A 'Food Freak' Describes Losing His Senses of Taste and Smell, a Coronavirus Symptom: 'Disconcerting'

PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis speaks to those who have experienced unique circumstances as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic

Nabil Ayers
Photo: AJ Ayers

Nabil Ayers is a Brooklyn-based writer and the U.S. Head of the record label 4AD where he’s released albums by Grimes, The National and Future Islands. Nabil started working from home due to illness one week before his office officially closed. While sequestered in his apartment, in addition to his normal cold symptoms, he began to lose his senses of taste and smell.

One morning last week I woke up in the throes of a head cold that my doctor assured me was not Coronavirus. But because of the outbreak and my cold symptoms, I stayed home, fatigued but cooking healthy, more-complicated-than-necessary meals simply because I had the time.

As my cold dissipated I experienced a strange symptom that I’ve never had before: I lost all sense of taste and smell. It came on gradually one morning and over the day, my senses dwindled to the point where I didn’t even want to eat dinner because I could barely taste it. The next day, two of my five senses were completely absent and I found myself staring into a refrigerator with the ability to only see, feel and hear the food on its shelves. And none of it looked, felt or sounded appetizing.

Without taste and smell, food is reduced to texture and temperature. Food becomes scientific, clinical, cold. The cracker I placed in my mouth was still crunchy and I could detect a hint of saltiness, but it lacked the earthy flavor that I knew existed. A spoonful of honey and lemon felt warm and sticky, but I missed its bright intensity as I gulped it down. The final failed test was a big inhale over a bottle of 100-proof Kentucky bourbon, which might as well have been from a bottle of water. It was as if a wall existed between me and food, like eating with a layer of Saran Wrap glued inside my mouth and over my nostrils. I knew what I was supposed to taste and smell, but the sensations simply didn’t exist.

I’d done a big shopping trip a few days earlier in case the city shut down. I loaded up on frozen vegetables, olive oil and canned goods at Trader Joe’s as if I might not return for weeks; produce from my local bodega; bulk rice and beans from my local health food store, where on the way out, the packaged turkey in the bright refrigerated aisle caught my attention. I’ve walked this aisle multiple times each week but this time, the turkey reminded me that it’s the perfect restorative food for such an uncertain time.

There’s something comforting about a turkey sandwich. I learned how to make one on my own at a young age—toasting the bread just right so it has a bit of crunch but not so much that it breaks apart when I bite into it. In college, my sandwich consisted of two thin slices from a ninety-nine cent loaf of spongy, brownish bread that went stale because my roommates never sealed it properly. I’d cover one slice with a thin layer of mayo from an oversized container from our Costco run just before the school year. Finally, I’d place a few slices of salty, wet-from-the-plastic-package turkey breast on one side and I’d close it like a book. Thin and simple—that was it and it was perfect.

As my tastes developed and my income grew over the years, my turkey sandwich evolved. Rustic rolls replaced plain old bread and sometimes, I’d melt an expensive cheese on the roll. Fresh cut organic turkey, seasoned with black pepper or rosemary. replaced slimy, packaged slices. I sliced red onion impossibly thin and added pickled peppers in an attempt to recreate the Italian subs I ate as a child in New York City. Sometimes my sandwich ingredients cost more than I would have paid in a deli or a restaurant. But the homemade version always tasted better.

It took me years to realize that while I do actually enjoy a turkey sandwich, there’s a lot more to my ritual than I thought. My need to make and reinvent the turkey sandwich is an exercise in self-care. It’s something I can always make on my own; something I can always afford no matter how dire my circumstances; something that always tastes kind of the same, no matter how I make it. Even at its most elaborate, the basic version can make me just as happy.

Back at home, my instincts kicked in and as I placed a plate in front of the toaster, flashbacks to a dozen kitchens rolled through my head from childhood to college to adulthood. But the ding of the toaster alarmed me in an unfamiliar and distant way. It surprised me because it wasn’t preceded by the warm, wholesome smell of toast.

I scraped the toast with my finger and it felt perfect—warm with just the right amount of resistance to my fingernail. And I thought about my body’s strange ability to quickly adapt—to know that since my nose can’t tell me the toast is done, my finger can—something I likened to people who lose their sight and suddenly experience improved hearing. I opted to leave off the mayo—if I can’t taste its zip, it’s a filler food that I don’t need. I spread a layer of hummus on both pieces of toast, opting for the healthy protein and thinking, I could be spreading dog s–t on my sandwich and I wouldn’t know it. Three slices of slightly damp turkey and a few pickle slices added purely for texture, and my sandwich was complete.

Without smell or taste, sound played a bizarrely significant role in my lunch. My chewing took place in a secretive but loud meeting between my mouth and my ears, during which every crunch and every lip smack interrupted my thoughts. I felt self-conscious, like I was eating with annoying volume, glad nobody else was there to bear witness. I took a few empty gulps, hoping to trick my body into giving me just a glimmer of taste, but no such luck.

My sense of comfort juxtaposed against an undercurrent of fear and panic. How could something so familiar also feel so out of reach? This simple meal, which had been so comforting for years, didn’t do the trick anymore because my body had turned against me. I continued to chew as if pretending to eat for a camera and I began to worry: what if I never regain my senses of taste and smell?

I’ve always been a food freak. I love the ritual—whether an indulgent four-hour dinner or a quick late night slice that burns the roof of my mouth. I love the idea that people gather around food and that over the years, every culture has brought a version of theirs to New York. I plan work meetings and vacations around meals. But when taste vanishes, so too does much of the enjoyment. Until now, I’d never understood people who say, “I only eat because I have to.” To make things even worse, not only could I not go out and eat with friends, I was incapable of enjoying food alone in isolation.

A few days later, my wife started to share my lack of taste and smell, which the CDC now lists as common in many Coronavirus patients. The doctor advised us to stay put and not leave our apartment.

We’re fortunate to have secure jobs with health insurance and a doctor we can easily talk to. We live in a nice apartment surrounded by stores and restaurants who deliver. Our refrigerator and cupboards have never been more full. For the foreseeable future we were happy at home, basing our meals not on how they’d taste, but on what they’d look like and how they’d feel, and the unappetizing nutritional consideration: What do our sick bodies need to get better? We still talked about food. Our brains remembered what pizza tasted like even though our mouths couldn’t. But it was still so disconcerting to have something so taken for granted, suddenly taken away.

My sickness has passed and my senses of taste and smell are coming back now—I’m at about 50 percent—and it feels like a gift. The expression about not missing something until it’s gone has never felt closer to home. I now appreciate more than ever my ability to smell and taste food in its most basic form.

Never before have I inhaled the smell of a banana before eating it or given so much thought to the complexity of peanut butter and why it tastes so different from peanuts. As our senses return, our cravings return to the whims that we once took for granted. We might not be able to enjoy foods from outside our immediate vicinity for quite some time, but we can make the meals we know, the ones that keep us healthy and provide the comforts of home.

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