In January 2020, I was the owner of a highly respected catering company, FIG Catering. I loved food and was most happy developing menus, testing recipes, and being in the chaotic excitement of live, in-person events. First quarter is always difficult for caterers—we lose money and rely on client deposits/borrowing to get through until the busy season. We were in debt, but confident we’d get out of the hole, as in past years, as events kicked off. Just three months later, after losing more than $120,000 in one week and considering the future (incurring more debt, digging out of the hole, pivoting to a business model I did not enjoy), I made the decision to close my business. I laid off nine full-time employees . . . via Zoom. It was one of the most awful things I have ever had to do.
In late summer, while winding down business affairs and selling equipment, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. I was bummed because I had to cancel a trip to Michigan to see my parents, but, in general, I wasn’t too worried. After all, I’m a fairly healthy, fairly young individual who was unemployed (no need to go anywhere) and had health insurance. I figured I would be a little sick and soon be back to “normal.” I had mild cold and flu-like symptoms and felt much better after eight days, except for a lingering loss of taste and smell (not total loss, but severe diminishment). I joked with friends that that was the worst thing about my experience, and considered myself lucky.
A month after my initial diagnosis, I finally tested negative and felt comfortable being in socially distant circles with friends. I discovered foods that I could enjoy—generally dishes high in flavor or with great textural elements (crispy carrots, melty cheese, etc.), but I still could not taste correctly. Undeterred, I was certain I was on the road to recovering my senses.
I was in the process of interviewing for a pastry chef position requiring recipe development, but I wasn’t worried. Sure, I couldn’t taste much difference in the cocoa powders they sent me to work with, but that was only temporary, right? When I had to actually develop a recipe for the second interview, I was unphased. I used my knowledge of flavors, ingredients, and techniques to come up with something I thought would be delicious. I had a friend with an impeccable palate try some of the components and then I tweaked the dish before the presentation. I received great feedback on the dish and even got a third interview before being informed that I did not get the position. Another bummer, for sure, but I still didn’t attribute it to my lack of taste.
As the fall changed into winter, my senses got worse, not better. Some foods tasted good one day and then awful (or not at all) the next day. Other symptoms showed up: some days my sinuses felt sore, or my throat felt like it was full of cotton and difficult to swallow. I did some deeper reading on the long-term effects of COVID and talked with others I knew who had lost their senses (How long did it take them to recover? Did they try anything that helped?). I tried home remedies: smelling freshly-grated ginger and horseradish, eating charred oranges with brown sugar, drinking A LOT of water. After reading a few studies attributing some long-haul COVID symptoms to inflammation, I went on the Whole 30 diet. I had done Whole 30 in the past, so I knew what to expect and I trudged through December, keeping pretty strictly to the program in hopes of recovering my senses. I did start to feel a bit better—my sinuses hurt less and my throat seemed more normal. (Although, confession: I went quite a bit astray on my actual birthday including wine, and I felt AWFUL for two days afterwards.) Unfortunately, my senses didn’t seem to be coming back at all. If anything they were just morphing strangely, causing some things to taste and smell disgusting—including coffee!
In January, I started to reintroduce foods and noticed that although everything tasted “different,” some things tasted awful or seemed to affect me more than others. I had to keep adding foods to the “bad” list: overripe fruit, roasted nuts, cilantro, mint/menthol, sour cream/yogurt, vinegar, wine and beer, aged liquor. Artificial and even natural (added) flavorings and scents were the worst—Diet Coke tasted like battery acid and chemicals. Bland foods (especially potatoes and mayonnaise) were the best. Some dishes tasted way too salty or sweet because I could not pick up any other flavors.
Many months later, still in my job search, I look back on the pastry chef role that I did not get. I can honestly say that had I been offered that job, I would not have been able to do it. Looking at my next steps, I have started to eliminate jobs that require recipe development or full-time cooking. I have worked for the past 15 years in food and beverage, and now my senses, which are vital to many roles for which I qualify on paper, do not work. Now, finally, I am worried, and have begun to wonder: does this qualify me for disability?
Right now, I am just trying to feel better. It’s been several months since I had COVID. Some days, I feel like I cannot taste anything at all and other days I really enjoy breakfast, but my taste diminishes throughout the day. Some days, I skip meals because there is no point. Other days, I eat stuff I know will make me feel bad because I just want to feel normal (share pizza with friends, try the chocolate ganache I am making at a friend’s business). I do not know when or if my senses will come back. I feel helpless because there is nothing I can do. I worry for my future employment and social life. I want others with similar long-haul symptoms to know that they are not alone. I hope that people realize that this is not just a superficial issue, and I not-so-secretly wish that someone out there has a solution or is working on one. v