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We the Sensorily Deficient

Can we improve or heighten our senses of taste and smell -- "training" them, just as we might train for a sport?
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Low self-esteem makes some of us feel inferior whenever other people are around: A fellow human being surfaces and those who hate themselves wonder: Is she smarter than I? Is he better looking? Richer? Better loved?

The tyranny of such comparisons, the prisons they build around us and some keys to our escape will be revealed in my forthcoming volume, The Big Book of Low Self-Esteem, due out next spring from Tarcher Penguin. I too have been a prisoner, but I thought this lethal gauging was behind me -- until I discovered a whole new realm of insufficiency.

My senses of smell and taste -- they aren't keen.


I can discern the scent of smoke from that of roses and the taste of salt from that of Red Hots, but ask me to differentiate between several kinds of salt (pink, Himalayan, table, sea) or smoke (branding iron, campfire, house aflame) and I cannot. Ask me to name the fruits, flowers and leathers in a wine or beer and I am lost. I try. And sometimes lie. It's a big game of pretend, as my superiors -- the sensitive, the smart, the learnéd -- swoon at subtleties, speaking of grassy notes as my eyes dart helplessly from fork to glass to plate and I think: All I know is that these are not fish sticks.

And I want to disappear. Keep eating and drinking -- I love to eat and drink, regardless -- but unseen, unheard, incapable of being asked whether this cheese or coffee tastes of jam, parsley or sailboats.

This disability has shamed me for many years. I grew up unaware of it because I grew up in a time and place where pizza was a fancy meal and wine spurted from boxes. I grew up thinking that knowing a tin-roof sundae from a black-and-tan made me a virtual gourmand.

But lately I have realized otherwise. I am sensorily inferior and always have been. It struck me yet again last weekend during an event I attended at the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco. Developed and hosted by Carol Maa, creative director of the luxury advisory group ofLeisure, "Perfumology of Mixology" was a gin-and-perfume pairing party at which gin cocktails were served whose recipes had been inspired by four elegant perfumes, including Marc Jacobs' DOT.

Gin was chosen as the spirit of the day "because gin has its own perfumes built into it," said Joel Teitelbaum, portfolio ambassador of the Artisanal Group, whose gins were featured at the party. "People are moving away from banal spirits to spirits that have spices and green notes" and other sniffable elements.


"Smelling is the only sensory experience that goes straight to your brain," Maa explained. "It has an instantaneous impact and provokes instantaneous memories -- of your nana whom you loved, of a walk in the forest when you were five."

Perfume companies tailor scents to the national markets they want to reach, Maa said: For example, dairy-centered notes in a scent might captivate milk-quaffing Americans and Australians while Asian consumers might instead be compelled by "the milky notes in rice waters."


The perfumes smelled nice. The cocktails smelled and tasted great. Among others, mixologist Brian MacGregor of San Francisco's Wingtip mixed up a drink entailing Broker's London Dry gin, Dolan dry vermouth, Combier and Amargo Vallet. And you know, gin smells like juniper but if you say that you smell spices and flowers in it too, I might very well agree. But as I watched my sophisticated fellow guests sipping and sniffing, reality settled in: A world of infinite subtleties is largely lost on me.

Rather than simply wallow in self-loathing and despair, I decided to interview food developer Barb Stuckey, the author of TASTE: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good, which is now out in paperback.

"The senses of taste and smell vary hugely from person to person and they both change with age. We widely accept that people's eyesight differs -- farsighted, nearsighted, blind -- and we expect that some of us hear better than others, but we rarely think about this with regard to eating," Stuckey told me.

To some extent, these differences are genetic. Just as some of us are born more athletically or musically inclined than others, some of us are naturally better tasters.

"We generally group people into three camps of tasters," Stuckey explained. "The more tastebuds you have on your tongue, the more intense the five basic tastes with be: Sweet will be sweeter, salt will be saltier, and the same for sour, bitter, and umami. I call those with these well-endowed tongues Hypertasters. Those who have an average number of tastebuds are Tasters, and those with the fewest tastebuds are Tolerant Tasters, because the scarcity of buds on their tongues makes them tolerant to very intense tastes" -- such as very hot peppers.

Since I cannot bear the experience of very hot peppers, I guess I'm a Taster. Not a Hypertaster, sure -- but it could be worse. An even sadder aspect of this subject is that certain injuries and illnesses, and certain treatments for certain injuries and illnesses, can dull or even eradicate the senses of taste and smell -- no joking matter by any means.

"Because we can only 'taste' five things, it's equally important to layer onto our taster type the huge differences in our ability to smell. Since smell is what gives foods its signature flavor, people can have widely differing experiences. For example, a Hypertaster with a compromised sense of smell might experience gorgonzola cheese as extremely salty, extremely sour, and extremely savory, with a slight cheesy aroma," Stuckey said.

"A Tolerant Taster with a fantastic sense of smell might experience gorgonzola cheese as slightly salty, sour, and savory with a boldly funky, moldy, grassy aroma. You could be married to -- or a parent to, or colleagues with -- someone who lives in a completely different sensory world than you."

Can we improve or heighten our senses of taste and smell -- "training" them, just as we might train for a sport? Stuckey says yes.

"The more you expose yourself to any food, the better you'll become at discriminating amongst tiny differences in it. That's how wine professionals become skilled: practice, testing, practice, and testing. You can do the same for any food: apples, cheese, chocolate, you name it. You can even do this with a type of food you hate -- green vegetables or fishy fish, for example. Once you can discriminate, you start to see nuances. ...

"So go ahead: Do that horizontal tasting of every canned bean you can find. By the end of it, you'll notice huge differences and know exactly where your preference lies. It's the first step toward liking a new food."

And toward feeling less panicked around people who say pinot noir tastes like wet pebbles, and that this is a good thing.

All photographs are by Anneli Rufus.