This Christmas, Stan Hendrickson will wish for a gift he cannot have. It's a gift he possessed for over seven decades before losing it three years ago: the ability to taste. Since 1998, the Boulder resident has been living a foodie's nightmare, unable to savor the things that once brought him endless joy.
"I woke up one morning and realized I couldn't taste anything," Hendrickson says. "It's kind of devastating."
And it's especially troubling at this time of year. While the rest of us are reveling in the scents and flavors of the holiday season, Hendrickson is teased by the sight of foods he used to crave -- foods that now cross his palate without sensation or satisfaction. "It really is a tragedy when Christmas and Thanksgiving come along," he says. "You're wanting to savor all the goodies, and all of a sudden, there's a part of living that's completely gone. It's awful."
Hendrickson is not alone is his tasteless existence: Researchers estimate that approximately two million people in the United States suffer from some sort of smell/taste disorder. While a small percentage are born without a sense of smell or taste, the majority experience these disorders later in life, with most of them suffering from anosmia, loss of their total sense of smell -- at least temporarily. And when you can't smell them, foods deliver little beyond the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. (Smell constitutes about 75 percent of the sensations that combine with taste, texture and spiciness to create the perception of flavor.) While many sufferers experience a partial smell or taste loss, a rare few completely lose their sense of taste -- and when that goes, so does much of life's sweetness.
"Some people get severely depressed," says Miriam Linschoten, who heads up the Center for Taste and Smell Disorders at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "You lose a very important part of yourself. It's an enormous loss." Linschoten has been studying taste and smell disorders since 1993; her Denver research office is one of six such centers in the United States. Working with Dr. Bruce Jafek, an ear-nose-throat specialist at the CU Health Sciences Center, she tracks down the causes of smell and taste disorders and helps her patients repair or manage their troubles.
Linschoten's database includes information on 600 smell- and taste-impaired clients in Colorado and around the world. The causes of her client's maladies stretch from head injuries (blows to the head can sever the nerve endings that lead from the sinuses to the brain) to sinus infections or colds that have damaged smell sensors high in the nasal cavity. Some of her clients have lost their sense of smell from a rare side effect of going under general anesthesia or through reactions to certain medicines. Hendrickson is an anomaly: His tongue mysteriously lost its papillae, the microscopic flavor sensors in that organ's tastebuds. Doctors think his condition may be tied to a neck wound he received years ago while fighting in WW II.
Linschoten puts her clients through a battery of tests that identify the type, severity and cause of their sensory loss. The process can be tough: "It's not unusual that when I test someone and they're trying hard to smell something, they start crying," she says.
Taste-impaired people can suffer health problems beyond depression. They often eat less and lose weight, Linschoten says, because eating is no longer pleasurable. Then again, some tasteless individuals gain weight, eating with a vengeance in hopes of tasting their next bite. Socializing -- especially when it's closely tied with food and drink -- becomes frustrating, and it's easy for sufferers to withdraw. Still others experience a distorted sense of smell that makes aromatic pleasures seem acrid. Life starts to stink.
Without nosing skills, people can't detect the odor of spoiled food; they face a greater risk of getting food poisoning from things coming out of their own refrigerators. (Some label and date their food to avoid this problem.) Personal safety may also be compromised: Natural-gas leaks and smoke from unseen fires can no longer be detected, cheating victims of a valuable defense mechanism.
That dilemma led to job changes for Terry Woodruff, one of Linschoten's subjects. An Air Force colonel and pilot stationed in Yuma, Arizona, Woodruff is no longer allowed to fly solo because of his inability to detect airborne danger signs in the cockpit. "It changes your whole life around," Woodruff says of olfactory loss.
Fortunately, Linschoten and Jafek are able to help some patients. If a person suffers from a growth or obstruction in the nose, Jafek can perform surgery to unclog the sinuses and restore airflow to the scent sensors. People who've lost their sense of smell to viral infections or colds can often get it back through surgery and time, although that return can take up to three years.
But many are forced to live with the fact that without the powers of flavor and aroma, life can seem rather bland. "I do miss out a lot," says Barbara Stanton, a Golden resident and Linschoten client who says she hasn't detected a whiff of the world since she was four years old and broke her nose. Like many who lose one of their senses, though, Stanton has found that her other senses stepped up to help compensate for the shortcoming. So while she can't stop and smell the roses, she says, "I can stop and look at them and admire them for their color and beauty."
She's managed to develop a love for cookies (a big plus this time of year), along with other foods that bring pleasure through texture and assertive flavors. "But if somebody asks me to 'smell this,' that's frustrating," she says. "I love red wine, although the bouquet isn't there. It has an acidness to it, and there's a body to a good red wine that's pleasurable. But it's frustrating when the label says 'overtones of raspberry and plum,' and I think, 'I don't know anything about that.'"
Stanton also experiences phantom smells, bouts of olfactory sensation that she thinks come from stored memories of her youth. "I feel like I can sometimes smell things," she says. Although such sensations give her satisfaction, they torment Hendrickson. His lifelong favorite dish, rice pudding, is now anything but a comfort food. "I eat it, but it comes through as a memory. You know what it tastes like, but it doesn't taste. You have a sense of disappointment every time that memory kicks in. This is the part that is really disturbing," he says, his voice taking on a resigned tone.
"Certainly it's not as bad as going blind or deaf, but to lose the sense of taste takes the spark out of life. And you think about it constantly," he adds. "I really enjoyed working in the kitchen and fixing meals, and that joy is gone. We eat a lot of TV dinners now, when we used to eat gourmet."
So next week, while we're swooning over sugar cookies and wading deep into holiday desserts, Hendrickson will be foraging through a flavorless feast. "I participate as much as I can," Hendrickson says of his upcoming Christmas dinner. "The joy of eating is gone, but I still sit down at the table and eat my meal with my family. You can't let it bother you too much or you'll end up in the booby hatch."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.