Drew Kerr realized it when he was eating sriracha on top of breakfast leftovers from Flushing’s Chinatown. Shirley Adelstein knew when she took a sip of mango seltzer. And Katy Foley discovered she had lost her sense of smell when her husband came running into the kitchen asking what was on fire. Her salmon was burning in the oven and she had no idea.
The loss of smell, which affects one’s ability to detect flavor, is one of the more innocuous suspected side effects of the novel coronavirus now spreading around the world. Last Friday, ear, nose, and throat doctors in the UK sounded the alarm on this new symptom, telling people who experience a loss of smell (anosmia) to self isolate. Many doctors and health officials in the United States are following suit, calling for it to be added to the official list of symptoms to prevent spread from otherwise asymptomatic patients. Thirty percent of a study of positive cases in South Korea, where testing is widespread, presented with this symptom, according to the ENT report. In Germany, two in three confirmed cases in a small study had anosmia.
The symptom, which can last days or weeks and comes with or without congestion, is believed to be temporary and, compared with the lethal dangers of the virus, low on the list of concerns surrounding this pandemic. In the grand scheme of things, being unable to taste your wine stash for a week is not a big deal. But it can feel like an especially cruel blow to a population already deprived of social contact, daily routines, and, increasingly, ability to work.
“When you lose your sense of smell, you realize how much joy you tie up in the ritual of eating and how much joy you associate with it. Suddenly nothing is enjoyable when you put it in your mouth,” says Maisie Wilhelm, a food world consultant who is two weeks into being sick and just started to gain her sense of smell back after four days without it. “It’s so sad.”
One of the few pleasures of self quarantine is eating and drinking, cooking and baking — and plotting out what to eat, drink, cook, and bake. Traffic to recipes sites is spiking. Restaurant chefs and bartenders with a sudden surfeit of time on their hands are teaching virtual classes on Instagram and Facetime. Many Americans stocked up ahead of this pandemic with creative and ambitious cooking projects in mind. As Americans hunker down for an indeterminate amount of time at home, we turn to food.
“I was invited to some Slack groups for therapeutic baking and cooking that people have been doing and have just have no interest right now,” says cookbook author and illustrator Michele Humes, who fell ill last week and lost her sense of smell four days ago. “People are suggesting that I bake as an abstract intellectual exercise, and no I’m not doing that.”
Humes stocked up her kitchen with all the foods she thought she would want during quarantine and a potential sickness, including hundred-year eggs and pork jowls for congee, and now she only wants to eat food that’s salty. “I got a deli to delivery me a peanut butter banana smoothie. It’s just a simple thing that I can get down,” she says. Wilhelm mourns the cookie dough wasting away in her fridge that she made just before losing her sense of smell.
Kerr, a publicist who lost his sense of smell four days ago but is otherwise asymptomatic, says his inability to smell killed his ambition to cook at all. “I bought all these meats and ingredients for my kitchen and with all this isolation time, I figured I would try new recipes,” he says. Adelstein, a research analyst in D.C., is saving her best quarantine snacks like ice cream for when her senses return. “It is no fun to stress eat when you can’t taste anything,” she says.
Eater’s own Adam Coghlan in London made a stew loaded with garlic to try to shock his taste buds back to life, to no avail. Today he’s trying dishes laced with chilies, garlic, fish, and soy sauce. “I hope it brings back to life my cherished ability to taste.” Others report having tried Vick’s Vaporub, sucking on lemons, putting raw garlic on toast, eating the spiciest and the most acidic food available, and obsessively smelling vinegar bottles in desperation.
Experts say the loss of smell is the temporary effect of the virus attacking the olfactory nerve, and many COVID-19 sufferers report smelling and tasting flavor again within a few days to a week from the onset. In the meantime, Molly Birnbaum, a food writer and chef who lost her sense of smell for eight years after a car accident, suggests playing around with the other senses.
“There are a number of things I did when I couldn’t smell. One is playing around with texture, because you can still feel things in your mouth — combining smooth and crunchy things or using hot sauce because you can feel it on your tongue with the trigeminal nerves.” she says. “Also combining temperatures of things. Something hot with something cold. I ate a lot of ice cream with hot fudge when I lost my sense of smell.”
Birnbaum suggests playing with the color and the symmetry of food, and testing which foods trigger which sense receptors on the tongue. And above all else — to be patient.