Ollie Jonker discusses losing her sense of smell and getting back to cooking

I’m Olly and I’m 28. I grew up in Hampshire, I lived in the south of Holland for seven years and I live in the North Scotland now. I’ve always really loved food. My mum is a great cook and a lot of my early memories are either of eating or making food. I’ve always cooked and baked and it was something I really enjoyed.

I’ve been anosmic since 2012, because of a TBI. I was in my first year of university at a party with friends, and I think my drink got spiked. I left to go home and woke up in A&E. I don’t even know what happened, I just came to with a severe concussion. 

It took me a few days to realise that I couldn’t taste, and when I did realise I just assumed that it would come back. When it didn’t I went and talked to my GP, but they weren’t particularly helpful or knowledgeable. I was told that the anosmia couldn’t be linked to the head injury, and I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously. 

At this point I lost all interest in food. I couldn’t tell when I was hungry and I was struggling with parosmia as well, which made eating even less appealing. I lived on cereal and baked beans on toast for months. I had brain scans but nothing showed apart from a bit of scar tissue. A year on from that, an ENT specialist told me I had about 10% smell and taste and that there was no way of improving that, unless it came back naturally.

The reason I started writing about food as a person with anosmia was really just to raise awareness. When I first got diagnosed I had no support and didn’t  know where to turn. I found out about Fifth Sense by chance, through a family friend who had also had a head injury, but I wasn’t sure how they could help me. When I spoke to my GP and asked for referral to the James Paget clinic, which was something I had read about on the Fifth Sense website, he laughed and said no, because it wouldn’t help. I remember thinking that if I had suddenly gone blind , surely I would have had more help and support.

I don’t think that anyone who hasn’t experienced anosmia realises the emotional impact of it. Things like not being able to smell my granny’s perfume for example, clean sheets on my bed, or wood smoke in the winter. The combination of that and feeling like there’s no support is really hard.

I followed Fifth Sense on Facebook and one day they put up a book recommendation for Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum. I read the whole thing in one go, kicking myself for not having done more research. When I got to the part where she started regaining her smell I threw the book against the wall, I was so angry and jealous. But that book and this article on the Guardian website were the only useful resources I found.

So the reason I started writing is mainly just for other people like me. There are so many anosmics out there and sharing what has worked, and what hasn’t, the trials and triumphs is so important.

I really had to force myself back into food. I read so many food blogs before the TBI and through them regained my interest in food. I really have to push myself though, if I get lazy it’s very easy to slip back into cereal-for-every-meal habits.

The most important aspects for me now are colour and texture. I have to have something green on my plate, because it makes my food look more interesting. I did do an art degree though, so I’d be interested to know whether other anosmics feel the same way about the visual aspect. Texture is important because it makes your food interesting to eat, and so that you can still tell that you’re eating different foods, even if you can’t differentiate the tastes. 

In the beginning I ate far too much salt and I put hot sauce on everything just because they were the things I could taste, but now I’m really trying to taste more subtle flavours and to narrow down the things I can taste within the spectrum that I have. 

The fact that I like having something green on my plate definitely helps with healthy eating and also that I enjoy cooking. Meal planning is really important for me, having meal options planned and ingredients ready or in the cupboard, fridge or freezer makes all the difference with not reverting back to bad habits. If I don’t plan my meals I find that I wander aimlessly around the supermarket buying lots of random ingredients because I don’t know and can’t work out what I fancy for dinner.

Having anosmia has made me enjoy cooking for other people more, but I still get nervous making new recipes for people when I don’t know how it’ll turn out, but I really enjoy feeding people and seeing them enjoy my food because I get enjoyment from that instead of directly from the food itself. I get nervous if my fiancé doesn’t instantly say that dinner is good, in case it’s awful and I just couldn’t tell. 

I get nervous about gas leaks and food being off, especially milk, but I’m used to things now and this is my normal. I have moments where I can’t be bothered with food or I struggle with parosmia, but I try my best to just live my life and not let anosmia take over everything. I post photos of my food on Instagram, and I have a website as well, and hopefully some of the food I cook will help inspire others who are struggling with anosmia. 

Olly x


Instagram: @OllysPantry