October 24th, 2014

A Foodie’s Worst Nightmare! Life Without Smell

Photo credit: William Doran via Flickr

For me, one of the greatest joys in cooking is aroma. The wafting scent of a sauce you’re preparing … the fragrant plume from the slow cooker … the smoky, salivation-inspiring wonder that escapes from the grill when you go to flip things.

But what would happen if your sense of smell were gone?

Meet Dan VanderKolk, an affable giant who lost his sense of smell while engaged in a prank in high school. In an attempt to “hide” evidence – smelling salt capsules he was using as stink bombs – he tried to stash it in his mouth. Unfortunately, the glass capsule broke, cutting his mouth and bathing it in ammonia and alcohol. He was rushed to the hospital, mouth and olfactory senses decimated.

Over the next three months, his mouth and taste buds healed but his olfactory nerves were permanently burned.

We learn taste and texture — and what food is — as toddlers by experimenting with putting things in our mouths. But Dan, at 16, had to relearn to eat after that high school incident; the wires in his brain were crossed. “I lost 12 pounds during the three months,” Dan says. “Everything but broth gave me a gag reflex.”

So, even though his taste buds healed, the disconnect with his olfactory senses caused his brain to misread textures. His brain started reading milk like latex paint and vegetables as sticks.

Even his favorite foods caused problems. “I couldn’t eat mashed potatoes — [it] conjured this mud clay image and I couldn’t do it.” (Lucky for Dan, he did eventually come back around to potatoes.)

Food and eating weren’t the only hurdles. As a teenager just starting to date, Dan became paranoid about his personal scent and started to become OCD about showering, bathing two or three times a day. He’d also douse himself in cologne.

“I would put so much cologne on that no female would want to be in a 200 mile radius of me,” Dan says. “I would put it on until I could smell it — and then it smelled like I showered in it. Only took seven months for someone to tell me I was doing it wrong.”

Today, Dan and his wife, Kamala, are still working through his olfactory obstacles.

For starters, Kamala is challenged with accommodating Dan’s diet along with feeding their children. Impressively, the kids don’t present the challenge you might think — pointing to Dad’s picky eating as a means of avoiding healthy foods like veggies. Their daughter, now in kindergarten, is more inclined to try and eat things because her friends in school are, instead of using “Dad isn’t eating it” as an excuse. And their son has no problems trying new foods … which is sometimes bad news for Dan.

“Our son just smashes these cherry tomatoes and I have to run out of the room. That slimy seed goo in the middle … I can’t get over it.” The memory of that sensory experience, Dan says, is more than he can handle.

Kamala overcomes some of the hurdles with meals that let everyone whip up their own version, like tacos. And now Dan is more involved in cooking — using the grill — so he has a say and knows what is going into the meal — no textural surprises.

On occasion, Dan’s wife will make multiple versions of a dish — either spicing things to a ridiculous level for Dan to get a sense of them, or banishing textural violations like vegetables from Dan’s serving. However, cooking something special for Dan can be an exasperating process, she says. “It’s frustrating where if I put a lot of effort into a meal and he is like, ‘I don’t want that because there are vegetables in it,’ ” Kamala explains. “That’s frustrating, if you put effort into something and the person it’s for rejects it.” It is really disappointing, she adds.

Also, Dan can’t appreciate spicy food. While others enjoy the flavor combined with the heat, his only experience is the pain. Unfortunately for Dan, Kamala likes to add jalapenos to things — to which Dan replies, “Why would you do that — because that just hurts?”

Photo credit: Patrick Walsh

For Dan, food cravings are almost nonexistent. He eats only to avoid hunger pangs, he says. “I only eat because I hate being hungry.”

But there is one thing he craves sometimes: Papa John’s Meat Lovers Pizza. “I don’t know why,” he says. “I could eat it every meal and never get sick of it.”

So what are the upsides to all this, you ask? Well, Dan can tolerate bad smells that send normal folks running. He smiles broadly when he admits he has no issues diving in when things start to stink. ”If it’s a really bad diaper, I call him,” Kamala offers. “It’s your turn — you do that one,” she’ll tell him.

The only smell Dan does experience is a random one. Sometimes, particularly when he’s coming out of the shower, he can smell popcorn being made.

“I get these phantom popcorn smells,” Dan says. “And I don’t know if what I’m thinking about really does smell like popcorn.” He’ll always call out to see if someone is making popcorn, but, invariably, they’re not.

For my final question, I was about to ask Dan about the impact a cure would have. But before I could, he just shook his head “no.”

“Its hard to tell someone what they are missing with regard to things that smell good. And overwhelmingly, people are complaining about things that smell bad,” he says. “It doesn’t sound like I’m missing much.”

After a particularly malodorous ride home on the metro after this interview, I was thinking that perhaps Dan was on to something. But just a day later, I was preparing a pot roast with coffee, paprika and onions in the slow cooker.

Give up all those delicious aromas? I don’t think so.

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Posted in Dear Diary
2 comments on “A Foodie’s Worst Nightmare! Life Without Smell
  1. Amanda says:

    I can’t imagine how frustrating this must be! I figured losing your sense of smell would alter the flavor of foods, but never considered texture would seem defferent. I’m such a texture person, I don’t know how I’d cope. On the other hand, not being able to smell anything would have really been nice when I was pregnant!

    • We The Eaters says:

      Yes, Amanda. I know I struggle with certain texture issues…but if almost everything presented a texture issue…don’t know what I’d do. Only time I’d want to shut that sense of smell off, I think, is when I’m riding public transport. I would definitely miss it at, say, Christmas… or when my wife is cooking!