“I Never Labeled My Spices: An Elegy To Olfactory” * Nonfiction * Alice Eakes

I lost my sense of smell. This nasty little virus sweeping the world, killing millions, invaded my home in January 2022 despite vaccinations and other protective protocols. My symptoms were somewhere between mild and life-threatening. I rode it out, and in the end, I discovered I no longer possessed the powerful olfactory sense that has been my lifelong companion.

My first-grade teacher is responsible for my ability to identify just about anything from smell. She figured if I would eventually be unable to see, I needed to be able to apply my other senses. After blindfolding me, she paraded a number of containers under my nose. My job was to identify them. Spices like cinnamon and cloves. Dangerous things like nail polish and alcohol. Faint-scented things like Cheerios and flour. No matter what she gave me, I knew what it was within seconds.

When I grew older and my sight worsened, I learned my great sense of smell employed well as a mobility tool. Malls—anyone remember malls?—are notoriously difficult for a blind person to navigate. I, however, learned to navigate them by smell. Starbucks scented the air for at least a hundred feet in any direction, the odor growing stronger the closer one got. Hair salons smelled like ammonia and nail salons like acetone. Nordstrom reeks of money, you know that rich people fragrance of expensive perfume and high-quality fabrics. Clothing stores catering to teens without a lot of money made my nose wrinkle with the sourness of synthetic fabrics. And try to avoid finding a Cinnabon or movie theater by sense of smell.

At home, I never labeled my spices. Why should I? I could identify any of them in seconds, and the labels never stayed on. No problem.

Until I stopped being able to identify cumin from cardamum; chiles from chives.

I can’t say I don’t smell anything. Aromas reach my nostrils and register as such. Unfortunately, what I think I’m smelling sometimes bears little resemblance to the actual object being sniffed. Pure maple syrup gave off the stench of mildew last time I tried to use it, though others said it was just fine. My favorite perfume stinks like skunk. And my usually incredible homemade Buffalo wings make me gag now.

Worst of all, I can’t smell my husband anymore. He has a delicious scent uniquely his—cozy and sweet, with a hint of spice. It’s comforting and gives me a sense of warmth and security.

Or it did.

I’ve tried the tricks recommended by specialists. Take weeks to sniff four essential oils—rose, lemon, eucalyptus, and cloves—a half hour a day for weeks. Months later and I still can’t identify one from the other.

Since smell is closely tied to taste, I have that with which to contend as well. I can taste things, though flavors are more like cheap wine with holes in the bouquet—salt, sweet, sour, bitter. Bitter is on the back of the tongue, a protective sense against poison.

I hope no one tries to poison me.

Needless to say, I find this whole situation disheartening, and no one knows—or nose?—when matters will improve—if ever. I took my great sense of smell for granted. My sight I knew I’d lose. Hearing loss seems inevitable as I age, especially with all the rock concerts I’ve attended. Even taste and sensitivity of touch fade with age. But I always thought I’d have my sense of smell.

 

—About the Author—

After a hiatus from writing, Alice Eakes is at it again, adding knitting, ceramics, and beading to her creative expression. She hopes to turn her next book in before the deadline and add it to the more than thirty published novels and dozen articles published under Laurie Alice eakes. In her other life, she enjoys discovering new music, spending time with nature, and going to the theater. She is married with two dogs and—blushes—three cats.

For more on anosmia, check out this personal essay by Prof. Gilman.