In my big Italian family, cooking together is a chaotic, noisy, raucous production. We bump into each other, fight over the accompanying playlist, and bicker over the best way to do pretty much everything. For us, preparing a meal is an act of love and while eating together, we enjoy the tangible, physical manifestation of that love. This genetic passion for food extends into my social life. My personal heaven is a drawn-out dinner party that goes late into the night. A table scattered with food remnants and empty bottles of wine as evidence of a well-cooked meal shared with well-loved people.
Like any love, this relationship with food is complicated. I often feel guilty for the amount of time I dedicate to food. I’m in grad school—wouldn’t my time be better spent fine-tuning a memo or chipping away at the ever-increasing pile of readings than creating a culinary masterpiece out of the ingredients left in my fridge? Should I be spending so much money on sesame seeds and organic mozzarella as the interest on my student loan increases?
But then the global pandemic hits.
Dinner parties are suddenly a relic of the past. Family meals on Sunday afternoons are impossible. Grocery store lines are hours long, curbing access to fresh ingredients. My mom drops a loaf of her famous pumpkin bread on my doorstep. Later she calls me. “Could you taste the extra ingredient?” In our family, food is how we take care of one another. That “extra ingredient” my mom refers to is the love that she sprinkles in like an essential seasoning.
“No,” I respond to my mom’s question, morosely wallowing in self-pity, “I can’t taste anything.” The coronavirus has obliterated my taste buds and I can’t smell anything. For the first couple days without taste, I hold out hope. I prepare food as if taste is just around the corner. I save the cheddar chive biscuits that I bake, hoping the next day my taste buds will revitalize, allowing me to savor them with the flourish that their flakiness deserves. After a few days I can no longer enjoy the fruits of my labor. I abandon my rigorous practice of food preparation in favor of day-dreaming. I list all the foods I will eat when I regain taste: Carbonara, peanut butter and jelly, a cheeseburger and fries from Shake Shack, grilled cheese and tomato soup. I make fantasy grocery lists with salty, cheesy, carb rich ingredients that will settle heavily in my stomach and satiate my desperate cravings.
When this gets too depressing, I pivot to the bright side: I am lucky that my symptoms are so minor. I microwave my coffee and enjoy it perpetually warm—my food snobbery prohibits me from doing so when I can taste the reheated coffee bitterness. I chip away at the mountain of food in the freezer that has accumulated over the past year and pat myself on the back for not being wasteful. I eat minimally, a diet of mostly vegetables. No time spent on cooking means fewer distractions and more time spent on my thesis. I become an efficient machine. My procrasti-baking tendencies curbed, I prove to myself that I am the diligent student I always knew I could be.
One morning, I find myself leaning against my kitchen counter eating defrosted green beans for breakfast. Later that night, I read the following line in Like Water for Chocolate, “For Tita, the joy of living was wrapped up in the delights of food.” Same, Tita. I feel you.
I stay up ’til 2:30am on Twitter, reading descriptions of similar symptoms, frantically looking for harbingers of my taste’s return. One woman’s account describes the scent of curry as a hint that her senses were returning to normal. I unscrew my curry spice jar and take a deep inhale. No dice.
On day 14, I begin experimenting. Could I eat a hunk of ginger without tasting it? Yes —and (bonus!) I can still feel a tingly sensation on my tongue. To the amusement of my friends, I try a jalapeno during a Zoom call. No taste—but it clears my sinuses. I film myself eating a clove of garlic for the haters who said I couldn’t. Still no taste, but I get wretchedly nauseous. These extreme foods – ones that we typically associate with strong taste- actually also produce a physiological response. That some foods provide other sensations proves their magic and also tethers me to tastes I missed so deeply.
Eventually, I create a monk-like lifestyle suitable for someone in the middle of writing their masters’ thesis. I can’t leave the house. I can’t see friends. I can’t enjoy food. So, I am productive. My grades flourish, my weight drops, my routine calcifies. But I am miserable.
On day 17, I hand in my thesis. I celebrate with a handful of nuts that have been sitting untouched in my pantry for month. I am shocked to realize that I can taste them. I frantically rustle through my now sparse pantry for the saltiest thing I can find. Fifteen minutes later, I’m bawling, relieved, into a bowl of Annie’s mac and cheese, immediately abandoning my plant-based diet for the salty, cheesy one I had been craving.
The grass-is-greener attitude is a natural part of the human experience. We’re always only one milestone away from happiness: “If only I could drop these five pounds.” “If only my grades were as good as they could be.” “If only I could stop blowing my paycheck at restaurants and save some money.” Quarantine gives me all of these things. But it doesn’t make me happy.
Since my taste has returned, I undertake baking projects with no guilt over the amount of time required. I am teaching my roommate to cook. Our time constrained to the house gives me the chance to teach my love language to someone else, spreading fluency. I am taking part in the rising barter economy, trading freshly baked bread for a jar of kimchi or homemade biryani. I can taste my mom’s pumpkin bread—including the love. It’s better than ever.
I drop cookies off on a friend’s porch as she packs up her house. Her move marks the end of our graduate school experience and the last time we will live in the same city. A couple hours after she pulls away, she sends me a text: “I can taste the extra ingredient.” I can’t give her a hug goodbye—but for now, a cookie does the trick.
Image: “Pumpkin Bread” by furtwangl, licensed under CC 2.0.