This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on December 16, 2022. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
After more than two years of doing most of the right things and getting rather lucky on the few times that I didn’t, COVID finally came for me this month.
Apparently, my steady diet of homegrown finger limes — just one of my self-prescribed preventative magics — was overtaken by one too many out-loud suggestions of my possible immunity to the pandemic. (Translation: I jinxed myself.) Of course, the karmic reasons why I got COVID doesn’t matter, nor really does how — although my junior-high-attending son who got a sore throat and tested positive right after we drove together for eight-plus hours over a recent weekend would probably explain that.
The blessed news is that neither of us got particularly sick. (Thanks, vaccines!) I spiked a high fever the evening I tested positive, and then came some very minor, albeit persistent congestion, only to be out-annoyed by the stubbornness of the virus itself, whose positive line stayed strong 10 days into our testing regime. I’ll be finally coming out of quarantine as you read this, having been primarily confined to my bedroom, backyard, and garage for a week and a half. (I did take my son to East Camino Cielo for a drive one afternoon, where we found plenty of snow on the north-facing ridges.)
The scary part for me — as you may surmise when you realize that my professional career is focused on the sensory experience of food & drink — was the potential for losing my smell and taste. That’s one reason I was extremely careful to avoid COVID in the early days, and it remains a serious concern even as we’ve grown more accustomed to taking calculated risks to continue our lives in somewhat normal fashions.
Right now, almost half of my annual income comes directly from smelling, tasting, and scoring wines for Wine Enthusiast, but my entire role there, which includes a number of other regular assignments, only exists because of this tasting role. My Independent work is much less sensory-dependent, but it would be hard to talk to winemakers or chefs about aromas and flavors if I didn’t perceive any, and that’s a significant portion of this job too.
I’ve always claimed that my interest in wine and food is more about the people and places than the products themselves. That’s still very much true, but I’m not sure how deeply I could dive into those stories if we weren’t at least speaking a similar language when it came to assessing and providing feedback on their work. So I was worried, to say the least.
On the day I tested positive, my nose and mouth worked fine. As I tend to do most mornings, I tasted a few flights of wines from across the Central Coast in the blind fashion that Wine Enthusiast employs, shifting from my usual kitchen table to the backyard bar for quarantine reasons. All was well. (On the food front, my wife satisfied my rare craving for a burger that night by ordering a double-char with bacon from Hamburger Habit.) I did the same thing on day two, tasting close to 20 wines, and all was well.
On day three, I opened more than a dozen wines in the morning and quickly found one was corked — good sign for the nose! But when I started to taste them a couple of hours later (I always let reds sit open more than an hour before reviewing), something was amiss.
My nose has become a bit deaf, for lack of a better word. The aromas were extremely muted at first, and by the end of the session, they were blank altogether. Luckily, my tastebuds were still quite sharp, which was a little confusing, since I’ve always heard that smell is like 80 percent of taste.
Meanwhile, the textures of each wine became more amplified — particularly between tannic grip, glycerine-like smoothness, and overall weight — and I was able to finish the flights in a meaningful fashion. A similar lack of smell has happened with run-of-the-mill colds in past years, so I tried to chalk that up to the sinus congestion I was experiencing.
By that evening, as I hunched over a bedroom bowl of pho from Noodle City, I still wasn’t smelling any star anise in the broth nor herb from the basil nor meatiness from the beef — and my taste had taken the high road as well. Before me was a steaming soup of functionality rather than flavor, my worst professional fears about COVID suddenly in play.
It didn’t take long to fall into the internet’s pit of diagnostic despair. My web searches about how-long-this-might-last indicated that patients usually had their taste and smell return within a few weeks, almost always in six months, but some poor souls never recover. Even two weeks would be too long for me, as my wine reviews are processed monthly, and I still needed to do another 150 scores before the end of December.
I looked for the most pungent things in my bedroom to test my nose and found a spicy clove aftershave spray that a friend makes. I couldn’t smell the nozzle, but I could pick up a hint of something when I sprayed it on my hand. That was at least something.
I resolved to be patient rather than panic, and paid attention to what I could perceive in the foods I ate. Sugars, salts, and citric acid rose to the top as the most apparent sensations in my sensory-subdued world. Sugar shows a silkiness, salt carries a warmth, and citric acid’s sour side provides a light pucker, even without the tang.
I continued to have some wine at night as well, to explore what that’s like without the usual tasting tools. There was certainly enjoyment to be found in silky tannins and rich mouthfeel of the high-end cabernets that I had open, but it was no replacement for the full sipping experience.
The only reason I’m writing this right now, of course, is because my taste began creeping back about three days after it disappeared. The first strong indication was from a sweet and snappy apple slice one night at dinner — “That tastes like apple,” I mumbled — and then came Goldfish crackers before lunch the following day, when I could even tell that they were the “Flavor Blasted” version. I was finally able to smell just the nozzle of the clove aftershave, and was already starting to pick up the skin of tangerine, the blue candle on my cabinet, and my tea in the morning.
I’m cautious to proclaim total victory since nothing is quite back to 100 percent yet — and that damn positive line keeps coming up on my tests, which has forced me to cancel a steady slate of appointments. But I’m confident that COVID will not take my livelihood away, at least this time.
Hopefully, by the time you’re reading this on Friday morning, I’ll be preparing the next flight of wines to review and getting excited about the brisket I have to braise on Saturday. Everyone is gonna tell me it’s great, as usual, but I’d like to be the judge of that.
Support Ethiopia by Eating
Raised during one of the famines in Ethiopia, Santa Barbara’s Saba Tewolde likes to use her homeland’s cuisine to raise awareness around the ancient country’s seemingly endless struggle. With a truce called in the most recent war, she’s hosting a dinner at SOhO on December 29 to celebrate and also benefit those who are still starving there. Our intern Sasha Senal spoke to Saba to learn about her story and what will be served. Read her report here.
Have you ever surfed and skied on the same day? It’s called the “California Twofer,” and Figueroa Mountain Brewing is now giving outdoor enthusiasts the tools and the motivation to make it happen. The Buellton-based brewery just launched a surf/snow report on its website and is giving out free sweatshirts to anyone who can prove that they tackled the challenge. Read the details here.