A spell of time with a reduced sense of taste and smell proves a boon to Jonathan Self when it clears, giving him a new appreciation of some of life's joys.
Joni Mitchell believed that ‘you don’t know what you’ve got, ’til it’s gone’, but in my case I didn’t know until it came back. After recovering from that virus last February, I was definitely conscious of a reduced sense of taste and smell. As everything about me seems to be reducing (apart from my waistline) as I get older, I didn’t give it much thought. Then, a few weeks ago, in the words of Marcel Proust: ‘I carried to my lips a crisp sandwich and at the very moment when it touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.’
For the first time in months, I could really taste and smell the sweet white bread, the creamy butter and the salt and vinegar of the Tayto crisps. Suddenly, it was 1967 and I was crouching behind a faded and ineffectual windbreak on Lahinch Beach, Co Clare (possibly the windiest beach in Ireland), as my mother dispensed orange cordial and Tayto sandwiches to her shivering family. The sandwiches were flat and misshapen — my mother used to squash them with a rolling pin before wrapping them in greaseproof paper — so that the crisps were crushed into the soft butter. They were delicious, even with a light coating of sand.
In England, the only time we were allowed crisps was after our Sunday-morning walk. My brother, cousins and I would loiter disconsolately outside the pub with a warm bottle of Coca-Cola and a plain packet of Smith’s crisps each — in those days, the salt came in a little blue twist of paper — as my father and uncle lingered for an eternity inside.
“As Dolly Parton said: ‘Every diet I ever fell off was because of potatoes.’”
Taytos were on the menu every day on our holidays in the west of Ireland. They are, arguably, the best crisps in the world. Created by Joe ‘Spud’ Murphy in 1954, there is nothing artisan or healthy about them, yet, for all that, they still taste strongly of potato — or what Seamus Heaney described as ‘ground and root’. A guilty, fattening pleasure. As Dolly Parton said: ‘Every diet I ever fell off was because of potatoes.’
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Now that all my physical senses are working again, my resemblance to a dog has become markedly stronger. I sniff at this; I sniff at that. Rose came into the kitchen the other day and found me all but inhaling a bowl of freshly boiled salad potatoes. Our garden has been neglected to such an extent that it is probably suffering from abandonment issues, but, over the summer, it has, at least, supplied us with Second Earlies. Not the ubiquitous Jersey Royals, but ‘Heathers’ (purple skin, creamy white flesh), ‘Anyas’ (knobbly, but nutty) and ‘Charlottes’ (delicate, with a hint of honey, not unlike my daughter of the same name).
Much has been said about the importance of smell. In her youth, my mother, who was American, experienced ‘Scentovision’, essentially a machine placed under cinema seats that pumped out scents (pine forest, ocean breeze, glass of wine and so forth) at the appropriate moment in the film. There is a whole industry that creates scents for businesses, shops and hotels. Scientists talk about anosmia (no sense of smell), hyposmia (reduced sense of smell) and the reason why smell is so closely connected to memory.
What isn’t discussed is the effect that not being able to smell has on one’s mental health. I’ve looked at life from both sides now — Joni again — and it is much richer and happier when one wakes up and can smell the crisps, potatoes, coffee, whatever.
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