July 21, 2016

I Smell Smoke: How a Brain Injury changed my Senses.

SG Smelling Flower

This morning as I was prepping food at work for my guests, I was assaulted by a heavy, acrid scent.

The smell of burning grease permeated the air. I zipped over to the stove only to notice a piece of chicken burning in a pan forgotten by my co-worker. The fat danced angrily on the sizzling skin. I snatched a nearby spatula, flipped it over and turned off the burner.

Returning to my work, it took a few minutes to dawn on me. A smile spread across my face. My eyes welled up with tears of gratitude.

I smelled something burning. What a symphony to my nostrils!

Feeling grateful for smelling burning food might sound strange. Indeed it would be, if not for the fact that I lost my sense of smell seven years ago from a traumatic brain injury after falling down a flight of stairs. Today was the first time since my injury that I detected the scent of something burning.

As a chef, the loss of my olfactory system has been difficult to come to terms with. While my healing has been a slow progression, I depended on my sense of taste to relearn all the various smells that I had come to know so well in my profession.

Going back into cooking with such a handicap has been a huge challenge. Yet in many ways, I became a better cook. I learned to sharpen my palate and discovered new ways to test my food.

The tongue can taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami, so I began to pay close attention to the feel of food on my palate. My tongue salivated each time I tasted something sour. I noticed how the creamy fat would coat my tongue when I savored ice cream, creating a canvas for salty caramel and bitter cherries to dance across.

Food I wouldn’t have eaten before came alive with deliciousness, its harshness muddled without any scent. I acquired a new love for sharp cheeses like funky gorgonzola paired with dense red wine or a pungent Kombucha.

I soon found myself learning food all over again and developed a new method to enjoy it.

I literally felt food.

With this new sense memory, my palate opened up while refining the balance of flavors in my culinary creations. I became more vigilant about freshness, precise cuts, and color. My technique was honed by insecurity and the urge to compete so that people would never know I couldn’t smell what I was cooking!

My sense of smell has healed dramatically with every passing year. I’m reminded of a new scent like an old friend returning from a long, lost land settling into my brain with a suitcase of memories bringing the gift of emotional recovery.

Each time I smell something new that was once old to me, I am filled with deep appreciation and a giddiness for life. It’s as though I have started over again.

Our nature is to adapt, heal, create and begin afresh. I feel hope where I once felt a loss. Within me is an awareness that didn’t exist before all thanks to a lost treasure that has been returned.


Author: Sarah Gilbert

Image: Author’s own

Apprentice Editor: Sarah Shin; Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Sarah Gilbert