D.T. Max has an absolutely fascinating article in a recent New Yorker on the molecular gastronomist and chef Grant Achatz and his battle with tongue cancer. While Achatz’s doctors initially insisted that he get his tongue surgically removed, the chef opted for an experimental treatment of radiation and chemo. The treatment appears to have worked, but it took months before Achatz regained his sense of taste:
When irradiated, taste receptors usually disappear and reappear according to the importance that they had to our hominid ancestors: sweetness goes last and returns first. “Before you can be afraid of eating toxins, you have to want to taste food,” Paul Breslin, of the Monell Center, theorizes. When I met Achatz, in late February, his sense of the taste of salt still eluded him. Bitterness suffused all the fats and butters in his mouth. Day by day, he recovered more of his palate–soon salt was perceptible. The flavor prickled, he told me; it made his tongue feel the way a person’s legs feel when they fall asleep. If his recovery is like that of most patients, he will have most of his taste back within another year, but there is no assurance that he will ever have all of it, and the over-all statistics for Stage IV tongue cancer do not escape him. Most radiation oncologists believe that you can radiate tissue only once, so if the cancer recurs Achatz will have limited options. “Do you see me as a dead man walking?” he wrote me in an e-mail.
Because his ability to taste has come back over time, Achatz feels that he is understanding the sense in a new way–the way you would if you could see only in black-and-white and, one by one, colors were restored to you. He says, “When I first tasted a vanilla milkshake”–after the end of his treatment–“it tasted very sweet to me, because there’s no salt, no acid. It just tasted sweet. Now, introduce bitter, so now I’m understanding the relationship between sweet and bitter–how they work together and how they balance. And now, as salt comes back, I understand the relationship among the three components.”
One day, I want to write a book about all the artists who turned a sensory disability into a creative inspiration. My short list would include Monet, Cezanne and Beethoven. Who would you add?