Whenever I get a cold, I am always terrified I will not regain the sense of smell or taste. A few years ago, after two weeks had gone by and the cold was long gone, I couldn’t smell anything yet, and the only tastes that came through my buds were sweet, salty or sour. Everything else was indistinguishable. As a chef, not being able to taste or smell is a major handicap and I ran to my doctor, in a state of panic. He reassured me and told me that, sometimes, it takes longer.
He was right, and my taste buds and nose returned to work a few days later.
As I recovered from a recent cold, baking my birthday cake rather blindly, I had to assuage my fears once again. I had read somewhere that, as we age, our senses dull so, while I waited for mine to make a welcome return, I investigated the matter.
As proof that youth is wasted on the young, we start life being oversensitive to most smells and tastes: everything is new and overpowering and, as children, needing constant energy, we are wired to favor sugar, which explains why I consumed vast amounts of milk chocolate in my youth and now I wouldn’t go anywhere near it.
We all start out with approximately 10,000 taste buds on our tongue, unless you fall into that 20% of the population of super tasters, people who can have twice as many. Taste buds die and regenerate themselves constantly: the tongue sloughs them off and makes place for new ones but, starting between 40 and 50, the regeneration process slows down and, eventually, dead taste buds don’t get replaced at all.
By the time we are 80, our ability to distinguish smells or flavors, is pretty much gone: it becomes all a blur although, inexplicably, we can retain an odd sensitivity to certain substances. We can be unable to smell rosemary but rose will come through clearly or we will find a small amount of oregano overpowering while another spice will bypass us altogether.
The upside, if there is one, is that, as we get older, we also become bolder in the way we eat, we try new foods and can be convinced to try something two or three times before making up our minds on whether we like it or not. By so doing, we exercise our taste buds which, to a certain extent, are like a muscle that we need to keep flexing if we want to get some good use out of it as we age. Apparently, it makes a difference.
Changing tastes in food can be viewed as a metaphor for other life preferences – the more we are exposed to what we don’t know and we familiarize ourselves with the new, the more we start to appreciate what we might have had a hard time with. As I sat through a ballet performance by the American Ballet Theatre, I realized that, as much as I can relish the artistry, technique and physical sacrifice behind a performance, I would rather sit through the unpredictability and freer form of contemporary dance. The same goes for visual arts: I couldn’t possibly stomach another Impressionist exhibition but I will happy pay for Frank Stella or Cindy Sherman.
Free jazz and country music, I am still working on. I might never get there. But as long as I can keep on tasting chocolate and finding room for experimentation, I should get to 80 happily. Just pass the salt.
And how have your tastes changed through the years?
Top image from NASA