time I ate a whole orange, but I know that I can now. And maybe someday, I will.

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