What I’m hoping for is that I’m George Bailey and COVID-19 is Clarence Odbody.
When you write about food, as I have, every week for the last five years or so, you can get a little jaded if you’re not careful. You start to think thoughts like, “I can make this at home,” and, “This is $15?,” and, “Why are people lined up here?” As it turns out, “Do what you love” has a little caveat: Don’t do it so much it becomes an obligation.
And so then a pandemic hits and drastically changes how restaurants can serve food, and you think, “Maybe I don’t miss going out to eat as much as I should.” You look at your bank account and there’s the money sitting there that you would’ve spent out. You use it to buy weird Italian yeast that makes the snap of your pizza dough just a little snappier.
Then you get COVID-19. And you lose your sense of taste and smell entirely. And you face the specter of being someone who writes about food for a living who might not ever taste food again.
You blame yourself for taking for granted Frasca’s frico caldo or a sub from Your Butcher Frank or duck betel leaves from Chez Thuy or charred broccoli with sriracha aioli from Gastronauts.
You live in a world where, suddenly, food is unenjoyable. You live in a world where pita chips and Ritz crackers, chocolate and cheese, vodka and water, are indiscernible. You get just an inclination whether something is salty or sweet or spicy, and the only insight you can really offer into anything you consume is how much water is in it — oranges, a lot of water; granola bars, more than you’d think; ginger snaps… like munching on wood chips.
You see a raspberry on the table and think, “I’d like to eat a raspberry” and then it tastes like water and you don’t have another one. You have nothing but cravings you can’t satisfy.
And so I’m hoping some spirits in the galaxy got together to show me I’ve been taking the gift of taste and smell — and the ability to write about what I taste and smell — for granted, and that they sent down an angel, COVID, to rekindle my appreciation for food — everything about it and everyone who makes it.
I’m on the right trajectory. It took me about as long as George Bailey to realize something was different and that the difference was real. After testing positive for COVID, I carried on eating as if nothing was different. Nothing was; I could still taste. Then my wife handed me some essential oils and asked if I could name the scent. Of course, I could, I thought. But, of course, I couldn’t. Couldn’t tell the difference between peppermint, orange and tea tree oils. It all smelled like nothing.
So then I ate and drank everything we had: fruit, meat, chips, tea, cheese, candy. It all tasted like nothing. In an instant, it was all gone. I doomscrolled articles on how and when taste and smell returns to COVID patients; it was not as reassuring as I’d hoped — about a quarter of people get their senses back within a month, I read in articles with some links to support groups for those with anosmia and ageusia. I hopescrolled for articles that indicated most get a full return of those senses quickly, and then just cast the worry out of my brain. What else could I do?
The point had been made. My wife made steak the next day; I said, what’s the point? We were planning to make sauerbraten (beef marinated in vinegar) with pungent red cabbage for Christmas, our family’s traditional meal. Rum cake for dessert. What’s the point of any of that if I can’t taste the vibrant meat and instantly recall family dinners at my grandparents’ house? If my head doesn’t snap to the right when I get a bite of sweet yellow cake saturated with piquant liquor? It was George seeing Mary as (gasp) a spinster.
Clarence, I’m ready to go back now. Bring me back.
So much of my life, outside of its importance in my work, is tied up in food. When I give gifts, I give unique whiskeys and bottarga (cured roe sacks) and squid ink. When I get gifts, I get ’nduja (spicy sausage spread), culinary smoke guns, ravioli tablets and cookbooks.
When I get home from work, I cook. It’s meditative. And I do it so often (and so often cook the same meals), I can smell when the butter’s burning or taste to see if the chili needs more cumin. If there’s no payoff on the tongue, there’s no benefit to full-body kneading fresh pasta dough for 20 minutes.
What’s the point in tending to tomato plants and building cages around backyard corn stalks?
What do I do when I visit a new city? Where do I go to celebrate special occasions?
Food is not only part of my present identity, it’s a link to the past and future. A cup of Dunkin’ coffee — that paragon of culinary achievement — always reminds me of when I was younger, starting my career, waiting for the train on an NJ Transit platform, headed into the city to be part of something bigger than myself. And since they nixed the styrofoam cups, there’s nothing tactile anymore to recall that association.
In fact, the more I sit with this, the more I realize, this is all a lot closer to It’s a Wonderful Life than just losing the ability to taste food. Now, I don’t equate this to anyone who really lost life’s most precious gift, life itself, and those who love those unfortunate souls, but the fabric of life, what makes it worth living, is woven with things you can only sense through your mouth and nose.
That marshy aroma when the snow thaws on the first warm day of spring. The scent of my children’s hair after a bath. The familiar smell of my parent’s house, my childhood home, when I go back to visit. Petrichor, the unique scent of rain after a dry spell. Fresh-cut grass, Home Depot, the gas pump when you get too close, dead leaves. This drafty old house, er, sweaty clothes hung in the mudroom after shoveling snow.
As I write this, I still don’t have my taste and smell back — there’s no “Zuzu’s petals” moment at the end of this essay. But good, bad, whatever, just give me not nothing. I want it all back. I’ll pay double for food from local restaurants as long as I can taste it. You can serve it in a shoe. I don’t care. I’ll write odes to it.
Until then, every time I hear a bell ring, I’ll reach for something tasty with fingers crossed.