There's No Accounting for Taste

This has been a very challenging week for cupping. Why? I can't taste.

It all started on December 21st when we were flying to my sisters house in Tucson for Christmas. Ben turned to me on the airplane and sneezed directly into my gaping mouth. (I wonder if you can buy those full face shields the dentists use these days, for protection when your kid is sick. It's just a given he is going to sneeze directly on me at some point).

I have had better days and worse days since then, but what I am left with now is a sinus and olfactory as clogged as a storm drain after a hurricane. You don't notice at first. You eat chicken broth with rice and cereal, all the fun sick-person food, but you don't notice whats not there. I had some Earl Grey tea and thought it must have been a bad brand; no bergamot notes came through. But that was my only hint.

First day back on the cupping table and I knew for sure how my senses were lost in a deep fog. I couldn't get anything, I mean ANYTHING from the dry fragrance of the coffee grinds. They might not have been there, and I wouldn't know. Sometimes when I feel smell-challenged, I put my face down into the steam as I pour hot water into the cups. But that didn't penetrate the nasal barricade either. My other trick is to open and close my mouth rapidly as I smell to try to pull something into my olfactory retro-nasally, through the opening in the pack of the palate. Nothing. Zilch. My senses were 100% MIA.

I know this is all fascinating, and you want to know all about my illness (haha). But the point I wanted to get to is how remarkable taste is in the context of having no taste. I spend so much time fussing over the details of coffee, whether an acidity is citric or tartaric, or if red fruits are more apple or berry-like. But it's only under the brutal condition of total taste failure, not even being able to sense if there is a cup of coffee placed in front of you or not (without seeing it of course) that taste seems to matter more than ever.

But what fascinated me is this: What remains when taste is absent? Or perhaps, what remains when the olfactory is totally offline. The fact is, the taste receptors (papillae) on my tongue weren't really firing either. I could get the sourness of acidity, some sense of the bittering coffee alkaloid notes,  but not sweetness or other aspects of taste (salt, umami). What was odd was the physical reactions I could gauge, texture specifically. Each acidity seemed remarkably different in texture, even though I couldn't get the taste clearly.

What the tongue contributes to taste has been largely misunderstood since the turn of the century when a poorly translated paper from the original German text inferred that taste receptivity on the tongue could be mapped, and certain zones on the tongue were more sensitive to certain types of basic taste.

 

A 2006 paper published in Nature debunked the "tongue map" myth: "Recent molecular and functional data have revealed that, contrary to popular belief, there is no tongue 'map': responsiveness to the five basic modalities — bitter, sour, sweet, salty and umami — is present in all areas of the tongue" But what is for certain is that the papillae sense the physical nature of food and beverage in a way the olfactory cannot, as well as standing in harms way when something is painfully hot as coffee can be. These are communicated by the trigimenal nerve from both the olfactory as well as the palate.

 

But my job requires a bit more of me than having a pain response to hot coffee on the palate, and without the ability to cup, I quickly slide into the kind of obsolescence a retiree must feel; not only are you unable to help, but you are unequipped to do so.

I am not ready to kick the coffee can yet though, and today featured moments of clarity, when the sunshine of sense broke through the fog of confusion and blessed me, momentarily, with the taste of coffee. And somehow I appreciated much more than I used to.  
-- Tom