Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Learning To Taste Again

As some of you readers know, for the past year and more, I've only been able to taste things -- or, more accurately, smell things -- in very sporadic episodes. The reason, as determined by a fine ENT specialist here, was that I had polyps growing inside one of my sinuses, which caused the sinus to enlarge, pinching off the nerve which carried information from my nose to my brain. Since last August, I've been taking a variety of drugs to fight this, and the victories have been few.

But there have been victories. When things are going well, I find my sense of taste turning on during my second cup of coffee in the morning. I'll raise the cup to my lips and a message will appear in my brain: it's coffee! And then we're back. But not for long: the sensation starts leaving around 4pm, and by dinnertime, it's gone. I have ways to check this: there's a pantry in my kitchen, one of the few things I like about it, and when you open the door you're greeted with the odors of the various Indian spices and herbs that live there. Sometimes I'll have a basil plant hanging out in the kitchen, which I'll pinch with my fingers, then smell my fingers. Sometimes the peppery smell is there. Often, not.

A couple of months ago, I made a discovery I still don't know much about: if I sniffed, hard, I could sometimes open my olfactory channels again. I think my neighbor upstairs must have concluded I was a major coke-head, so loud did I sniff towards the end of the afternoon and into the evening. But it was too often a losing battle: by the time dinner was on the table, it was all texture, and basic salt, sour, sweet tastes. Your tongue is a limited vocabulary of nouns, I learned. Your nose is a rich collection of adjectives.

This made wine-tasting impossible, of course. Why do you think people swirl wine around in the glass and then sniff it before taking a little in their mouth and "chewing" it, forcing vapors up into their sinuses? I could relate to the tasters' term "robe," because my tongue would feel like cloth of varying qualities was being passed over it, but the other notes never happened. Good wines had smooth robes, bad ones were like wearing scratchy wool, acid pricking the surface of my tongue.

Another thing that lives in your nose: garlic. I would cook a pasta sauce and be aware of a certain heat-like sensation in my mouth, but was I overdoing (or, heaven forbid, underdoing) the garlic? Sometimes I'd go to the leftovers during the afternoon, take the lid off of the refrigerator carton, and inhale to see what this thing I'd created really tasted like. The garlic and herbs were there, all right.

But as summer came on, the open periods began lasting longer. I'll never forget the first time my ability to taste lasted through dinner and into the next morning, when I took a shower and actually knew what my shampoo smelled like and could taste my toothpaste. I bought a bottle of good wine to celebrate, only to have everything fold back up by 8pm. And stay that way for 24 hours. Still, I did manage an evening out at the Estivales with a friend and tasted six different wines -- and some well-cooked mussels. Another time, I made pasta with tuna sauce, an old favorite, and gloried in the smell of the garlic sautéeing in the olive oil as I made it.

It's lasting longer and longer. The other day, a couple from Texas showed up and, although I couldn't really afford it, I joined them at an inexpensive restaurant just because I was hungry and my nose was still working. There was a fine rabbit terrine to start and I marvelled at the fact that I could discern that this wasn't made of chicken or pork, but another flavor which sat at the base of the seasonings which had been used -- quite subtly -- to complement it. My main course was stuffed cuttlefish, and the stuffing was dull -- but I could tell it was! And we shared a bottle of Mas de la Serrane, which remains one of my favorite wines from this region, and I could taste it and it was good. Very good. I know the €25 I spent was an extravagance, because I know I have some very dark days ahead in the next couple of weeks, but between the good company and the good food, and the fact that I could fully enjoy what I was eating and drinking, it was impossible for me to resist.

Again, everything lasted overnight, and I was really looking forward to using the other half of the pizza dough from the other day. It turned out to be a race against time: I started closing up after the pizza was in the oven, and I could smell it cooking for the first time in I don't know how long. But in the 25 minutes it was in the oven, I noticed my smell was receding. As I ate the pizza, I kept sniffing hard, and the oregano and the garlic were there, but I had to work at it, sniffing like a madman. I had a bottle of wine, a real bargain the guys at the wine store had found, and was looking forward to that, but after dinner, I only got a couple of sniffs of it and it went away.

The challenge I'm going to present the doctor next time I'm in is first, to figure out why this happens at this time of day (my GP thinks that's significant, and she seems to be pretty smart), and then to see how I can get this return of sensation to be not only permanent, but more intense. Even at my best, I'm not 100% back, and as the old gospel tune says, 99 1/2 just won't do.

Meanwhile, I'm having constant surprises: flavors I haven't experienced in a long time. A couple of weeks ago, I went to celebrate a small check by buying (instead of making) a sandwich. My regular sandwich shop was closed -- it was Monday -- and I wandered around until I found a place making paninis, and ordered a ham-and-mozzarella panini. The guy asked me if I wanted herbes de Provence on it, and of course I agreed. "And olive oil?" Sure! And boy, was that good! It was good because it was good, but it was also good because I was enjoying sensations I hadn't had in a long, long time.

A lot of us, as kids, scare ourselves by wondering what it would be like to be blind all of a sudden. Or deaf, although I didn't have to imagine that one: my father suffered from tympanic sclerosis, a thickening of the eardrum. But nobody stops to consider what it'd be like to lose your sense of taste. Well, I did, and it was no fun. I don't think I'll ever be able to take it for granted again, and I'm waiting in eager anticipation for the next amazing flavor to cross my palate as I sit here at my desk smelling the bread baking for the bakery around the corner's 3pm delivery. What a wonderful perfume.

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