How a quest to sharpen my sense of smell made me a more grateful cook

On particularly cold days in Chicago, there are brief moments when it’s like the city has no smell. You tilt your face up toward the winter sun, inhale and there’s just nothing. If an animator wanted to render the phenomenon, they could do so with a few wafting coils of scent — the kind that appear in Looney Tunes cartoons, curling out of oven doors and perfume shops — being absolutely throttled by freezing gusts of wind.

That, of course, isn’t reality, as I was reminded on a recent Friday. I was walking home from the library and had just turned down a particularly windy corridor when I was hit by the overwhelming, malty smell of beer. Quickly, that was followed by the sweet, gentle fishiness of flaky white fish. I had stumbled onto a family’s Lenten fish fry. Behind a chain link fence, stocky men in Chicago Bears sweatshirts clustered around a hissing backyard deep fryer, while a woman standing at the side door shouted at a gaggle of kids playing nearby to be careful.

I took another inhale, and though it was quickly getting dark, if I closed my eyes, I could clearly see a paper plate topped with a shatteringly crisp piece of beer-battered cod, cradled by a piece of pillowy white bread and accompanied by a little paper condiment cup of tartar sauce. It was a meal I had eaten many, many times, but I was still delighted at the way my brain’s synapses connected the familiar smell to a taste memory banked somewhere in the recesses of my mind.

Logically, I shouldn’t be surprised. Our senses of taste and smell are intrinsically, biologically linked — a connection I’ve been pretty fascinated by since covering a neurogastronomy conference in 2015 for National Geographic. Neurogastronomy is still a relatively new field of study that surveys the ways food impacts human behavior; the term itself was coined by Dr. Gordon Shepherd, who released a 2012 book with the same name.

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As Shepherd wrote in the opening of his book, when we eat, our brain registers smells spatially, breaking them down and reconstructing them alongside the other senses to construct our sense of taste. When people lose their sense of smell — whether because of medical treatments like chemotherapy, sustaining head trauma, or in more recent years, contracting the coronavirus — their sense of taste can often go with it.

I hadn’t fully appreciated how startling that would be until I lost my sense of smell after getting COVID last August. It was only fully gone for about six days, so I’m far luckier than many others. But I still remember how jarring it was when, a few days after testing positive, I held a bag of coffee beans under my nose before brewing a pot and inhaling.

My stomach sank as I rifled through my fridge and pantry for potent items: everything bagels, garlic paste, vanilla extract. I pressed jars and packages up to my face and desperately inhaled, but each time I only got odorless air. 

Nothing. My stomach sank as I rifled through my fridge and pantry for potent items: everything bagels, garlic pastevanilla extract. I pressed jars and packages up to my face and desperately inhaled, but each time I only got odorless air. It was a long week waiting for my sense of smell to start to return, and then a long month until I felt like it was as sharp as it had been pre-infection. Unsurprisingly, my appetite suffered pretty greatly during this period.

Since my sense of smell returned, however, I’m definitely more cognizant of the ways in which it informs and enhances my appreciation of food, both as an eater and as a cook. If you speak with anyone whose livelihood depends, at least in part, on their abilities to smell and taste — sommeliers, spirits professionals, flavor developers, chefs — they’ll all offer one piece of advice with regards to improving either sense: Practice.

In a 2017 interview for her book “Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste,” tech editor-turned-sommelier Bianca Bosker discussed how she had to “learn to tune into this sense, smell, that I was not used to trusting.” She said:

Part of the reason we think we’re bad smellers is we’re just not aware of all the smells we take in over the course of the day. In order to internalize smells and hone our sense of smell, we have to attach meaning to odors, and that’s where the language comes into play. There is a sensory scientist at the University of California, Davis who is really the inventor of modern tasting notes. She developed a course that is required for all aspiring winemakers called the Kindergarten of the Nose. It helps people acquire an alphabet of smells, which is something we don’t do as children. You have to develop your smell memory, and expose yourself to different scents. On a practical level, that meant I would wake up in the morning, and describe all the smells I would encounter of the day. When I would shampoo my hair, I would try to put words on the aromas.

For the past several months, I’ve tried to do the same thing — essentially constructing a smell map of my community. I live in a primarily Vietnamese neighborhood, in a stretch called Asia on Argyle, where 13 Vietnamese restaurants dot a three-block stretch.

I’ve always loved how, when you get off on the Argyle “L” stop, the air is overwhelmingly fragrant with the smell of pho broth. It felt like one beautiful, nebulous, neighborhood-encompassing smell, but once I started paying more attention, I realized that there were these little pockets of nuance where one particular scent rose to the top: sweet, woody cloves; licorice-like star anise; the rich, slightly metallic smell of beef bones rendering.

There are a few bakeries, as well as a pizza and empanada shop, along the walk home. When all their ovens are firing — like on weekday mornings just as the rest of the city is waking up — the street smells sweet, yeasty and warm. I aspire to the kind of mastery of scent where I can detect whether it’s a batch of croissants or delicate, pull-apart milk rolls baking with a simple sniff from my bedroom window, but I’m not quite there yet.

Has paying more attention to smell made me a better cook? I certainly think it’s made me more a appreciative one.

My apartment building has its own, ever-changing smell map, too. Right now, the first-floor corridor by the mailboxes smells like pine needles, the byproduct of an early morning mopping. Someone on the fourth floor ordered a pizza lunch and lit a joint, which is wafting — lemony, earthy and a little skunky — out the courtyard-facing window. Meanwhile, my apartment kitchen currently smells like percolating coffee, underpinned by notes of chocolate and gingerbread.

Has paying more attention to smell made me a better cook? I certainly think it’s made me a more appreciative one, especially coming out of winter — a season where my senses inevitably feel a little deadened after marching through a procession of gray, sunless days. It’s meditative, that moment I slow down and connect what I smell to what taste, and what I taste to what I remember. And in that moment, I’m made aware yet again of the ways in which our senses connect. It’s a complex, wondrous labyrinth — one that is worth continuing to explore.

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