End of the Line

A Lack of Scents

Living in a world without smells

Illustration: Barry Blitt

There is a word for someone like me, and after twenty-some-odd years of being this way I have just now learned that word: I am anosmic. Before I tell you what that means, please take a moment to stifle, in advance, what is likely to be your immediate jocular reaction.

When I say I am anosmic—suffer from anosmia—I mean that I don’t smell well.

Your immediate jocular reaction would have been, “Hey, you smell okay to me,” or “Phew, don’t I know it.”


I didn’t say I don’t smell good, though I do generally have to take on faith, absent wifely intervention, that I am not in fact being offensive in that regard. I said that I don’t smell well. Intermittently, I lose my sense of smell entirely. Other times, I am hyposmic, or smelling impaired, which is like being a dog with a bad cold who knows there is a dropped meatball around here somewhere and is desperate to home in on it, in a room full of cigar smokers and fancy women. (What a dog, or I, would be doing in such a room is beside the point, as is whether, in seeming to exclude the category of fancy women from that of cigar smokers, I indulge in sexist stereotypes.)

I am lucky. According to Gary Beauchamp of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, six million Americans never smell anything at all.

And here’s a reaction I frequently get to that statistic: “Some of the smells I get, I think I’d take that deal.”

No, you wouldn’t. Because when you lack a sense of smell, your sense of taste is sharply limited. I still get sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami; and spicy-hot, which is essentially pain; and the basic textures, which to the tasting impaired are as invaluable as the Seven Dwarfs: Crunchy, Slick, Crumbly, Crackly, Gooey, Juicy, and Chewy. But I miss so many subtler flavors it’s a damn shame. It takes the long, reflective, and sharing mmmmm out of eating. When I take a bite of tomato or chili, or anything, after coming off a spell of smelling impairment, the tomato-ness, the chili-ness, brings tears to my eyes.

I write about food. I have a book about food coming out next year. I reside three months of the year in the French Quarter of New Orleans. If you can’t smell there, you can’t smell gumbo, jasmine, mule plop, and street characters, combined. On St. Joseph’s Night, we watched Mardi Gras Indians assemble. Visually and aurally beyond splendid: The ineffably beaded and befeathered Wild Man roars through the crowd chanting “Make a hole, make a hole,” and stately behind him proceed the Big Chief and all his beaded and befeathered retinue drumming and singing, and another tribe confronts them, and chanting and huffing and ritual posturing ensue. But just as much a part of the occasion are the people selling whiskey by the drink, and others cooking sausages and pork chops, and others restraining pit bulls that appear to be sniffing something, maybe fear—and I’m thinking, “Great! Some night for me not to smell.”

Then this morning it hit me: It’s back! I just smelled an orange peel! I ran outside and over to the market, to breathe in the fresh bread and alligator meat and hot sauce and olive salad—and should I pop into this new Cane & Table restaurant for “crispy rum ribs,” or just fall back on fried chicken at Fiorella’s, or…

I couldn’t decide. I wasn’t even all that hungry. I was like the woman of the North Georgia mountains, back in the sixties, who went with friends on a shopping trip to Atlanta, and she found such an overwhelming panoply of goods that she came home with all her money.

Furthermore, the harder I strained to take in all the aromas, the more their specificities eluded me. It’s like trying too hard to bring back memories.

My anosmia comes from chronic sinusitis. After three surgeries, many courses of antibiotics, and faithful use of that up-the-nose device called the neti pot, I can breathe a lot better and don’t have so many headaches. Currently I am taking supplements called things such as Digestzymes, Zinc Liver Chelate, and HistaEze, and denying myself dairy and eggs. Eggs! Perhaps as a result, I return more often to the world of olfaction (just now I detected supper cooking downstairs). But eggs! The Monell Chemical Senses Center has launched a three-year effort to find treatments for anosmia. All I know is, anosmia stinks.