Last summer, my friend Chad and I went fly-fishing on the Strawberry River two hours east of Salt Lake City. He brought along his dog, Cooper, who rode agreeably in the back of the Subaru. We spent the afternoon fishing different sections of the stream while Cooper explored the ground between us. As the light waned, we all returned to the car parked on the side of a dusty road. Neither Chad nor I had hooked a fish. Skunked! Only Cooper had a story to tell. He, too, had been skunked, and he reeked of the encounter.
A Wikipedia entry describes the sulfurous smell of skunk spray as “a combination of rotten eggs, garlic and burned rubber.” I have no better description, although I would be tempted to add “piercing” as in “a piercing combination ... ” With Cooper smelling up the car, it looked to be a long, windows-down drive back to Salt Lake City. And so it would have been for anyone with normal olfaction. In this case, however, a degraded sense of smell made the trip tolerable even with the windows up. When I got home, my wife, who has the nose of a bloodhound, ordered me into the garage to undress.
I think my nose faltered about the time I was fitted with my first reading glasses. In retrospect, the simultaneous failure of eye and nose was as close to a midlife crisis as I ever got. It took a long time for me to realize that while I could see smoke or hear a fart, I rarely caught a whiff of either. Spikes of lavender blooms were merely blue. A scratch-and-sniff card was a wasted effort. I took the loss in stride, but the corresponding degradation of my sense of taste was troubling.
The crux of the problem lies in the connectivity of nose and mouth. Taste depends, to a large degree, on smell. Taste buds on the tongue register the salty, sour, bitter and sweet, but without the thousands of scents detectable by the nose, an espresso creme brulee is a pallid Jell-O pudding. Tastelessness is a familiar phenomenon to anyone who has endured prolonged nasal congestion.
I eventually asked a doctor about my decreased ability to smell. He gave my concerns short shrift. Hyposmia is not uncommon, he said, before steering the conversation to my colon, which was of more interest to him than my nose. I got a similar reaction a few years later from another doctor. She told me that as much as 7 percent of the population may be afflicted, and that there is neither treatment nor cure.
I suppose foodies who develop hyposmia suffer mental anguish. Others, for whom eating is merely fueling the engine, probably shrug it off. On the suffer-shrug scale, I find myself at the mid-point. I enjoy food and lament the inability to savor subtle flavors. On the other hand, a diminished sense of smell pales in comparison to the worn-out joints, blocked arteries, memory lapses and other infirmities awaiting us as we age. I’ll play the cards I have been dealt to date without complaint.
You might think that hyposmia would be measurable at the waistline, that a guy like me would forgo lemony hollandaise, creme brulee, chocolate croissants and all the delicacies of butterfat, losing weight in the process. After all, what is the point of ingesting all those expensive calories if they are tasteless? To be honest, this paunchy carb junkie hasn’t lost an ounce. That is because I have unconsciously realigned my food preferences in favor of texture. I gravitate to food with a crunch. Crackers, nuts and carrots, for example. Were you to offer me a pan of brownies, I would carve out the edges. Chicken pot pie? You can have the filling; I’ll eat the piecrust.
Memory is also a factor in keeping me plump. I still order creme brulee at a restaurant. I may not be able to judge if it is espresso or vanilla, but a spoonful of the creamy confection evokes a time and place when I could. That instant is pure pleasure. Hearing an old song works in the same way. The music recalls you to a place in the past with the emotions of the moment intact. When I hear the Beatles singing “Twist and Shout,” I am 17, skiing at Solitude under snow-dimmed lights, music from loudspeakers filling the cold night air: “Shake it up, baby!” I can’t suppress a smile.
“Proustian memory,” a legacy of French novelist Marcel Proust, describes how a single taste causes forgotten scenes to rise involuntarily “like a stage set” in the mind’s eye. I find my involuntary recall is triggered more by scent than flavor. The aroma of Old Spice cologne unlocks memories of a day in junior high school. The musky smell of canvas lands me in an Army tent at Fort Dix in a cold rain. A whiff of ammonia transports me to the bathroom of our apartment in 1974, where a pail of soiled cloth diapers stands by the toilet and two blond toddlers play in the bathtub. My emotional response is interesting. Junior high is bittersweet. So is the Army. But the two blond kids splashing bath water bring nostalgic tears to my eyes.
Losing your sense of smell may mean that some memories are irretrievable, locked away only to become the stuff that dreams are made of. That is lamentable. However, you can hardly wax nostalgic about events you can’t recall. Besides, some events deserve to be forgotten. Cooper and the skunk is one of mine.