Molly Birnbaum was an aspiring chef, doing kitchen duty at a Boston bistro while waiting to enter the Culinary Institute of America, when she was hit by a car while running through the streets of Boston. The impact of her skull against the car’s windshield severed the neurons that connected her nose to her brain, destroying her sense of smell. As she slowly recovered from her other injuries, she fully realized the consequences of her inability to smell — how would she cook if she couldn’t smell?
Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way is Birnbaum’s memoir detailing her struggle to come to terms with her new condition as an anosmic – one who has lost their sense of smell due to illness, blockages or head injury. She was told her ability to smell would likely never return.
Birnbaum was able to taste the basics – sour, sweet, salty and bitter, but could not distinguish any other nuances of food. “Ice cream was a thick and cold slush. Lattes were hot, sometimes even gelatinous liquid. I ate yogurt for its smooth chill and bread soaked in Tabasco sauce because I could feel the spiciness.” Despite what she had been told by the experts, her ability to smell returned slowly, each new aroma arriving with a bang. Soon she could detect all sorts of smells, but found she couldn’t identify the source.
Season to Taste includes information about the science of smell, a la Mary Roach — though without her wit and extensive footnotes — mixed in with details of Birnbaum’s recovery. She describes how scent molecules enter the nose and travel to the brain; how and why smell is linked to memory and emotion.
Birnbaum recounts her quest to find out more about smell. She visited Taste and Smell clinics, both as a patient and observing others; spent the day with a flavorist who uses chemicals to create the flavors in packaged foods; took classes in France to learn how to enhance her sense of smell. It was while in France she learned to use triggers to recognize scents she could smell but not name.
She slowly returned to cooking, starting with baking as it requires exact measurements and doesn’t need to be tasted along the way. As new smells returned she delved into cooking savory dishes, some more successfully than others. But Birnbaum ultimately chose a career as a journalist, perhaps an unexpected path in her life, but one that forecasts an auspicious future.
If you enjoy memoirs that include food and science, along with a journey of ups and downs, then Season to Taste is right up your alley.
Nancy has never given the sense of smell much thought before, but finds it fascinating. She can be found blogging at Life With My Boys and Books.