CLOSE

If You Can’t Smell, Can You Taste?

Smelling image via Shutterstock

I’m perfectly suited to answer the Big Question that reader Katie posed the other day, because I have anosmia, which means I can’t smell. At all. Every diaper my two-year-old has ever filled has been totally odorless to me. I also missed out on her new baby smell, which I hear is pretty fantastic. I can’t tell if I come back to work still stinky from a lunchtime run, which often concerns me, but other people’s B.O. doesn’t bother me either. I’m never tempted by the smell of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels wafting through the mall, and when someone burns popcorn in the microwave at work, I really don’t care. I’m also convinced I’m going to die due to a gas leak sometime when I’m alone in the house.

The first thing people always ask when they find out about my lack of smell is, “Wait, but can you taste?”

As you no doubt already know, taste and smell are very closely related. Food odors engage the olfactory nerves in noses while taste buds react on your tongue, and together the two combine to make your eating experience enjoyable (or not). So, it’s reasonable to say that anosmiacs only get half the experience.

I personally have a preference for things that rank high on the spectrum of salty, sweet, sour and bitter. I’m not totally confident that I taste umami at all. Sauerkraut right out of the can is delicious. I’ve never met a sweet that was “too rich” for me. Bring on the spicy foods. But I find it impossible to distinguish between specific flavors. Jolly Ranchers all taste the same to me, unless I get a sour one like green apple or lemon. I could never taste a homecooked meal and compliment the chef on her unique blend of spices. Sage, basil, oregano - it’s all the same (though cilantro tastes kind of soapy to me).

Researchers think that 1 in 5,000-10,000 people worldwide are afflicted with some form of anosmia. There are lots of ways to lose your sniffer. As some people get older, they find that their sense of smell is less acute simply due to aging. Other causes include head trauma, smoking, nasal polyps and many diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. As far as I know, none of those apply to me: I have Congenital Anosmia, AKA, baby, I was born this way.

Here’s an anosmic trying to differentiate between tastes while blindfolded. The results make me think that every anosmic experiences taste differently, because I’m quite sure I would know the difference between orange juice and cranberry juice.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
iStock
iStock

Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
iStock
iStock

For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios