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On losing taste

I used to love food, but now I sit by while my family eats. All soups taste the same. All bread tastes the same. 'Spicy' causes pain. And I may never taste again
The Garden of Earthly, Hieronymous Bosch, 1590-1600, Museo del Prado

I used to wake up feeling hungry. I wouldn’t be able to make it through the first lesson without at least a yogurt or a banana. Now, it takes until the afternoon for me to feel hunger, so I start my day with a cup of coffee.

I started drinking coffee in late 2020, when I realized that in order to maintain a feasible schedule, I’d need a caffeine boost. My one cup in the afternoon was soon joined by a cup in the morning, and as I developed a coffee habit, I discovered more and more about my preferences: Something strong in the morning with milk, and something light and fruity in the afternoon, with soymilk and ice. Slowly I, like many others, fell into a routine that had as much to do with the taste of coffee than its energy boosts.

The coffee I drink now is different. Taste no longer plays a part; all coffee tastes like water, hot or cold. Adding sugar simply turns it into sweetened water. I soon realized that there was no point wasting money or time making something that tasted or smelled good, so my 2 lattes a day became 2 espresso shots of something strong and cheap, swallowed to avoid the only thing my tongue seemed to pick up on: the bitter aftertaste.

I contracted COVID-19 in early September from one of my Rabbis, who got it from his kids, who most likely got it from their pre-school. I was lucky enough to have relatively mild side effects while I was sick: Coughing, sneezing, headaches, throataches and muscle fatigue. Two days before my doctor could grant me a clean bill of health, I noticed something funny: The grapefruit juice I was drinking with my lunch was weaker than usual. So was the lunch itself. I told myself it was just a result of my stuffiness, and that it would pass.

It’s been months now, and I still have no sense of taste or smell. This has had interesting effects on my lifestyle, in places I wouldn’t expect. Sure, my appetite shrunk, and as a result, I lost a bit of weight. My tongue can still taste salt and sugar when there’s enough of it though, so I gained some back as I desperately tried to enjoy junk food again. In the long term, however, I was definitely eating less.

About three hours after my coffee, I’ll get a bit peckish. At this point, I have to make a decision: Lunch or dinner? My stomach no longer has room for both. If I opt for lunch, I’ll spread some kind of protein on some kind of carbohydrate, and call it a day. Maybe I’ll want to splurge a bit and choose dinner instead. We like to eat meals as a family, and normally I’m very vocal about what we order. Now, I go along with whatever they’ve decided, and eat until I’m full — usually a small hamburger or two slices of pizza.

I used to pride myself on my love of food. I definitely got it from my dad. We were eating lunch with a colleague of his, when he told us that he’d never seen people who love food like the Rosens. I really loved food. Whenever I went anywhere, my first thought would always be “What’s for lunch?” This I got from my grandmother, known for always planning one or two meals ahead of what’s considered “normal.” My point is that my family has an almost genetic love of food. Once taste and smell are removed from the equation, however, all soups taste the same. All cream sauces taste the same. All bread tastes the same. I now sit by while the rest of my family eats, feeling like the colleague from the story.

Missing two senses has impacted everything from my dating life to my sleep schedule. I probably put on too much cologne now, erring on the side of caution. I have gone hours and hours without eating or drinking, only to realize it’s 6 p.m. and I’ve been fasting since my morning coffee. When we eat out as a family, I’m often tempted to order the weirdest item on the menu just to see if by miracle there’s a spice that my taste buds detect, but am immediately chided: “What’s the point? You won’t taste it, it’s a waste of money. Get a salad.”

I recently visited my favorite burger chain in Tel Aviv. Instead of getting my usual, I got the cheapest item on the menu, hold the hot sauce. I can’t do spicy anymore. Spice isn’t technically taste, but pain picked up by nerve endings in your tongue and mouth. This was developed evolutionally by peppers as a means to stop animals from consuming them. Humans, though, liked the flavors of these peppers, and grew a tolerance to them. Most popular hot sauces, however, use traditional spices and flavors to take the edge off the spice to make the flavor more enjoyable. Unsurprisingly, these flavors are lost on me, and I only taste the spice, which is overwhelming, making even sriracha and tabasco too much for me. This burger place has a delicious house spicy mayo (highly recommend!!!) which I had to forgo this time.

The most frustrating thing about this is how little the medical world knows about it. The extent of that information is this: Either it improves within four weeks, or it most likely is permanent. Smell is an important factor in taste, so even if my taste buds return to normal, my nose may not. Right now, the consensus is that this loss of senses isn’t in the tongue or nose, but in the nervous system, meaning the damage could have lasting effects. Vanderbilt University Medical Center even claims that I most likely am suffering from neuron damage, which could very well be permanent. I may never taste again.

As fun of a party trick it has been to stick my nose inside a jar of cinnamon and not sneeze, or to fail all kinds of blind taste tests, the thought that this is the ‘new normal’ for me is daunting. As we approach year 3 of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ll most likely start to ask ourselves what the long term plan is. Will we need to be vaccinated every few months? Will testing still be required to enter certain countries? Will masks be required indoors? We seem to be headed for a post-9-11-esque “new normal,” where COVID restrictions will be here for one way or another. Eventually, though, maybe in a decade or two, some of us will be able to stop worrying and put these few years behind us. Some of us have loved ones who lost the battle with the virus. Some of us, though, will be branded with a permanent reminder of our fragility and of how little we really understand about ourselves.

About the Author
Eytan is a 18 year old Oleh from California, currently residing in Ra'anana and studying at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. He can best be reached via Facebook Messenger.
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