Losing the Scent

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I’ve always joked with people that if I were to develop a life-threatening allergy to seafood, I would settle my affairs, go to my kitchen and whip up a batch of bouillabaisse the likes of which the world has never seen before, pour myself a big glass of some fine, French wine and enjoy a divine last meal.

When I went vegetarian for four years during my early 30s, I couldn’t give up seafood, such is my love for the bounty of the oceans.

I learned to cook from watching my grandmothers and my mother work their magic in their respective kitchens over my lifetime. Through their bloodlines flowed thousands of years of shared knowledge. I loved the way they knew where in the cooking process they were by the smells and the colors or the feel. Cooking was a sensory experience, it wasn’t book learning.

My Ukrainian grandmother would crush garlic in her hand, knowing the heft and quality of it instinctually. My mother would stir sautéing mushrooms based on the darkening meat and the fragrance of the garlic as it melded with the brown sauce.

When you prepare food, you rely on all senses in ways that other jobs never come close to.

On busy Friday nights at the pub I used to work at in Oregon, I would become so reliant on my sense of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch, that a cold would knock me off my game and slow the delivery of food to customers. The way the fries crackled in the oil, the sizzle of a hamburger patty on the flat-top grill. The feel of the marinated onions when they were perfectly cured, each of these senses firing correctly guaranteed the right experience for our patrons.

I carried these over into our home, where I fell in love with cooking on weekends as a form of stress relief from the rigors of daily reporting.

I made garlicky infusions of rice or potatoes and tangy tomato-based dishes that simmered for hours. I dressed chickens myself and made pie crusts from scratch. The kids developed discerning palates early on, and my wife became harder to impress, though I had long-ago won her heart.

I have appreciated the complexity of all five of our senses, especially in relation to the way they work together to enhance both the pleasure of preparing a meal and consuming it.

As a home brewer, I have loved nothing so much as the smell of a freshly crushed hop cone between my hands or the wet and bisquity smell of warm grape nuts emanating from a rolling mash.

To this day, the smell I miss most is that dank, earthy smell so prevalent in Oregon Pinot Noirs made from grapes grown in pockets of dirt washed down the Columbia basin thousands of years ago in the great Missoula Floods.

It started with small complaints over the last year.

“Dad, there’s too much garlic in this rice.” Or “The onions smell burned, not caramelized.”

I brushed these off at first, thinking that perhaps I had simply fallen out of practice.

“Just eat it,” I’d tell them. “It’s still really good food.”

Late last winter, I found myself putting extra hop additions into my homemade beer. But I wasn’t putting in bittering hops, I was putting in extra floral hops.

I had a hankering for really citrusy and strong-smelling beers.

This summer, I have been obsessively smoking food on my weber grill, trying to infuse as much scent into my meals as possible.

It wasn’t until very recently that I noticed the imbalance. I was sacrificing flavor in my cooking for smell. I was relying far too much on that sense to define good, and it was costing me my patrons.

My kids complained about weekend dinners, and my wife, the one person whose opinion I truly care about, told me she found some of my meals to be bland and devoid of flavor. Though they smelled good, she often admitted.

Over the last few weeks I realized, or perhaps admitted to myself, that I had lost my sense of smell.

It was not without some amount of terror that I let this sink in. There is a certain panic that comes with not being able to smell anything.

In medical terms, it’s called anosmia, and its causes are legion. Trying to learn about it on the Internet is perhaps the most horrific thing one can do to oneself.

For a week I thought I had Parkinson’s, as anosmia is often a sign of that disease setting in. Chewing tobacco, which I did while in high school and for a few years after, is another pathway to anosmia, albeit generally through facial cancer that attacks the sensitive nerves in your nose.

Of course the common cold is also to blame, as are numerous prescription medications as well as aging.

I have long wondered what it would be like to lose a sense, but I never gave much thought to losing the sense of smell. I have dreamed of losing my sight or my hearing, always envisioning a pathway to superhero-like increases in my other senses.

Truthfully, the loss of sight or sound would be far more devastating than smell.

But the more I think about the loss of the pleasure of scent, the more disappointing it becomes to me personally.

Take for instance my wife’s insistence on stealing my pillow.

“It smells like you,” she often says. “When you leave in the morning, it’s like having you right here next to me.”

I now realize I can no longer remember her smell. When I smell her hair, I no longer pick up those tropical fruit smells from her favorite shampoo.

When she finishes her shift at Starbucks, I no longer smell that rich coffee ground scent she carries with her.

Someone was describing the smell of a certain type of orange the other day, and try as I might, I could not conjure up the smell in my memory.

I have, so far, retained my sense of taste, though without its companion, the nose, taste is rather dry and not as lively as it once was. But I’ll not complain about that now.

And of course I can hear and see and feel, which I will forever be grateful for.

There is in the loss of a sense, a realization of how connected they are as a whole to the human experience.

Many times I might have complained about my ability to smell, especially when passing a dairy farm or riding a crowded train in Ukraine.

But I would take the bad smells along with the good today, just to have the entirety of the experience again.

I’m not entirely without hope. My doctor says that in a certain number of people, a sense of smell returns once the root cause is determined and treated.

For now, I would only say take the time to draw deeply on your sense of smell. Commit those smells to memory, so you can pull them out at will. Don’t take the scents of this magnificent life for granted, both good and bad.

To-day I think
Only with scents, – scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
And the square mustard field;

Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the root of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery;

The smoke’s smell, too,
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns.

It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth. – Edward Thomas

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