Wednesday, December 28, 2005

the unexpected scent of chocolate

I spent much of the week before Christmas at the UConn Health Center. A daily four hour commute of dry heat shooting up from the floorboard vents of my car, the constant sound of NPR swirling through the back of my mind, half-formed thoughts circling around my nose, and the muted color palette of leafless trees flitting past the frozen windows. Each morning, as I took exit 39 off of that bleak Interstate 84, a gnawing claw began in the pit of my stomach, growing in sensation as my car slowly wound its way up to the gigantic hospital perched on a hill. The UConn Health Center Hospital is a forbidding mass of gray, high up and alone, lording over the landscape. It reminded me of the Emerald City, far in the distance on my journey to Oz.

Inside that concrete castle is the small lair of the UConn Taste and Smell Center (cheerfully decorated with a battalion of cardboard Santas). There are only a few of these specialized centers concentrating on things such as loss of smell due to head trauma in the US; I’m lucky one exists close by. In my days there I was tested by neurologists, dentists, ENTs, surgeons and internists. I spent hours swishing clear liquids from miniature plastic cups around my mouth, each one a different strength of ‘bitter’ ‘salty’ ‘sweet’ or ‘sour’, to test my taste buds. I rated each of the seventy flavors on a scale of 1 (weak, a hint of salt lurking in the back of my mouth) to 10 (strong, almost gagging on the overpowering bitter of quinine). I breathed in deeply while puffing air from mystery bottles up my nose, trying to decipher which had the aroma of strong chemical and which was odorless (virtually impossible for me to tell). I sniffed mystery jars of familiar food smells, touched my finger to my nose, walked a straight line, said ahhh as they peered down my throat, grimaced as they inspected my teeth and tongue. They looked at my cranial MRI and sinus CT scans from last week, the multitude of head x-rays from the accident. They drizzled blue drops into my nostrils, causing me to lose feeling in my nose and mouth, while they stuck a long devise practically up to my brain, looking for unknown obstructions.

And in the end, after a bleary 5am drive in the darkness of Friday morning and long final inspection, they gave me their final report. The head doctor, an elderly man with soft wrinkles and a piercingly sharp gaze, looked at me for a moment, silent and sincere. Just when I began to feel uncomfortable he gave me a gentle smile and said Work is therapy, Molly. Stay busy.

I was confused by his response. Confused and a bit deflated. But it soon became clear that the solution to this problem is nothing but time.

The olfactory nerve, they explained with the help of colorfully simplified medical diagrams, is studded with small neurons that curl off to connect the nose and transfer the smell sensations to the brain. When I was hit by the car and fractured my skull, my brain bounced roughly in my head. Those small smell neurons were most likely severed in the trauma. Optimistic, however, was a word often used. They are optimistic my smell will return; my olfactory neurons will re-grow. The fact that I can smell a bit, greatly improved from the time of the accident, is a wonderful sign. The fact that I sometimes smell things that aren’t there (phantom smells, they call them) means that my nerve is already beginning to rebound. But this is a long process. Two to five years, they said. Perhaps even as many as seven.

A younger doctor bouncing energetically around the office smiled at me with confidence. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the bright red and green tie emblazoned with a cartoon Grinch in a red santa hat, nestled behind the stethoscope on his chest. If you had to damage a nerve, this was the best one to choose, he said softly as I tore my eyes away from his holiday get-up. Of all the nerves in your body, this one tries the hardest to regenerate.

And so I left Connecticut, driving directly to Vermont for the holidays, the official medical opinion about my smell ringing in my ears. Wait and see. Seven years from now. Optimism. Time. Olfactory regeneration.

And truthfully, I feel wonderful. As much as I would have loved to hear that my smell would be back in a few months without problem, I now feel buoyed up with hope. The official diagnosis of experts in the field of taste and smell has taken a huge weight off my shoulders. I know, now, what to expect. I understand what has happened and what needs to happen. I no longer feel in the dark. I am filled with possibility. The last of my large medical events is over and now all that’s left is the time to make a new plan.

It has been hard for me to write in the last few months, not sure of where my body, smell and general future stood. But things have cleared since the culmination of my smell evaluation, a fog evaporated from my mind. I spent the holidays in Vermont with my family and for the first time in months I felt that familiar passion to write, no longer needing to force myself to type. I curled up for hours in an armchair next to the constantly crackling fire and finally was able to write without painful effort.

The timeframe of olfactory regrowth forces me to look at the future with a new mindset. My plans are slowly moving away from the CIA and restaurant work. I am no longer going to work in the Bakery. I am thinking about other options, other things that I am passionate about. This certainly does not mean I am giving up my love of food and all that is culinary. But my body has changed; smell, taste and the subsequent ability to work in the food world are hovering somewhere in the distance. Instead of fighting the inevitable, feeling lost and unavoidably depressed in a kitchen where I cannot fully operate, I will be morphing my plans to cooperate with my body. How exactly? I’m not sure. It will be interesting and a bit confusing, certainly. Always accompanied here with writing and food, of course. It looks to involve a one-way ticket to New York City in the near future. And it will without a doubt be different than I expected.


One morning in the UConn Taste and Smell Center, I sat perched on a stool in the office of a lanky, bearded doctor. He was twisting open white plastic jars, their mystery contents covered in thick cheesecloth, and sticking them under my nose. I held one nostril closed at a time, testing each side of my nose in measured sniffs. Each jar held an invisible but familiar scent – woodchips, coffee, cinnamon, rubber, soap and jam to name just a few. The majority of jars whisked under my nose contained no odor for me. It was a large procession of scentless containers. But just when I was beginning to feel overly frustrated (and a bit short of breath with all the deep breathing), an unmistakable smell came bursting out of a jar through my right nostril with unabashed aggression. That’s CHOCOLATE, I practically screamed at the doctor, jumping to my feet in excitement. He looked at me, obviously shocked.

Chocolate? he asked, incredulously. You can smell that?

Yes, I said gleefully. He had me sniff again with the right side of my nose. Yup. That’s chocolate. He smiled and then had me sniff with my left nostril. My shoulders sunk, momentarily defeated. No, I can’t smell anything on that side.

The doctor looked off into space, thinking. He looked perplexed, yet the sides of his mouth were curved in a small but unmistakable smile.

This is unexpected, he said. Generally chocolate is not an odor that those who cannot smell first pick-up on. Very unexpected. But no matter what, even if only through your right nostril, this is wonderful.

And I felt like doing a little dance right there in that pristinely scrubbed doctor’s office. The taste of chocolate, the doctor told me, is almost entirely dependent on smell. Without the ability of my right nostril, chocolate would be nothing but a texture. And so, in the largely decimated field of my olfactory neurons, the one for chocolate stands strong. It’s a fighter, hanging in there despite its loneliness. Joined by the rosemary neuron and occasionally the soap and wine crew, this small band of my favorite neurons have most deliciously decided to stick around. So I’m happy. Unexpected, yes. All of this is unexpected. But my neurons and I will happily re-grow. And chocolate will certainly help.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Distraction of Puff Pastry

There is a small frame resting unobtrusively on the end of the front counter of the bakery. It is clear plastic, unassuming in its simplicity. It holds a picture of a smiling woman, dark-haired and cheery eyed. She has a compelling grin; it fairly exudes a large, flavorful personality. Her gaze is enveloping. Underneath the small photo there is a delicately placed yellow slip of paper, studded with a dark type. When each customer who notices leans in closely to read, a small sigh is often released from a softened pair of lips. It is a dedication to The Baker’s wife, who died three years ago in a car accident.

Hugging her in the photo, his face snuggly set close to her rosy cheek, is The Baker. He looks younger, happier. Infinitely more alive. I watched him in the back of the bakery yesterday at work, his forehead crunched in anxious thought, his hands punching bread dough with vigor. The Baker often seems weighed down, a thin sheet of invisible parchment keeping him from laughing the way he means to, smiling more than a small grin. He is dampened, quiet. It does not seem like the art of bread is any kind of substitute for what he has lost.

There are moments, however, when his love of baking pops valiantly out of the characteristically closed facial expression, his eyebrows gyrating and cheeks scrunched into a bulbous smile. On Tuesday I spent the morning lost in the ritual of pastry dough preparation. I spent an hour rolling out dough for danishes, the thick buttery mass sliding serenely into cinnamon twisted rounds. I moved onto turnovers, systematically flattening and evening out squares of the thinner pastry, delicately folding them into triangles puffed with apple and cinnamon. After finishing and clearing my floury bench, The Baker stepped in with a mound of soft white. He cradled the plastic-wrapped package in his arms like a baby and plopped it down, looking at me expectantly.

This, Molly, is puff pastry. I make it from scratch every week. I nodded; it certainly did look puffy.

He began punching it down, showing me how to roll it out for tarts and quiche. There are so many places out there that buy it frozen. But this, this is fresh; this is amazing. Nothing beats fresh puff pastry. And I make it completely with butter. No shortening here. It makes all the difference.

There was a tingle in his voice, a playful smile on his face. I looked at him, surprised to hear the vivacity and excitement radiating from his persona. For a moment he didn’t even look like The Baker I have become so familiar with. He looked happy.

I can't help but feel that The Baker and I are somewhat the same. Amidst the soft, warm atmosphere of the bakery, we are both struggling with what we have lost. He appears to be grasping for something; the love of life that I feel sure was there before is now just beyond his reach. And I am trundling along, forever and frustratingly aware of my lack of smell and taste - a deeper understanding of the culinary is beyond the ability of my body right now. We both exist in a muted world; muffled happiness, taste-buds or both.

But based on the effusive compliments of the bakery’s customers, the pleasure of our baked goods is not obstructed by a thing for them. No matter what setbacks The Baker and I are personally working through at the moment, there will always be puff pastry.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

New Culinary Rhythms

The day before Thanksgiving was punctuated by the constant background notes of Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The dusty black radio perched on a shelf in the bakery was switched from its usual soft classical twinkle to the more raucous, louder classic rock drawl. It was a one day phenomenon, a fitting marker for the hectic pre-Thanksgiving rush that began that Wednesday morning in the cold darkness of 4am. The crooning noise of Stairway to Heaven and Free Bird reverberated around the steamy room, inspiring me subconsciously to move with just a bit more bounce. Beethoven’s lyrical melodies leave me with a relaxed smile on my face as I delicately twist buttery dough into symmetrical rounds for Danish pastries. Bach conjures up images of crackling fires and windswept grain fields in the back of my mind as I roll out linzer dough to cut for holiday cookies. On that pre-holiday morning, however, The Rolling Stones gave me just a bit more oomph as I carted around stacks of pumpkin pies and frosted cakes with the speed of one who has a herd of turkeys nibbling at her feet.

The musical change in the bakery, surprising and short-lived as it was, is a good summation of my recent life. I’ve switched from a self-imposed classical slow to a more energetic rock of busy movement. Recovering at home after the accident was a calm (however depressing) endeavor, filled with quiet thought and slow healing. Since I discarded my crutches and began work in the bakery, my tune has changed. The bakery is a complicated balancing act of buttery pastry melodies. At home, Thanksgiving was a feast for 10; my mom and I stewed in the delicious (and minorly stressful) preparation of the aggressively planned meal. Butternut squash soup with brown butter and sage, roast turkey and sausage cornbread stuffing, sauteed beans with almonds, sweet potatoes with lime syrup, fresh cranberry sauce, apple and pumpkin pies, chocolate cake – they seemingly catapulted themselves out of the kitchen. Or perhaps that was just our laughingly wine-induced perception. And not even 48 hours later, still full of turkey, I had my first stint as a caterer.

About a month ago I received a phone call. A rusty, highly toned female voice: Hi Molly. I am a colleague of your mother’s - I have heard your story and today I had the privilege of trying the cookies you made for your mother to bring to our meeting. I was wondering if you would be interested in catering a lunch for me. Surprised (the oatmeal cookies I had made on a whim for the meeting were simple at best) yet happy, I heartily agreed to make up a menu and get back to her the next day. And I found myself last Saturday running around with pans of marinated salmon and plates of sugar-dusted almond cakes. Manchego cheese had been grated into oblivion, candied walnuts broken into small pieces for salad. There was a sizzle of asparagus and the softly cloying melt of the parmesan sprinkled on top. Hiding my fear of making a mistake with a calm smile and measured rhythmic gate in the kitchen, I plated fish and vegetables, garnished with a sprinkle of toasted seeds, a dollop of balsamic syrup. Molly, this is the best salmon I’ve ever had. My face, I’m pretty sure, lit up with exhausted glee.

In the midst of these wonderful new things in life, I can’t help but admit that I am frustrated. I am at times overwhelmingly disheartened by my lack of smell, the limping step of my left leg, my muted taste buds and the overwhelming exhaustion enveloping my body every evening when I fall into bed. A pang of annoyance resonates through the pit of my stomach with every exclamation of It smells amazing in here as customers waltz into the bakery. I would be lying if I said that my happiness and deep thankfulness (strong as they are) are not countered with those flutterings of frustration and annoyance. Perhaps this is because in my other life I would be moving to Hyde Park tomorrow, shaking with delicious anticipation of my first day at the CIA this weekend. But I am soldiering on; each dark moment is followed by one of light. Whether it is Led Zeppelin or Bach, I feel motivated by the new rhythms echoing in my life.