Fresh out of college, Molly Birnbaum only knew one thing: she wanted to cook. Even though she went to Brown and had no background in the food industry, Birnbaum managed to convince Chef Maws at the Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge, Massachusetts to hire her. Though she started from the bottom as a dishwasher, Birnbaum quickly immersed herself in the world of food, watching and learning as much as possible, and developing her nose and taste buds along the way. She even applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, one of the top cooking schools in the country.
Then she was hit by a car. In the painful months of recovery after the accident, Birnbaum came to the horrifying realization that she had lost her sense of smell. And since so much of a person’s sense of taste is tied to one sense of smell, Birnbaum’s sense of taste was also severely diminished. Without those two crucial senses, the future she’d envisioned for herself suddenly vanished.
As soon as I saw the premise of Season to Taste, I knew I had to read it. You see, my sister and I were born without a sense of smell, and it’s always exciting to encounter other people who are in the same boat! It actually took me longer than usual to finish this book because I kept stopping to compare our experiences. There was so much to think about!
I guess anosmia—the medical term for a complete absence of a sense of smell—has never been a big deal for me since it’s something I’ve always lived with. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a proper name for it! My main lament is that I’ll never be a wine connoisseur, even though (unlike Birnbaum) I can taste just fine. But it was a pretty traumatic experience for her, especially since she wanted to be a chef. She wrote at length about all the smells she missed, and I was blown away. When I was living in New York a few years ago, I appreciated my inability to smell the bags of trash piled up along the street or the stench of urine in the subways (two things I’d constantly overhear people gripe about). However, when Birnbaum wrote sadly about not being able to smell things like hot cider in a farmer’s market, my immediate reaction was, Seriously? You can smell stuff like that from that far away?! Most people probably wouldn’t think twice about those things, but it was truly fascinating to hear about all the smells one encounters on a day-to-day basis.
People can become anosmic for a variety of reasons. In Birnbaum’s case, her skull was fractured in the accident, essentially shaving off all the ends of her olfactory nerves. Only about 10% of people who become anosmic ever regain their sense of smell; there is no cure and no definitive treatment. The vast majority is left with nothing, while others have distorted senses (picking up phantom smells that aren’t there, etc). Birnbaum lucked out: a lot of smells slowly came back to her over the next few years. In the interim, she conducted a lot of research into the science of smell, trying to figure out what was happening to her and get a definitive answer as to whether or not she’d recover 100%. Each chapter is filled with all kinds of interesting information about the olfactory system: she explores how one’s ability to smell is tied to sexual desire, depression/happiness, memory, and of course taste. Interspersed among all of this research are Birnbaum’s experiences as she tries to make sense of her loss (and later, recovery).
One thing that struck me about Birnbaum’s experience how immediately vulnerable she felt safety-wise. There was a scene in the book where she and her brother “drove by a sewage plant;” her brother’s disgust at the smell set her on edge about all possible ways she could be in harm’s way and not even know it. What if there was a fire? A gas leak? Or my own personal biggie: what if I eat something that’s spoiled?
A few months ago I learned firsthand why you should never use wax paper for baking. I had this fleeting thought that the kitchen looked a little hazy, but it didn’t click, even though I was standing right next to the oven preparing the next batch of cookies. My mom walked in and completely flipped out. I’ve had a few other close calls, but I can usually shrug them off. Like Birnbaum, I’ve also had that nervous, “What if I leave the gas on the stove on, then I flip on the light a few hours later and the house EXPLODES?” conversation in my head. But really, I’ve never dwelled too much on how much anosmia can impact one’s safety until I read her research (at which point, I must admit, I got a little paranoid)!
The language of smell (or lack thereof) is another thing I found really fascinating. I once commented to a friend that my coffee “smells like thick,” which amused her. I sympathized—and felt vindicated—when Birnbaum described an apple pie by writing, “The air felt different, thick and humid. But there was no scent.” It really is hard to describe what you’re (not) smelling to people who haven’t experienced it themselves. When she started to regain her smell, she also had trouble trying to place words to smells. Her ability to describe her frustrations was spot on.
In short, this book rocks. Birnbaum’s research takes her to fascinating places and allows her to introduce the reader to a sizable community of anosmics. I appreciate that there was so much science in the book and that it was all written in an engaging way. Most of all, as someone who can’t smell, I loved Birnbaum’s eloquence at describing the world of smells that I’ve never known. It was all very enlightening.
Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way was released on June 21, 2011 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.