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Taste Busted: A quest to try the taste when COVID zaps your senses


The news was a shock. When my doctor walked into the room wearing a full face shield and a plastic gown he wasn’t wearing when he left, my first thought was, “Is anyone painting somewhere or something? like this?… Oh shit.”

“You have tested positive for COVID,” my doctor said.

The news took a while to sink in. Once done, I focused on getting home and telling my friends and family so they could get tested. Fortunately, not a single one came back positive. I turned off Catholic guilt mode and went into self-preservation mode.

Even luckier, my case was mild. All I had to do was treat it like a bad flu by taking vitamins, hydrating, and getting plenty of rest. I also have to stay away from people until Christmas Day. Given the circumstances and outcomes surrounding my health and vaccination status, I’m fortunate that having to miss Christmas Day is the most annoying thing about COVID.

The symptoms didn’t take long to appear. My sinuses felt clogged like butter. My voice became scratchy and bumpy, turning my normal nasal tone into something like a soulless Morgan Freeman. Then my taste disappeared, and I don’t mean my love for putting stickers on everything and wearing band t-shirts under a sports jacket.

My tongue is a blank canvas that cannot be painted. Foods of all kinds register nothing in my insular cortex, the part of the brain that registers tastes. I didn’t panic. I wasn’t even slightly disappointed that I couldn’t indulge in Ben & Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Cookie ice cream, the world’s most delicious way to treat a sore throat. Instead, I became fascinated.

Science is still learning the why and how of COVID and its variants. This particularly curious phenomenon is enlightening. Also, it’s either read more about it or just lay in bed and watch the Barker era The price is right on PlutoTV until my eyes melt out of my skull.

Loss of smell and taste, also known as anosmia and ageusia respectively, is one of the most common and earliest symptoms of coronavirus. A study conducted by Vanderbilt University found that 73% of patients lost some degree of smell and taste when they contracted the virus.

Another study in the medical journal Cell suggests that the virus targets a person’s taste and smell by attacking support cells and stem cells. Taste receptors “depend on the rapid and reliable production” of these stem cells and other components. So, when they are depleted, the sense of taste and smell diminishes or disappears altogether.

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Yes, we had to tell Danny not to test his tasteless tongue by drinking hot sauce, chewing on a Carolina Reaper pepper, or eating fire.

Photo and drawings by Danny Gallagher

As soon as I realized my medical stage, I started trying things I had in my pantry and care packages that friends and family dropped off. No matter what I tried, the blandness remained, but it felt like my brain was trying to recall memories of how things tasted to replace the lack of a signature on my tongue. It’s like some sort of weird “ghost tongue” syndrome.

This could be explained by a mental process called conditional taste aversion. The brain, nose and tongue are intimately linked to flavor memories. According to a 2018 study in the World Journal of Otorhinolaryngology, these learned flavors are stored to protect us from foods that have made us feel sick or uncomfortable.

So that might explain why my brain reminds me of the cold rush of my favorite ice cream or the richness of a hot bowl of tomato soup. What if I taste something a little stronger?

“I could feel the pinching pain of the Atomic FireBall and the slight puckering of the Sour Patch Kids on the edge of my tongue.” -Danny Gallagher

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My girlfriend dropped off a care package with a big bag of Sour Patch Kids gummies and a jar of 100 Atomic FireBalls, a classic and underrated spiced cinnamon hard candy. Tastes weren’t as present when my receptors lacked stem cells, but the physical sensations they produced still jumped around my mouth. I could feel the pinching pain of the Atomic FireBall and the slight puckering of the Sour Patch Kids on the edge of my tongue. I even had to spit the fireball out at one point because the pain was getting too annoying, even though it threatened my masculinity.

I wanted to take it to Evel Knievel-sized daredevil taste heights. I asked my editor if I should eat a Carolina reaper, one of the hottest peppers on the planet with a Scoville level of 1.4 million. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try even though it kills me because I have a lot of pent up adrenaline to burn but not enough spare change for a motorcycle. She suggested that I go back a bit. So I bought the second scariest thing: yellow squash.

Squash is the only vegetable I can’t stand unless it’s really well hidden in other ingredients, but none of those ingredients can be a variety of squash. My mom used to boil it as a side dish for dinner and the nutty crust of the squash mixed with its blobby blecch inside always made me feel physically sick. The squash, especially the yellow type, sends my conditional taste aversion straight to DEFCON 1.

My blood pressure spiked as I opened the package and pulled a fresh yellow squash to my mouth. I closed my eyes and took a big bite aaaaand…nothing. No gagging. No cough. It tasted like any fresh vegetable even as my brain tried to tell me that I’m basically eating the equivalent of farm-to-table poison.

It will take some time for my taste and smell to return to full capacity, around four weeks depending on which study you read or which doctor you ask. Maybe this will teach me to be more open to foods further away from my tastes and to take the time to enjoy the things I eat and experience more once they come back. Maybe it will make things healthier sweeter or more complicated.

The one thing I know will happen when my taste buds return is that I will consume every tasty thing in sight until I immediately regret having done so.

None of these things will squash.