Smiling grimly and dragging a sharp dental tool across my tongue, the oral surgeon remarks that I’ve scored a spot on his “Top Ten Worst Reactions” list, which, he adds proudly, spans twenty-plus years of extracting wisdom teeth.
I give him a thumbs up. What an accomplishment! I’d had the four pearly demons ripped from my mouth at the end of May, and in the weeks since, I’d experienced almost every complication depicted in the animated “possible risks” video I had to watch before the procedure: an infection that grotesquely bloated my face, excruciating dry sockets that sent me screaming to the ER, a bone splinter embedded in my gum, and a tiny hole in my sinus. (“Don’t blow your nose or your sinus cavity might explode,” I was advised.)
Each of these afflictions brought its own special sort of agony, but the complication giving me the most grief was painless—in fact, it was free of any feeling at all.
“Which way was that?” the surgeon asks, referring to the direction he’d pulled the pointed probe over my tongue. I shook my head; all I could feel was dull pressure.
During the surgery, an error in applying the anesthetic had fried the nerve endings in the right half of my tongue, leaving it completely numb. Now, more than three months later, I still can’t feel anything—I chomp down on my tongue when I eat or speak, frequently drawing blood; I’ve developed a slight lisp (imagine trying to talk with a piece of rubber in your mouth); and I’ve lost half of my ability to taste.
This last side effect would be a real bummer for anyone, but for me, it’s tragic on another level. Since the age of thirteen, I’ve run my own dessert catering company and maintained a food blog, both called Lena’s Lunchbox. I’ve made desserts—custom cakes that taste like pink champagne and amaretto, brownies stuffed with cookie dough, puddings and pies and petit fours—for hundreds of birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and other events. I’ve won baking competitions, recipe contests, and an international food photography award. Last year, my business and blog were featured on the front page of The Washington Post. I’m a sophomore in college now, and even with all my schoolwork, I still make time to bake every day in my apartment kitchen. Food is my passion and my livelihood; it’s what drives my dream of having a career in food journalism and opening my own bakery.
During the first month after surgery, I lost interest in food for the first time in six years. I could still detect flavor with the left side of my tongue, but everything just tasted less. I stopped baking for fun, and my blog, which for years has served as a chronicle for recipes I’ve tested, developed, and perfected, went dark.
Then, one day toward the end of June, I was stalking myself on Instagram and came across a cake I’d made the previous summer. It was a buttercream replica of Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” iced onto a sheet cake. Momentarily inspired, I googled “famous paintings” and came across Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”—a perfect cake candidate, as the swirly Post-Impressionist style lends itself well to piped buttercream.
I got to work baking a chocolate cake, dying the buttercream frosting vibrant shades of yellow and orange and carefully piping the painting’s design, channeling my angst into the familiar baking process. When I was finished, I stepped back to admire my handiwork, feeling as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The figure on the cake was me, a pseudo-self portrait of myself over the last month, my face contorted into a scream with my hands pressed against my throbbing cheeks.
I had transferred my negative energy into the cake, and I had come to an important realization: While my sense of taste had dwindled, I was still fully capable of decorating, and seemingly had more artistic ability than I was previously aware of. After years of obsessing over making desserts taste good, I’d amassed a collection of tried-and-true recipes that I could use as the foundation for making desserts that look good. Maybe it was time to shift my focus away from the flavor-oriented end of baking and concentrate on refining my own decorating style instead. Eating with your eyes is a real phenomenon, after all.
I went on to create buttercream renditions of Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” and a self-portrait where I’m smiling and wearing flowery sunglasses.
The doctors say my nerves may regrow over time, but even if they don’t, it’s OK. I look to chef Grant Achatz, owner of the Michelin three-star restaurant Alinea in Chicago, for reassurance. Ten years ago, Achatz was diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer, requiring a treatment that destroyed his ability to taste and demanded a liquid-only diet. He has since recovered, but looking back, he sees a silver lining in the difficult period of his life.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I really believe that having cancer has made me a much better chef and entrepreneur and improved my life,” Achatz said in an interview with The ASCO Post. “The experience taught me it was okay to let go of some of my control in the kitchen and trust the talent of my staff.”
Lena’s Lunchbox has always been a solo endeavor, but recently, I’ve begun to branch out, asking friends for help in developing new flavor combinations. Their ideas and taste-testing skills, combined with my newfound zeal for decorating, have greatly strengthened my operation. My next cake is going to be a lemon cake with lavender buttercream, an excursion into buttercream pointillism courtesy of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” a painting that evokes my current state: relaxed and surrounded by people, with my worries behind me.