Cooking Without A Sense of Smell (or Taste)

…Although arguably, I have bad taste anyway.

As you probably know by know, losing your sense of smell and taste is one of the symptoms of Covid-19. Some people regain it after a few days, and for some people, it may take weeks. There are theories right now that in some cases the nerve damage to your sense of smell may be permanent. In some people it is an early symptom of the virus, where as, with me, it came after my fever had broken.

My sense of smell is usually brutally strong, which has made living in New York City, especially during the summer, difficult, to say the least. I once started yelling at a coworker (and good friend) in the middle of our retail job because he switched laundry detergent and I found the smell of the new deterrent incredibly offensive from six feet away.

As a result, losing my sense of smell was kind of a vacation. The day before I lost it, I was sitting in isolation in the upstairs front bedroom. On the floor below, at the back of the house, Chris put on hand cream and I could smell it from a floor and 30 feet away. Granted, our house isn’t that big, this is NYC, after all, but still…

The day after, my sense of smell was just gone, and my fever had been gone for 48 hours. Chris’s fever started up, so I was released from isolation so that I could care for him.

At first, it was kind of great. I had a cold breeze sensation across my nasal passages and sinuses, and I reveled in not being able to smell things like the cat box, or the myriad perfumed products that inhabit my daily existence (hand soaps, hand creams, facial moisturizer and cleanser, shampoo, conditioner, hair product, deodorant, laundry detergent, body cream, disinfectants, cleaning sprays, dish soaps…and if you think that “unscented” products don’t have a scent, think again)

However, trying to cook without any sense of smell (or taste) was incredibly difficult. It was particularly alarming for me to open a jar of exceedingly pungent Penzey’s Paprika, and to get…nothing. (Chris had the same experience, btw)

But, we had to eat. Chris’s mother had some groceries delivered to us when we were both sick, and somehow we sort of had most of the ingredients to make Fish Tagine from Claire Dousoulier’s Tasting Paris, which is something that I really wanted to make pre-illness.

Find it here on amazon.

Instead of white fish, we had salmon, and instead of lemon we had limes, but we actually had chickpeas, as well as a pile of fresh herbs that were in danger of going bad, so I shrugged and made the substitutions. Also, I couldn’t smell. But whatever.

I dutifully chopped up the herbs and marinated the fish. Honestly, it looked great. Would have been nice to have smelled it. Or tasted it.

To be honest, cooking without any sort of sense of smell or taste shook me to my core. I was flying blind, so to speak. It was intensely difficult, and I was reduced to following the recipe faithfully (with the exception of the substitutions, but hey, salmon and lime definitely go together).

I couldn’t taste and adjust the seasonings. I couldn’t smell how the ingredients were coming together, and I was at a complete loss. It pretty much killed my will to cook, although I managed to cook for a few days.

I will be making this again when I can taste things.

Chris reported that the final product tasted good. On the bonus side, I usually have a major THING about eating leftover fish, because of the smell on the second day, but because I couldn’t smell anything, I happily ate the leftovers for two days. The texture was great.

My taste buds could sense bitter, salty and sweet, but I couldn’t tell the different between different kinds of sweet – chocolate wasn’t sweet enough, so I was eating starburst, even the flavors I usually hate, because I just wanted to taste ANYTHING.

French fries (we ordered out) were great, because they had a lovely texture and salt, but all I could taste of the actual potato was the bitterness. This happened for quite a few foods, which was both upsetting, AND enlightening because I started to really understand both the base components of various food flavors, but also where the receptors for these flavors exist on my taste buds.

I made the fish tagine on March 27th. Today is April 12th, and I have probably 90% of my taste and smell back. I can’t smell things from a distance like I could before, but I can actually smell and taste what I’m cooking. I don’t entirely trust my palate yet, and I’ve been relying a LOT on Chris for help with seasonings, but I have hope that I will eventually fully recover.

All in all, I think that this experience will significantly change how I cook. In the short term, it definitely has. I’ve reverted to cooking Ina Garten recipes, as I completely trust her seasoning, and recipes that I cooked before and basically have how I’ve altered them memorized.

Cooking through the pandemic has changed how I look at cooking and food. It’s making me a more creative cook, as there are a wide variety of ingredients that I just can’t get any longer. Going to the grocery store is a half-day endurance test, on both physical and emotional levels. Each time I’ve gone, I stand in a appropriately socially distanced line for approximately an hour, and then get about 30 minutes to run around the store guessing at what I can throw together, which hopefully the kids will eat. We’ve reverted to comfort foods, nothing too adventurous (fish tagine aside) with relatively simple ingredients. I’m fine with this, because I have to be.


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