It was in the haze of the first few days of official lockdown that I woke up one morning and realized that I couldn’t smell my face wash. Soon, I couldn’t taste my food either. I had been experiencing some of the other by-now-familiar symptoms of the coronavirus — shortness of breath, chills, and aches in my body — but there was little information on whether the two things were linked. And then headlines began to circulate telling people with a loss of taste and smell to self-isolate.
Anosmia, the loss of smell, which affects one’s ability to detect flavor, has of course since been officially acknowledged as a symptom of the coronavirus. (Research from South Korea, where testing is widespread, suggests that up to 30 percent of positive cases presented with this symptom. In a small study in Germany, two in three confirmed cases had anosmia.)
It felt reassuring to be able to pinpoint the cause, but also a bit cruel. Compared to the lethal dangers of the coronavirus, being unable to taste your food isn’t a big deal, but after already being deprived of many other basic pleasures, like social contact and leaving our homes, not being able to enjoy the simple gratification of food can feel tremendously unfair.
Generally, I only eat for joy, not so much for survival or nutrition. Losing my sense of taste, then, meant that for weeks I bit into buttered toast and eggs when the starvation snuck up on me, and every chew felt like adding insult to injury.
Relegated to my house, I spent hours on social media, which was a never-ending feed of lovingly baked loaves of sourdough and banana bread. Averting my eyes, I hoped my taste buds would return so I could eat something delicious, too; take part in some small pleasure.
“It’s definitely made the experience more mundane and depressing,” says a friend who lives in London. “It felt like I couldn’t even enjoy the simple things, like a home-cooked meal, or treat myself to a takeaway that would provide me with a bit of happiness.”
In truth, some of the only pleasure to be found in quarantine comes from eating and cooking and baking, or thinking ahead about what to eat, cook, and bake next. With nowhere to go and nothing much to change up the mundanity of our current days, meals have become central in serving to map out our time and providing a semblance of order, as well as giving us something to look forward to.
But without a sense of taste or smell, what joy is there in cooking? Even the act of cooking can feel more dangerous — what if I don’t smell something that’s burning?
Another friend summed up her own loss of taste like this: “I had no desire to eat. Everything tasted like cardboard. Chewing was tedious; I felt depressed by it.” Cooking, she pointed out, is often therapeutic — but that’s negated if you can’t taste the food.
But anxious minds need distraction; the repeated practice and gentle focus required in chopping, stirring, and putting food on the table demands presence, and is a welcome respite.
Thankfully, the symptom is temporary, and it is with joy that I have now joined the ranks of the world’s banana-bread bakers. I’m still stuck in my house, and the outside world still feels precarious, but at least now there’s solace once again in cooking, and pleasure in eating. Even if everything else remains uncertain, I can still look forward to the next meal.