Emergency physician Dr. Alex Yeats had just whipped up what seemed like an appetizing dinner option when his wife let him know she wasn’t having anything to do with it.
“It was black bean pasta with almonds and turmeric chunks and I was like ‘I’m not eating that, it’s disgusting,’” said Sarah Yeats, 31, an emergency nurse from Atlantic Beach, Florida.
The couple both work at a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, and she had contracted Covid-19 at work and brought it home in August.
Like many people who have gotten the coronavirus, they noticed shortly after testing positive that they’d lost much of their sense of smell and taste.
For weeks, they’d been coaxing any sensation they could muster from foods by dousing chicken in lemon juice, throwing fistfuls of fresh herbs at soups and salads and getting daring with textures in an attempt to bring some excitement to the table.
The day Sarah noticed she no longer found turmeric chunks acceptable atop pasta, she said, was when she realized her sense of taste might be rebounding.
Anosmia — a condition known as “smell blindness,” or loss of smell — is a common symptom of Covid-19 (and other viruses), and can severely impact people’s ability to taste, since the senses are intertwined.
“It appears that loss of smell or taste are some of the most specific indicators of Covid-19, in particular early indicators,” said emergency physician and CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen. “Even without having any other symptoms, including congestion, (Covid-19 patients) report that they cannot smell or taste.”
And while most people regain their sense of smell or taste within days to weeks, Wen said, “there are still many who have not regained their sense of smell after months.”
People still need to eat, of course, and they’re modifying their meals as a result.
Putting new flavor combinations on the table
A few days after testing positive for the virus in mid-December, Althea Mullarkey, 53, suddenly realized she could no longer smell the strong gardenia scent of her shampoo.
She tore through the house, sniffing everything she could find, and realized her sense of smell had vanished.
The self-described foodie who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley said she no longer likes the mouthfeel of eggs, since she can’t taste them. And she doesn’t want to waste her blunted sense of taste on a good piece of blue cheese, a former favorite.
Recently, Mullarkey said, she ate leftover “spicy-sweet coleslaw with pulled pork” for breakfast. Her go-to dinner has become lemon-dill hummus squeezed with more lemon, a side of pitted kalamata olives and a piece of toasted naan slathered with spicy oil.
“I can taste the salt and pepper and lemon and I like the crispy textures,” Mullarkey said, but none of the layers of flavors she used to love experimenting with in the kitchen are coming through.
There is a simple explanation for that, said Dr. Marta Becker, an otolaryngologist with Philadelphia-based BergerHenry ENT Specialty Group, who’s part of a team developing an app for long-haul Covid-19 patients to track their symptoms.
“Some sensations of our food — spicy hot pepper, mintiness — are things we experience with the hot and cold sensors of our mouth,” she said. “You can get the acid, heat, even saltiness, but not the layers of things like cilantro and chipotle.”
Most of our sense of what we think of as taste, Becker said, isn’t really taste at all.
“All the interesting things about our food that we use to identify things like cheese and fruits and chocolate and coffee are not done with our mouth,” she said. “They’re done with our nose.”
“We don’t think it’s very common for people to actually lose their sense of taste (with Covid-19). If you really drill down, it’s the olfactory function in the nose that’s not working.”
That might explain why texture, color and even rituals around cooking have become more important to some people right now.
“Texture has become a lot more important to me,” said Alex Yeats, 42. He and Sarah eat salmon several times a week because it has a fuller, more umami body and a better mouthfeel than a flaky white fish, which “just tastes dry.”
“I wanted to make sure there was green in everything,” Sarah said. “Foods that are white and gray, they’re just so unappealing now.”
Immersing in the processes of cooking and meal planning each week also helped her keep interested in food prep. “Having Covid inspired us to use our raclette oven because it’s a process for cooking that makes it fun.”
When odd odors are a promising sign
Phantom smells are a common topic in online Covid-19 support groups.
Even months since their diagnoses, the couple have gotten whiffs of jet fuel and cigarette smoke where there was none. Mullarkey said she has smelled such intense phantom smoke and ash odors, they’ve nearly made her gag.