Tastebuds Suck! Long Live The Olfactory Bulb

Those of you who follow me on Instagram or Twitter will know that I’ve recently returned from a press trip to South Africa to attend the bi-annual Cape Wine fair. It was a fabulous trip until I came down with COVID-19 near the end of the trip.

Up until now, I have managed to avoid getting the disease. With so many people around me having gotten it in the past year or so, I was starting to believe that I might be one of those folks who can’t get it. Turns out I was just being properly careful, and despite my care, my luck ran out in South Africa. At an event where I was wandering around a big hall filled with thousands of people spitting and talking without masks. Go figure.

The worst part about coming down with COVID was that I had to cancel the last section of my trip: several days of individual producer visits that I had painstakingly arranged ahead of time.

The second worst part about getting COVID was the brief 36-48 period in which I was totally and completely anosmic: I completely, utterly, totally lost all sense of smell.

Of course, this was a relatively common, if mysterious, side effect of COVID-19 early in the pandemic. I know I read plenty of stories about it, and the about the efforts of those affected to regain their sense of smell following their infections. And of course, several of my wine colleagues around the world experienced this.

But it seemed to me, anecdotally speaking, that with the most recent variants and waves of COVID, anosmia was not a commonly reported side effect of the disease. So it took me a little by surprise when on the second day of my self-isolation in Cape Town, I stuck my nose into a jar of Tiger Balm ointment and got…. nothing.

Now, I’ve had bad colds before, and frankly, I’ve been more congested at other times in my life than I found myself in the midst of COVID. On all those occasions, however, I could smell something. In this case, it was as if someone had simply disconnected my nose from my brain.

If it hadn’t been associated with all the other nasty symptoms of COVID, and if it hadn’t also been a little scary for a guy who depends upon his nose a little more than the average person, the whole experience would have been amazingly fascinating.

We all know intellectually that most of what we taste is aroma. After all, our tastebuds really only give us sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. It’s one thing, however, to know this theoretically. It’s quite another to experience the world of food when those five taste sensations are ALL you’ve got to work with.

Yes, folks, for those of you who haven’t had the “pleasure” of COVID-induced anosmia, let me tell you. Life with only your tastebuds really, really sucks.

Potato chips? Faintly salty cardboard.
Pastries? Faintly sweet cardboard.
Orange juice? Ever-so-faintly sour liquid cardboard.
Chicken noodle soup? Cardboard strings in lightly salty water.

Interestingly, spiciness which I (erroneously it turns out) tend to think about as more of a physical interaction than an aroma, was completely absent, too, as an order of extra spicy chicken curry delivered to my room irrefutably proved (chunks of soft cardboard in a faintly salty slurry of…. cardboard).

Much to my relief, the complete anosmia lasted only around 2 days, after which I felt like my nose was back working at roughly 50% capacity, or close to what I’ve experienced with the average bad winter cold. After a week of testing negative, I felt like I was back to about 85% of my aroma-sensing capacity, with the notable exception of spiciness, however, which has been one of the last sensations to return.

I’m now a little more than two weeks into testing negative for the virus and I feel like I’m back to perhaps 90% of my previous olfactory strength. I’ve been resuming my winetasting activities with some relief and relative confidence, and I have been trying to smell as many intense smells as possible, a sort of ad-hoc regimen resembling the recovery techniques I’ve read about for those whose sense of smell didn’t reappear after a couple of days.

More than anything, however, I now have even greater respect for all of our olfactory equipment, which, it seems, deserve a hell of a lot more credit for making life good. Because it turns out that a life with only tastebuds wouldn’t be much of a life at all.