By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
The human body is a complex machine.
That’s an obvious statement, I know, but think about it—millions of brain functions every day, the fact that we have something called a memory that records and stores past occurrences, the combinations of complex motor skills that all work in unison, our immune system … you get the idea.
But one part of this machine in particular has always fascinated me: our five senses.
Much of what the body does is internal. In other words, it’s all inside as part of that complex machine. But the senses, sight, sound, smell, touch and taste, are there for the sole purpose of taking in the world around us, at which point the body and brain go to work to then process the information it just gathered. Lose one or more of these, and you know it instantly.
Several weeks ago, I was tidying up my yard for the season. Minimizing the gas in my mower and filling the snowblower with fresh gas, which then was used only three days after my mower. Welcome to Montana.
I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible not to get some amount of fuel on my hands or a rag while performing these duties, but this time I noticed something right away. To confirm my suspicion, I put my hands and the rag up to my nose and took in a deep inhale. Nothing. I immediately knew what that meant.
I had COVID-19.
It was a Greek Tragedy, I thought to myself. Or an episode of the Twilight Zone where the last man on earth only cared about reading, only to break his glasses. I was the chef who couldn’t smell.
Many who share this symptom often say they can’t smell or taste, but that isn’t accurate. Smell and taste are different. Taste comes from taste buds on the tongue and detect sweet, sour, salt, and bitter.
Smell however, is far more complex. Aromas enter the nasal cavity and hit millions of olfactory receptors, which send messages to several areas of the brain. One of those areas is our memory—smell is the sense most closely linked to our memory.
Another area is the taste buds. Your airway moves the aromas into the sinuses (think about how hot mustard and horseradish feel), and also down to meet what the taste buds are detecting on the tongue. It is this circular airflow that then send messages to the brain for you to further recognize and decipher what you are experiencing. All of this happens in a fraction of a second.
My sense of smell is coming back, though it’s taking its time. My cooking of late is composed of experience and instinct more than anything else at this point. Just because you have made a recipe and followed it perfectly, doesn’t mean that it can’t taste a little different sometimes. Were the herbs or spices old? Were the tomatoes perfectly ripe or still pale and hard? There are many variables than can alter a recipe in subtle ways, that’s why tasting is so very important.
However, back to experience and instinct.
After decades in my field, I can prepare a dish having a solid understanding and expectation of what the end result will be in this time of being olfactory handicapped.
Experienced chefs know that the flavor of a slow-grilled medium rare ribeye steak will taste different than a hot charred-on-the-outside medium rare ribeye.
I’m currently doing all the things you should be doing to recover your olfactory sense. But I can’t think of anything I’ve taken for granted more than my smell, now that I’ve experienced what it’s like when it’s gone.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.