The Frontal Cortex

Recovering Taste

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?

Comments

  1. #1 mehran
    May 15, 2008

    I realize depression is not exactly a sensory disability, but I think it is a disability, and certainly a serious illness. So Virginia Woolf will also, I think, be a candidate for the book you are considering, and perhaps Van Gogh.

    And how about Caravaggio’s rage (serious anger management issues!) which led him to numerous altercations and eventually murder. After killing a man in a fight in 1610, he did one of his masterpieces, ‘David with the head of Goliath”. Oddly and perhaps out of an immense sense of guilt, this was a self-portrait, except that he didn’t cast himself as the hero. Instead, he painted himself as the monster (the head of Goliath)… the genius as the ultimate villain. I think it is one the most haunting self-portrait paintings I have ever seen.
    In his painting of “Bacchus” (god of wine, youth, beauty, and inspirer of poetry), he again painted himself; but instead of eternal youth, he did the exact opposite: someone who is terribly sick…. with greenish flesh, gray lips, and tired eyes. Even the grapes in his hands are rotting. A god looking all too human the morning after a terrible binge.

  2. #2 E-Rob
    May 15, 2008

    Have you ever heard of Hildegard von Bingen?
    I learned about her in my Medieval music history class (I’m a conservatory student).
    She isn’t widely known, but she is one of the only women remembered in Medieval history and was probably the most respected woman of her time. I believe she is also mentioned in Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia. She had visual hallucinations as a result of migraine headaches that she believed were visions from god. Composer, poet, scientist, painter, prophet, philosopher, you name it. Her “disability” made her famous.

  3. #3 Khalid
    May 15, 2008

    James Joyce had eye trouble all his life and was nearly blind at the end. John Milton and Jorge Luis Borges went blind toward the ends of their lives. James Thurber lost an eye and later went nearly blind. And obviously Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles.

  4. #4 Downwind from something bad
    May 15, 2008

    Heroin really gives Musicians an advantage (musically, not lifewise). I guess that’s not the type of thing you’re looking for.

    If you’re looking for another psychotic murderer story check out the Madrigal composer Gesualdo. He killed his wife and her lover and started composing in harmonies so advanced the rest of the world didn’t get around to them until Wagner came along. That’s the story I remember from a long time ago, maybe it was never true.

  5. #5 Cheryl
    May 18, 2008

    I have no sense of smell – never haveI can taste although have difficuly dicriminating flavors of spices. I had an MRI done a few years back and I was told that I am missing the olfactory bulb. I do feel my other senses are heightened and I often sense things that others don’t. It’s funny but I often say that “something smells funny” in different situations (meaning that all is not as it seems) and I am usually right.

  6. #6 Jennie
    May 19, 2008

    Actually, Hildegard von Bingen is very well known in the world of classical music, and yes, the story about Gesualdo is true.

    I think some of these are slightly off the track of sensory disabilities–there are already many studies of artists suffering from depression and how that relates to their art. Not that more studies aren’t relevant, however I do think disabilities that relate directly to the very sensations used in one’s art is interesting on its own.

    Goya went through some major health issues, and I believe that for a while he suffered from either vision loss, impairment, or both.

  7. #7 Tom Taylor
    May 21, 2008

    How about Jorge Luiz Borges? His wall-eye may have contributed to his labyrinthine vision.

  8. #8 penis büyütücü
    February 13, 2009

    And how about Caravaggio’s rage (serious anger management issues!) which led him to numerous altercations and eventually murder. After killing a man in a fight in 1610, he did one of his masterpieces, ‘David with the head of Goliath”. Oddly and perhaps out of an immense sense of guilt, this was a self-portrait, except that he didn’t cast himself as the hero

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