This week between Christmas and New Year’s has been much too short for me. The good news is that I was in the best part of my second treatment cycle over the Christmas weekend. I was able to enjoy the holiday surrounded with lots of love from my husband, daughters, parents, siblings/in-laws, nieces and nephew. There’s nothing like all of that love to nourish a body that’s working hard to heal itself. However, since I’m on the chemotherapy rollercoaster, as I now look at these three-week treatment cycles, I received my latest treatment two days ago and feel myself hurtling down the slope of side effects quicker than the first two cycles. I decided to jump on this computer with the small store of energy I have from lunch, as Annie and Louisa have headed out to grocery shop for me. I’m really going to miss the help and their company when they return to school, Louisa next week, and Annie in two more weeks.
Before I jumped onto the chemotherapy rollercoaster, the worst thing I anticipated was losing my hair. I’ll discuss how that all went on another day. Because, honestly, the worst thing I lost was not my hair but my tastebuds! I had no idea! I knew I’d feel sick on some days, possibly nauseous although they have pretty good drugs to keep that under control at least, but my tastebuds have gone haywire. I’m frequently asked by people who have known someone that’s been through chemotherapy whether everything tastes metallic to me, but that’s not how I’d describe it. There have been many subtle changes that have essentially removed my ability to evaluate the tastiness of anything.
First, even the most subtle hot spice feels caustic in my mouth. One of the effects of chemo is the impact it has on your stomach and mouth membranes. I’m revisiting all of the heartburn from my pregnancy days. Not fun. But, there’s a warning now in my mouth before it has a chance to hit my stomach, that anything hot or spicy is to be avoided. It’s not easy living in this house of chile heads. During my first treatment cycle Joe brought home Indian food for dinner, and I requested a simple biryani (rice) dish, figuring it would be bland enough to be tolerated. Except, he didn’t understand that ordering medium heat would be two heat levels above what I could tolerate. I ended up eating the white rice that came with our dinners that night, and Joe began to see how much things were about to change around here.
In addition to the destruction of your mouth membranes, many tastebuds are also killed in the process. On Thanksgiving, which came during the first week of my first treatment, I quickly learned that even mild spices were intolerable in many ways. Nutmeg, cinnamon, any bitter or strong herb masked all of the other flavors in a dish. Oh, and did I mention how coffee is impossible to drink now? All I detect is the bitter without the underlying flavors that make a cup of coffee so enjoyable.
I’m puzzled by what happened with my tastes for sweet baked goods like cookies and cakes. Instead of picking up the sweet flavors, things taste salty in a very bad salty way. And dishes that are supposed to be salty aren’t good unless the scantest amount of salt has been used. As you can see, my previously favorite flavors, bitter and salty, have now betrayed me!
These days the only flavors I can stand are bland, bland, and bland. And with bland foods the underlying flavors are just mildly detectable. Cream cheese, eggs, chicken, mild cheeses, pastas, are the flavors I can safely eat without fear, if not excitement. The flavors I can detect come across as very flat and muted. I now realize that good flavor has an undeniable roundness on the palate. Taste is not a one dimensional thing. It’s a symphony of flavors that play together perfectly when done well.
The French toast casserole you see above is our traditional Christmas morning meal for after the gifts are opened. It’s easy to set up the night before (Louisa helped me put it together) and you simply pop it in the oven about 40 minutes before you’re ready to eat. It was just mild enough that I could eat it and without scooping up too much of the syrup underlying the bread I could ignore the salty flavors that were dying to be noticed.
Obviously on the nights that I am cooking for the family, they’ve had to rely on our kitchen’s abundant supply of hot sauces to jazz up the meals. Luckily they’ve had them to fall back on. As for me, my hope hasn’t yet abandoned me. We’ve been sent a variety of baked goods and other treats for the holiday from well-wishers and I always sample a little bite of each item, hoping that it will taste as good as it looks and I remember. Nothing does.
Lately the only way I can truly enjoy flavor is by smell, because that sense is as good as ever. When Joe is drinking a cup of coffee I will breathe his cup to experience the enjoyment. If someone is eating a piece of chocolate, I will sniff and savor because my experiments have proven that tasting it just turns into a major disappointment.
As you might imagine I’ve lost a few pounds over the past few months. Fortunately I had more than a few extra pounds to spare. Unfortunately, I expect that the day my tastebuds return they are going to be ravenous and my slimmer self will become the victim of my pent up appetite.
- 1 c light brown sugar
- ½ c melted butter
- 2 tbsp light corn syrup
- dash of ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- l loaf French bread sliced into ¾ inch pieces
- 6 large eggs
- 2 c milk
- 1½ tsp vanilla extract
- Combine first five ingredients and pour into a greased 9x13 inch casserole dish. Evenly distribute the bread slices over the sugar mixture. Beat together the eggs, milk and vanilla and pour over the bread. Cover the casserole with foil and refrigerate overnight. The next morning bake uncovered in a preheated 325 degree oven for 35-40 minutes. Slice and flip each slice onto plates so that the syrup sits on top.