We both knew this. I had my miseries, not hers;
she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be
the coming-of-age of mine.
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I’ve read that when Grant Achatz, the famous modernist chef, came down with cancer of the tongue, his ability to taste salt was the last to go. I am working from memory, but I believe sweetness faded first, followed by the sour, and then bitter flavors. Saltiness lingered a while, rendering each morsel a monotonous chore, but before long it was all just texture, varied gradients of sand brushing up against his tender tongue. I’ve wondered if that sequence would be the same for everyone, or even the same for every chef. Perhaps sugar would linger for the pastry chefs and bakers. Maybe the garde mangers would cling to bitterness.
It’s worth asking if Achatz felt “less” as his ability to taste eroded away. While his mind and experience and unrelenting creative capacity let him continue to develop celebrated dishes and flavor pairings (the year following Achatz’s cancer diagnosis was widely considered Alinea’s zenith to that point), the inability to taste for himself must have induced some fear or uncertainty. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Fate (or whatever it is) delights to produce a great capacity and then frustrate it. Beethoven went deaf. By our standards a mean joke; the monkey trick of a spiteful imbecile.” But would we elevate Beethoven so high had he never been deaf? The great Swiss mathematician Euler reached the peak of his productivity after he went blind. Frustrated, yes, but not stopped. Taking on water but not yet sunk.
And so I go back to tending my heart’s garden, praying a soft prayer that when this rhubarb ripens I’ll be able to dip a stalk in caster’s sugar and eat it raw, that the magical sweet and sour taste will transport me to some summer morning ages ago when everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
– James Donne, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning