The day after our wedding, I began to lose my ability to smell and taste. It happened gradually but quickly. I first noticed that I was having a hard time smelling some of the more nuanced notes in food. At the same time, I started experiencing a phantom smell and taste. It had a strange herbal, slightly toasted quality and I began to smell it in everything. While in Iceland, everything had this strange taste. At first I thought it was a local herb they used in most of their food. We even asked a waitress about it but she had no idea what we were talking about. Steve and I started joking that it was the taste of lamb that was permeating everything, since lamb was so common in Iceland.
By the end of the trip, things had gotten worse. When we got back to New York I pretty much lost the ability to smell anything but the strongest odors and I could only taste strong and basic flavors: sweet, salty, bitter. Some things, like coffee, now tasted and smelled exclusively of that weird toasted herbal phantom flavor. It was obvious something was wrong.
There are times when not being able to smell can be a blessing (yes, I am talking about you, mister I-don’t-wear-deodorant-at-the-gym). But those times are very few. Not being able to taste or smell food was devastating for me. I was trying not to panic but it was hard not to. Beyond the loss of pleasure from food, I started to feel a strange kind of isolation from everything around me. Like I was living in a plastic bubble. I realized how much our sense of smell helps connect us to our surroundings, much like our sight and hearing.
A quick visit to Dr. Google was not very reassuring (is it ever?). There were lots of Greek words, like anosmia (complete loss of smell), parosmia (inability to correctly smell), and dysgeusia (distortion of sense of taste). The probable causes of my symptoms were many and some were very scary.
So, last Wednesday I went to a real doctor, an ENT. Within 5 minutes I was diagnosed. I had a “giant” (his word) polyp in each nostril which was blocking my olfactory nerves. Fortunately, nothing too serious. He recommended an aggressive treatment with Prednisone and antibiotics for a month, and Flonase “for the rest of my life” (his words again). Surgery would be the next step, if the polyps didn’t respond to the meds.
A quick visit to Dr. Google again (I know, I can’t resist) revealed that nasal polyps are common for people with chronic sinusitis and allergies (that would be me) and that they are especially common among men over the age of 40 (damn you 40s! You are so not the new 30s, no matter what anyone says).
I started the meds on Thursday morning. By Friday night, I was feeling much better. My sinuses were no longer clogged up and I was starting to smell and taste things again. Both Steve and I were immensely relieved. This spaghetti with garlic, lemon, and parsley is what I made and it was the first thing I was able to taste correctly in about 3 weeks. I’ve always liked this dish but on that night I thought it was the best thing I had ever tasted.
Spaghetti with Garlic, Lemon, and Parsley
Slightly adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook: More than 1000 recipes
1 lb spaghetti
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2-3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Cook pasta in a 6-8 quart pot of boiling salted water (1 T salt for every 4 quarts water) until al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water and drain pasta.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12 inch heavy skillet over moderately low heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until garlic is golden, about 3 minutes.
Stir lemon zest into skillet, then stir in juice, salt, pepper, and 1/2 cup reserved cooking water and bring to a simmer.
Toss pasta in sauce with parsley. Add more cooking water if pasta seems dry.
Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese on top.