The theme of a sermon I preached this April was that God created us as physical beings and that we can find spiritual meaning in everyday physical experiences, such as watching a bird in flight, spotting a pretty leaf, and eating good food with special friends. In the sermon, I said the following:
“In the Road to Emmaus story, you will see that they recognized Jesus when? When he broke bread, blessed it, and gave it to them. There is something so very human and so very spiritual about that. They had had a lengthy conversation, but it wasn’t until they ate together that the familiarity became apparent. Break bread with a stranger, and you may discover you’re in the presence of God.”
I also said:
“When Jesus said, ‘Touch me and see,’ when he asked for something to eat, he showed us that the physicality of life, the world that we touch and smell and see and taste and hear–this is spirituality waiting to happen.”
What I did not say was that, beginning a couple of months prior to that Sunday, I had lost nearly all of one of those five senses that I celebrated as a means for experiencing God’s presence: my sense of taste.
I’m not a great cook, but I’m a good cook. Having guests over for a meal, planning the meal, buying the ingredients, cooking, serving, eating, talking about the food—sharing all this with friends is a great source of joy for me. I have a healthy ego, so I also like the compliments I sometimes get. I like reading recipes, even if I never prepare them. (One recipe in a Slovenian cookbook began, “After you kill the pig, keep the blood.” I have yet to try that one.) I like trying new restaurants and new cuisines. I like hearing about a good bakery or a place to buy fresh seafood. I like the conversations my friends and I have at a restaurant: choosing a dish, anticipating its delivery, describing the taste and texture. Sharing food with people I love, or with most anyone, often involves deep personal connections. Those connections, for me, are spiritually rich.
Then sometime around February, 2012, I began noticing that food didn’t taste right. Everything was bland. It took me a while to acknowledge that I wasn’t tasting much of anything at all. I didn’t acknowledge it partly out of denial (“This can’t happen to me.”) but also because I have been trying for years to break my habit of eating fast. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that sometimes I would be halfway or more through eating something before I would realize I wasn’t tasting it, and soon I was almost finished with it, so I would brush the realization aside in my head. (Sometimes denial helps a fellow get through something without going crazy.)
Eventually, I could deny no longer. All meat tastes like plain tofu. Barbecued meat, marinated meat, fried meat—all indistinguishable on my palate. The ham or turkey sandwiches I take to work for lunch are interesting in the way the bread, lettuce, and meat have different textures, but I can taste only a slight trace of the spicy mustard I glob on copiously. I can also slightly taste strong sour flavors, such as pickles. I appreciate the crunch of well—as in, not overly—cooked broccoli, but olive oil, salt, pepper, or Mrs. Dash give its flavor no boost. Hot peppers still burn my lips (I have lost taste, not sensation), but spicy food is little different from the unseasoned. I can sense (though not taste) citrus in my mouth. I know when lemon or orange is in there, but I don’t actually taste it. That’s hard to explain, but it’s true.
I quit eating sweets. What’s the point? Flavor is their raison d’etre. It’s not like I can say, “Well, at least I’m getting fiber out of it.” Most sweets are just a mushy blob in my mouth. If something, say, peanut brittle, is crunchy, that’s a little interesting but provides no flavor. For a while, I kept trying sweets, either out of more denial or hopefulness. Maybe the NEXT bite would mean something. Chew, chew, chew. Hope, hope, hope. Nope, nope, nope. One day, driving back to the office after a day of chaplain visits, I bought a large chocolate frozen custard at a drive-thru. Driving toward it, I recalled the delicious rich flavor I have enjoyed often. I assumed I wouldn’t be able to taste it but had a faint hope that maybe, just maybe, my taste had suddenly, miraculously, returned. That’s how denial works for me. I enjoyed the cold creamy sensation, but, alas, no chocolate flavor, and it left an odd sensation in my mouth that I can’t describe. That’s a lot of calories with no reward. The last dessert I tried was a derby pie I made for a Kentucky Derby party we hosted, and that was one rich pie, but I tasted nothing. I ate half a piece and threw the rest away—and swore off sweets.
Texture helps a little but not much. Lack of it, though, can be dreadful. Peanut butter leaves this awful sensation in my mouth. Pastries only disappoint since flavors (raspberry filling, yum) are now kind of a ghostly, elusive memory. The buttery, flaky pleasure of, say, a croissant no longer exists. Besides, focusing on texture can lead down a poor nutritional path. I will sometimes—only for the satisfying crunch—eat an amount of potato chips which, if my daughter ate, I would disapprove. Fried chicken can be OK to chew, but the meat under the satisfyingly greasy skin does nothing for me now. Marinate it in buttermilk or whatever all you want.
That Derby Party is the last time I cooked for company. I haven’t decided to quit altogether, but I also haven’t worked up the courage to try again. I’m not the kind of cook that tastes and adjusts seasoning very much, so it’s not that my cooking would suffer. My dread is that I’m not sure how I will handle being an observer, rather than a participant , in the talking-about-how-the-food-is part of the evening—in my own home, at my own table, during a meal that I prepared. I once boldly cooked a meal composed entirely of never-tried-before recipes to see how it would turn out, but, now, why should I try cooking something new if I can’t share the tasting experience with friends? I assume I will resume cooking for company eventually, but, for now, my enthusiasm for it is low.
After finally realizing that simply hoping my taste would return was futile, I made an appointment with an ENT. I wanted to talk about a slight hearing loss in my left ear anyway, since listening well is crucial for a chaplain, and I planned to say, “Oh, by the way, while I’m here: I can’t taste anything.” Soon, the hearing loss became something I hardly thought about anymore.