A Sense of Taste- Things That’ll Make Your Tongue Lie to You

 Good evening, friends and neighbors.

To quote my wife, “Cooking with a cold must be like being a musician that can’t hear.”
This may or may not be because we went out to dinner once when I was dealing with some nasal congestion and couldn’t taste anything. My favorite beers, deep-fried brussels sprouts, and smoked ribs were utterly tasteless. It was frustration bordering on heartbreak.

The senses of smell and taste are obviously deeply connected- informing and influencing each other in one of our most primal survival mechanisms- when something smells off, it probably IS off.

When you’re a cook, though, not being able to taste things is not an option. You might know the recipes by heart, you may measure and cook everything perfectly- but if you aren’t tasting (or able to taste) as you go, it’s like driving down the highway with only one eye. Yes, you can do it- but you wouldn’t unless had to, and there are a LOT of things that can mess with your ability to detect flavors.

Here’s some of them:

Illustration of Beethoven composing

Supposedly, when his hearing loss was nearly total, Beethoven would put a pencil in his teeth and press the end to the soundboard of his piano so he could feel the vibration of the notes. Nothing quite like that for taste though.

Difference Between “Taste” and “Flavor”

For cooks and bakers, a major thing to remember is that one doesn’t look for, tweak, or season for “taste”, per say, as much as flavor.
To the average diner, that might seem like a matter of semantics. “Of COURSE I’d be looking for flavor- what else would I be tasting?” To cooks, wine enthusiasts, and gastronomes, however, taste is an aspect of flavor, not its totality.
“Taste,” as a sense, is exclusively how the receptors on our tongues react to the different compounds found in food- salty, sour, sweet, bitter, or umami- and facilitated by our saliva.
Flavor, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. According to biologist Stuart Firestein, flavor is a “hedonic” sense- an amalgamation of our experiences of taste, smell, temperature, texture, and even the expectation of how something “ought” to be. In fact, roughly 85% of what we consider “flavor” is olfactory- derived from our sense of smell.
Consider the experience of “smokiness” in food. The tongue can certainly detect the sweet/bitter combination of burned wood and caramelized sugars from the Maillard Reaction, but the main experience that makes that bacon, barbecue, and Rausch beer so wonderful is all the residual compounds of combustion that send your nose- and memory- straight back to the campfire.

That’s a lot of moving parts that go into one sensation- and as anyone who’s ever just bought a fancy new piece of tech can attest, that’s a lot of things to go wrong.

Young woman applying makeup and perfume

Photo by Kaboompics through Pexels

1. Perfumes and Colognes
If you’ve ever worked in an office, or another situation where you need to share space with others, it’s probably happened at least once. One of your co-workers apparently uses a fog machine to apply body spray or perfume on their way out the door. They pass by you in the hall- suddenly you need a gas mask and all you can taste is Chanel No. 5.

The experience of flavor is roughly 85% what you can smell- so if your nose is jammed up with body spray, perfume, and deodorants- it’s GOING to throw off how you experience taste. In many fine dining restaurants, front of house staff- especially sommeliers, cheesemongers, and cicerones- are forbidden from wearing perfumes or even scented shampoos and antiperspirants. All this to avoid messing with their ability to detect nuances and flavors in their wares. It’s less enforced for cooks, ironically, but I generally prefer to apply AFTER my shift. No one needs to sit next to a sweaty guy that smells like hot oil and flour on the bus.

​If you want to get a bit more out of your dining experience, maybe tone down the body spray a bit.

2. Certain Medications
Every now and then, in that quickly-read laundry list of potential side effects at the end of pharmaceutical ads, some will mention things like “dry mouth,” “loss of appetite,” or “metallic taste.” Granted, I’d take any of those over things like “may cause depression and sudden fatality,” but it’s still less than ideal.

For some cooks with ADD/ ADHD, the medications the take to keep them focus can actually make flavors seem more pungent and vivid to them. This may not seem like such a terrible problem to have, except that it can lead to them being nauseated by certain or strong odors, or seasoning their food that will seem right to them, but bland to the average diner.

If this might be a concern for you, you obviously can’t fix this with something as simple as “stop wearing perfume.” According to WebMD, antihistamines (allergy meds), antidepressants, beta-blockers, and blood pressure meds can cause problems, and you wouldn’t want to just drop those. You might consider talking to your doctor, however, and finding out if there are alternate medications you can take that will have different or reduced side effects.

3. Respiratory Health
When I was in culinary school, the importance of punctuality and reliability was drilled into us MERCILESSLY. The saying was, “If you aren’t in the kitchen for your shift, it better be either the hospital, jail, or the morgue.”

In other words, having a case of the sniffles was not a reason to call out sick.

Granted, now that we know that working when sick is a public health risk, the stance of my teachers has softened considerably- but another good reason to be a little careful when working with a cold is-simply- you can’t taste anything.

If you have a sinus infection, sore throat, runny nose, or any of a number of other situations that affect your ability to smell, food simply will not taste the same. Working when sick is still REALLY inadvisable, but catching the symptoms and getting a little cold medicine in you can at least help keep you functional.

Just please remember to wash your hands- a lot.

4. Bad Oral Hygiene/ Health

Bad breath. Bad thing for a dinner date, and for making dinner, apparently.

Keeping your mouth and tongue clean and healthy should be a priority for everyone, regardless of your occupation. No one likes gingivitis, cavities, or having your mouth declared a superfund site. It impacts the health of the rest of your body, your relationships, and- really, it’s just kinda gross.

If you’re a cook, though, keeping your mouth healthy is a matter of professional ability. If you have plaque build-up, tartar, tooth decay, or (much worse) an oral abscess, all those things can create foul odors and flavors in your mouth. 

See a dentist, brush your teeth properly, and see if that improves your palate at all. Don’t go throwing good food on top of garbage… in your mouth.

​Yeah, um…. yuck.

5. Smoking and Drinking

Yes, cooking is a stressful job. The professional cook’s classic fondness for bad habits and addictive behaviors is not something that needs to be trotted out any more than it already is, and there are ANY NUMBER of reasons why you should stop smoking and at least cut down on the drink.

Those reasons can be for another article. For right now though, suffice it to say that exposing your nose and mouth to a constant barrage of the toxins and pollutants present in cigarette smoke CAN and WILL deaden your ability to taste and smell.

When I first joined the Chaine des Rotisseurs, I was told the rules that Chaine diners obey when going out to eat. Some of the rules were matters of class and taste- for example, water was only to be provided to diners on request, and food was to be eaten as soon as it was served (rather than waiting for everyone to be served first- often seen as rude, but preferable to sullying the chef’s work by letting it get cold.)
Others made considerably more sense- like the fact that tobacco was only to be enjoyed AFTER eating, with no other food to follow, simply because of its effect on one’s ability to experience flavor.

Alcohol, meanwhile, is a bit fuzzier. Obviously, alcoholic pairings with dinners exist, and things like wine and whiskey can complement- or often accentuate- the flavor of food when paired well. In addition, alcohol acts as a vasodialator at certain levels- widening the blood vessels and creating a warming flush and sensitivity throughout the body.
In all things, there must be temperance though. After a while, alcohol begins to do the opposite and constrict the blood vessels, making one feel cold. It can also numb the tastebuds, dry out your mouth, and- of course- lead to alcohol poisoning.

Clear Your Palate

Given all of these obstacles, there are a number of common-sense things you can learn to do that’ll protect- or even enhance- your experience of flavor.

  • Lay off the perfume/cologne when cooking
  • Brush your teeth and look after your health.
  • Talk to your doctor if you think one of your medications is causing problems.
  • Stop smoking, and cut down on the booze.

What do you all think? Any other suggestions for things that can enhance/detract from your palate?
Leave ‘em in the comments, and remember to

Stay Classy,

One thought on “A Sense of Taste- Things That’ll Make Your Tongue Lie to You

  1. I would hope everyone in the food services industry takes this as seriously as you do, but somehow I doubt it. I think there’s a huge difference between you and the tons of folks to whom it is just a job.

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