personal essay

Steak Is Dull and Squash Tastes Spoiled: A Chef Shares His Experience Losing His Tastebuds After COVID-19

updated Nov 2, 2020
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In late June my heart sank. My 19-month-old son, Jasper, started to have COVID-19 symptoms — a parent’s worst nightmare. He was coughing non-stop, pulling at his head in pain, and was running a consistent fever of 102. I called my ex-husband, who I co-parent our son with, and we discussed our family’s next steps. All I could do that night was comfort Jasper; it was the longest night I have had with him other than the night he was born. Holding a sick child who cannot communicate how they are feeling or understand you when you say “It’s going to be OK” is devastating and heartbreaking, and sends you into the deepest level of distress. I will never forget his sad eyes. 

The next morning my ex-husband started having symptoms, and by the end of the day so did my boyfriend, Louis. Everyone in my immediate family, plus my ex-husband’s boyfriend, tested positive for COVID-19. We knew the chances were high that we would all have it, but when you’re in the middle of it and it happens so fast your mind cannot catch up with reality. Days passed and I had no symptoms, so I assumed I was asymptomatic. Slowly — with some ups and downs — everyone started to recover. I was relieved and very thankful that we were going to get through this with minor issues.

Once the immediate panic of everyone having COVID passed I went back to work. I am a freelance food writer and recipe developer and was previously the pastry chef for two award-winning restaurants in North Carolina. When the pandemic hit and everyone was quarantined my work increased. I was producing four to five easy at-home recipes for a number of national and local publications every week. The demand was high and I was working more than I had in the last year.

But then on July 1, after working all day, I went outside to water my garden. I started to get short of breath and dizzy and I broke out in a cold sweat. I knew what was happening, but I was in denial and kept watering — I wanted to believe I was simply tired from the week we just had. While rolling up the hose I could barely breathe. I was disoriented, everything started to spin, and my vision became blurry. As I made my way inside the house Louis just stared at me with a puzzled look and asked if I was OK. I burst into tears, “No! This is bad.” That was the last moment I could clearly remember, the following days were a blur slipping in and out of consciousness — it was confirmation that I was not asymptomatic and my case was severe. 

I had all the symptoms you hear about: extreme fatigue, loss of taste and smell, full body aches, loss of appetite, fever, trouble breathing and heavy chest, G.I. distress, and delirium. I also had a handful of odd symptoms: dry cracking skin, hair loss, bloody ears, painful fingertips and toes, blurry vision, and vertigo. I slept for four days straight, and I don’t remember much during that time. What I do remember, and will always remember, is the excruciating pain pulsing through my body and the moments struggling to breathe. This was the sickest I have ever been in my 36 years. We contemplated going to the ER, but the hospitals in South Carolina were running out of room at the time and we were told I should recover safely at home because of my age. Unless I stopped breathing I would not be admitted. In my head I was afraid to go to the hospital, thinking I would never come home. I just wanted to hold my son. 

On day six, I woke up feeling some minor relief in my chest and was less dizzy. Luckily, I started to recover — but as it turns out, the recovery has been the hardest part of having COVID-19. 

I am considered a long-hauler; someone who no longer has COVID-19 but is still experiencing lingering symptoms. After 126 days I still have unpredictable fatigue, pain and numbness in my feet and legs, shaky hands, blurred vision, insomnia, brain fog, and lack a sense of taste and smell. And as someone who already suffers from generalized anxiety disorder and depression, my mental health has been at an all-time low since having COVID-19. 

As it turns out, the recovery has been the hardest part of having COVID-19. 

These ongoing symptoms and decline in mental health have prevented me from returning to the life I knew pre-COVID. I force myself to play with my son despite wanting to just sleep or soak my aching legs. I lack motivation to be active, fearful I will overexert myself and lay in bed the next two days. Holding a conversation with me is hard because I’m distracted or in a brain fog. I’m irritable because I can’t see clearly and get migraines regularly. These symptoms and the frustration cause my depression to root its head and I spiral down a hole of anxiety. 

Since getting sick I’ve lost work. As a food writer, recipe developer, and former pastry chef I rely on the sense of taste and smell and the ability to stand for long periods of time in the kitchen or during photoshoots. I used to give the greenlight to new dishes for a James Beard-nominated restaurant; I was the go-to person during recipe development; and I wrote approachable recipes for home cooks to feel comfortable expanding their palate and skills in the kitchen. Now, post-COVID, I don’t know when I’m eating something salty or know when garlic is sautéing. Food either has no taste or the flavors I remember are diluted and bland. I don’t trust my own palate now and I lack confidence to produce good recipes. 

When I started to regain my appetite, food still tasted bland. I didn’t think much of this, because I knew this often happens when you’re recovering from something like a cold or the flu. It wasn’t until I started eating food other than soup, buttered noodles, or rice that I realized my tastebuds were still not functioning as normal. The first real meal I had was flank steak, roasted squash, and garlicky rice that Louis cooked. Everything looked delicious, but when I took a bite of the steak it tasted dull with a metallic-like flavor. I added a few pinches of salt to see if that helped; nothing. So I added more until I had a visibly oversalted steak that would have turned anyone away — but to me, it was the perfect amount of salt to enjoy the steak. Louis asked me if I could smell the garlic in the rice, to which I replied, “There’s garlic?” Seven cloves of garlic and I couldn’t smell or taste any of it. I couldn’t finish the roasted squash because it tasted spoiled; it was repulsive and turned my stomach. 

How do I make a living and where do I go from here?

That was the start of me realizing that I had lingering symptoms. To this day, I still have to oversalt everything just to taste something. Cooked vegetables taste gross to me; I can only eat them raw. I used to love vegetables. If aromatics are cooking I have to get my nose into the pan to smell the faintest thing. I still have a metallic taste in my mouth and often after a few bites of food I get nauseous from the off taste. The only thing I can really taste is sugar, which is odd for me because despite being a pastry chef I have never had much of a sweet tooth. Since having COVID, though, all I crave are sugary things. 

I was supposed to write my first cookbook this year; that opportunity is now benched. I had three contracts with publications to contribute on a regular basis, but I had to walk away from them because I’m exhausted and can’t meet deadlines. I have trouble concentrating and am in a constant brain fog, and my ability to write thoughtfully and quickly has declined. Editors have told me to come back when my sense of taste returns before submitting recipe pitches. Even writing this is a challenge. How do I make a living and where do I go from here?

I feel alone and mildly crazy. These symptoms are not in my head; long-haulers are sick, and people are losing their lives from this virus. I can’t let COVID-19 win, but how do you recover when people don’t believe you and the leadership in our government aren’t taking the virus seriously? All I can do is try and recover or at the very least adapt. I have to focus on healing and raising my son. My time with him is too precious — these early years with him I can’t get back. My career might be a casualty of the virus; I have to be OK with that. For now, cooking and writing is recovery therapy — not my job.