Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dude, do you smell that?

This is my life.
Like celebrities such as Bill Pullman, Stevie Wonder, and the late Michael Hutchens of INXS, I was born without a sense of smell. In medical terminology, this is known as "congenital anosmia." There isn't an identified cause for it, at least not in my case, it's just something that I was born without and have lacked my entire life. I have never smelled anything since the day I was born. No farts, no roses, no candles, no puppy breath, no new cars, no fresh-cut grass or spring rains, nothing. This seems to fascinate some people, so I thought I'd write a little bit about my experience with it and how it affects my day-to-day life.

For starters, the question I'm most often asked is "how does it affect your sense of taste?" Well, that's a good question, and one that's not exactly easy to answer considering that I don't know what the alternative is like. The best way I can explain it is that when you're born with the ability to smell, your senses of smell and taste develop concurrently. This means that much of what you're tasting is actually smell, which is why for many people, holding their nose or getting sick and being stuffed up reduces their ability to taste things. Because I never had the ability to smell, however, my sense of taste developed independently of any smelling ability. This means that while I'm not able to taste as many subtleties in flavor as others, I can still definitely taste things, and I would argue that my sense of taste is fairly well-developed, but there are some exceptions. For example, things with very subtle flavors tend to all taste the same. I wasn't aware until I was a teenager that jelly beans, Starburst candies, Jolly Ranchers, etc. all have different flavors, because they're all generic fruit flavors to me. It also means that I can't taste the difference between many of the subtler herbs and spices, which is why I prefer to use fresh herbs and spices in my cooking, and also why I prefer stronger flavors in my food. I also focus much more on the texture of foods than I imagine most people do, as texture can make bland foods much more desirable and can also make otherwise delicious foods unappetizing.

Some things, however, I am able to taste subtle differences in, the most prominent example being hot sauces. I currently have at least 5 or so different kinds of hot sauces in my kitchen, as well as cayenne pepper, chili powder, cajun seasoning, creole seasoning, and am constantly on the lookout for new and different types of hot sauces to add to my collection. For some this is a hobby, but for me it expands the range of flavors and experiences I'm able to get out of my food, so I tend to take my hot sauces quite seriously (hint: unique and exotic hot sauces are a great gift idea for me, the hotter the better). It's also why it's impossible for me to pick a favorite- each one is different and has different applications for different foods, though I would say my most frequently used go-to sauce would be Cholula hot sauce, followed by Louisiana and Sriracha. I also have a number of different mustards in my collection, as mustard is another strongly-flavored food that enhances my culinary experiences. I suppose it also explains why I hate mayonnaise, as it doesn't really have a flavor to me and thus is basically like spreading wet globs of melted fat on my food. I literally gagged while typing that. Basically, my mouth is like a canvas, and hot sauce is the paint, and food is the brush, and my nose is like the masking fluid used to preserve light areas of canvas. Hm, that analogy got weird quickly. Forget all that.
Welcome to flavor country. 
Although I can't smell things like perfume, I can often tell when someone is wearing it, because I can taste the alcohol in the air. The same goes for things like gasoline. Whenever there's gasoline or smoke or perfume or some other strong chemical present in the air, I can taste it in my mouth. As a result I've offended more than one little old lady when she walked by me soaked in perfume and I gagged. Oh well, I'm not apologizing. If you're wearing so much perfume that it offends the guy who can't smell, you're wearing too much, period.

Perhaps a less pleasant side effect of this condition is not being able to recognize offensive or detrimental odors in my everyday life. The most recent example of this was when a coworker grimly informed me that it appeared my cat had urinated on the clothes I was wearing at the time. Not being able to tell when you smell like cat piss is a pretty big deal, especially when you work in public defense and you have a hard enough time getting clients to take you seriously as it is. Fortunately I have a wonderful girlfriend who gently lets me know whenever I smell like Satan's asshole for whatever reason, for which I am very grateful. I've also drank more spoiled milk in my life than most people, since I don't usually realize it's spoiled until after it hits my mouth and by then it's too late. Gross.
You mean you DIDN'T want to smell like my piss? Too fucking bad.
I am also naturally a bit hesitant whenever using anything that's powered by natural gas. Let me rephrase that: gas appliances scare the shit out of me. Growing up in Texas, this wasn't a big deal, because our house was all-electric and so were the houses of all my friends. My first experience with gas appliances was when I moved into an apartment in New Hampshire. I was living with my then-girlfriend at the time, but she was away with family when I first moved in, so I didn't use the oven or the heat for the first week I was there, terrified to turn on the gas in case there was a leak that I wasn't able to detect. It wasn't until she arrived that I felt comfortable enough to actually use the gas appliances, and even then I was still uneasy around them for a long time. To this day I get nervous about having natural gas in my home, though in south central Alaska it's difficult to find a place without gas of some sort, so I'm stuck with it for the time being. Interestingly enough, I also found out that they don't make natural gas detectors that are commercially available to the residential consumer. When I called the gas company to ask about this, they kept assuring me "don't worry, we put an odorant in the gas so you'll be able to smell it if there's a leak!" Thanks for that.
Uhhh even I know you're not supposed to do that, lady.
Overall I would say it doesn't really negatively or positively affect my life. It's just one of those weird physical quirks that everyone has, like being double jointed or being allergic to bees or whatever. I have to make a few accommodations, but after almost 30 years of dealing with it, it's just one of those things you don't really think about too often unless people point it out. Do I wish I could smell? Sure, who wouldn't? But it doesn't really bother me that I don't get to experience it, so I just try to focus on making the most out of the senses I do have.
Actually, THIS is my life. It's pretty sweet, really.

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