What You Eat: Senses Lost and Found

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were getting lost in the smell of summer strawberries or, as in the case of this entry from Lorraine Whittlesey, watching our enjoyment of food slowly slip away, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that I’ve laid the table, Lorraine Whittlesey:

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey

If you had to make a choice, which one of your senses could you live without?

As a professional musician I always felt that a hearing loss would be tragic; not because I couldn’t continue composing (I can hear music in my head and most of my compositions are already completed before they hit the staff) but because I wouldn’t be able to hear music via a live or recorded performance.

I’m also a synesthete who experiences crossovers for some of my senses; when I hear music I experience textures and shapes, and when I smell and taste certain foods I can often ‘see’ their colors.

It never occured to me that I would, one day, suffer from ‘anosmia’: the loss of the sense of smell. As most people know, when one loses their sense of smell, the taste buds are also compromised. The ability to taste is referred to as gustatory perception.

This loss didn’t happen overnight but over a period of a few months due to some serious medical conditions that affected my respiratory system.

Those close to me know I’m a consumer of fine food whether as a customer in restaurants or as a cook. I’m also lucky enough to have several friends who are quite skilled in the culinary arts. Most cooks will tell you that when you use the best ingredients available it’s difficult to go wrong. I’ve maintained (peripatetically) a blog titled You and the Food and the Music and often post about my recipes and restaurant experiences via social media. Some of my favorite reading materials are cookbooks. One could safely say that all things, culinary, have maintained a place of importance on my list of priorities.

As a consequence of not being able to smell the good things, I experienced a greatly reduced desire for food and became mildly depressed. For weeks my culinary range of interest was reduced to sipping on chicken broth or tea. There were a great many inconveniences associated with my condition but my keenest sorrow through this medical morass was my inability to smell, therefore, to taste anything.

After certain medical procedures were successfully completed my taste buds gradually improved and I began to taste the primary properties of salt and sweetness in a more intense way. Then came the other taste experiences of sour, bitter and savory (also called umami).

When my senses were basically restored and I felt as if I could appreciate my favorite dishes I decided my first effort would be a perennial favorite, eggplant parmesan. I planned a special evening with some of my closest friends who would appreciate this repast and share the joy I experienced as I tasted the results of my first serious cooking efforts after several months of simply eating to stay alive.

This is the recipe for the first entree I prepared.

Eggplant Parmesan

  • 2–3 thin eggplants (if too wide the many seeds can make the eggplant taste bitter)
  • 2 1/2 cups good quality tomato sauce, homemade or store bought (I prefer Marinara)
  • 8–10 oz mozzerella, shredded
  • 3/4 cup grated parmesan
  • 4 eggs
  • Bread crumbs
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 325 F.
  2. Remove the skin and slice eggplants no thicker than 1/4”.
  3. After slicing the eggplant, alternately layer pieces on paper towels and sprinkle each layer lightly with salt. Let sit for about 1/2 hour till some of the moisture has been absorbed.
  4. Place bread crumbs in a deep plate and whisked eggs in another (I incorporate a few splashes of water with the eggs).
  5. In a large cast iron or other skillet (at least 2″ in depth) heat olive oil. Don’t bother with extra virgin olive oil since that’s best used for dressings.
  6. The secret to this particular version of eggplant parmesan is to first dip each eggplant slice into the breadcrumbs, shake off excess crumbs, then dip into the egg mixture before frying. It gives the eggplant a unique texture and sublety different flavor.
  7. Make certain oil is heated to a medium temperature then add 3 or 4 slices of eggplant at a time, turning once when the first side is lightly browned (about 2 1/2-3 minutes). Place slices on a flat plate covered with paper towels to absorb extra oil. Repeat the process until all sliced are browned.
  8. In large baking dish (9×12″) add a few tablespoons of sauce to the bottom and distribute evenly. Add slices of eggplant across the dish then distribute half the mozzerella across the eggplant. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of grated parm across the top. Begin the process again staring with the sauce. Sauce should just lightly cover the eggplant. After the top layer of eggplant has been added, put some more sauce over the top and sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese on top.
  9. Bake for 40 minutes or until the top layer is slightly browned.
  10. Turn off heat and leave in oven for an additional 30 minutes or so.
  11. Serve with a green salad and sliced Italian bread. A wine of your choice is highly recommended. My preference is a medium bodied Chianti.

Since re-gaining the desire to give my time and attention to serious cooking (about a year ago) my sensitivity to smell has occasionally fluctuated but without too much variation. Certain medications can interfere with some sensations, but for the most part it has been as close to what I’ve ever experienced my adult life. I continue to experiment with new recipes, watch certain cooking shows (I could watch Julia Child re-runs ad infinitum and love Extra Virgin), re-visit my favorite dining establishments, and support newly discovered places. Many of my friends are either restauranteurs, good cooks, food and/or restaurant reviewers or others who are, one way or another, “in the business.”

To my dear family and friends, I intend to resume preparing and serving the traditional holiday dinners. I’ve certainly missed the cameraderie and joy that come with the gathering of the clan. I’m most grateful for the science that identified the source of the problems and was also able to address and remedy the situation.

For a list of my favorite local restaurants please contact me at privatesector(at)verizon.net

Lorraine Whittlesey, a former member of the Peanut Gallery for NBC TV’s Howdy Doody show, is a classically trained pianist and studied T.V. and Film Scoring @ UCLA. Her commissioned works have been performed by the Baltimore Symphony and Concert Artists of Baltimore and have been premiered at Carnegie Hall. She scored and performed the original music for the Baltimore documentary “We Are Arabbers” which was filmed by Joy Lusco Kecken. Arista Hip Hop Artists “Naughty By Nature” used her music on their Album “19 Naughty 9.” Her collaborators include Michael Salcman, Clarinda Harriss, and Joyce J. Scott. She wrote “Zippy the Pinhead: the Musical,” based on Bill Griffith’s syndicated comic strip and is in the process of adding two more acts.

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3 thoughts on “What You Eat: Senses Lost and Found

  1. I’m proud to be listed as one of Lorraine’s collaborators. If not for WAM’s “Synaesthesia” series, Lorraine and I might never have met lo those many years ago and I would have missed out on one of the dearest and most brilliant friends ever. I am proud and, um, fulfilled to say that I among the lucky ones who have enjoyed Lorraine’s eggplant confection in her very own dining room. Re.Lorraine’s sensory commentary: I agree. I truly hate to imagine being without any of my 5 senses, but as a reader and writer it would be a toss-up between sight and hearing as to which I’d most hate to lose. My facile first response is sight–I mean, I use it to read, and how will I know whether it’s eyeliner or lipgloss I’m smearning on without it? but the one thing I don’t think I could function without is the music of words, spoken words. I don’t think anybody can be a writer, and especially not a poet, without that music playing in his or her head.

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  2. Misspoke or spoke unclear. When I started off “I agree,”. I meant that I agree with Lorraine’s early statement that hearing would be a tragic loss–for a musician OR writer. I am, however, able to IMAGINE being unable to hear. I literally cannot imagine being without the taste/smell combo. And I’m glad I can’t, because I think life would be awful w/o them.

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