If you’re reading this blog because you enjoy cooking/baking, then you might be able to imagine yourself in Molly Birnbaum’s place when, several years ago, her life took a drastic and debilitating turn. She was young, recently graduated from college and had finally found her passion. She wanted to become a chef. She’d spent the summer acquiring experience in a fine restaurant in Boston and was scheduled to begin classes at the Culinary Institute of America in the near future. Before taking off for work during her last week or so of employment, she suited up and tied her sneakers snuggly, anticipating an invigorating run before her hectic day. Minutes into the jog, she was slammed by a speeding car driven by a young man who’d run the red light. Her multiple broken bones were severe injuries but not irreparable, with surgery and extensive physical therapy. The loss of the ability to smell, however, was not necessarily recoverable.
I bought Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum early last week with a $25 gift card received for Christmas. It’s so new it’s still in hardcover. I picked it up a couple days later to read and hated putting it down to do minor things like eating and sleeping. I finished it in two days. I’m recommending it to everyone I know.
Not only is this the story of Birnbaum’s healing journey (and I’m not telling you exactly what happened with her sense of smell…), it’s also full of information on this ephemeral, indefinable ability that not only defines just how well we taste but also warns us of impending dangers. I was fascinated by some of the history of this sense, as well as recent research. It seems the writer left few stones unturned as she sought answers about the likelihood of her ever smelling again and as she met with important scientists, researchers, perfume artists, chefs and medical folks to broaden her knowledge. I’d even heard of a few of them before (anyone out there NOT heard of Oliver Sacks, played by Robin Williams in the film Awakenings?)!
Molly Birnbaum is an excellent writer too. Not just factual. There’s a bit of the poetic to be found as one continues to read through the book. She travels to the University of Pennsylvania at one point to meet with Dr. Richard Doty in the Taste and Smell Center, where people who have lost their sense of smell (or it’s greatly diminished) are interviewed and assessed. She describes Doty as having become “the gatekeeper of the lost and found, director of a world based on an absence.” Later in the book she meets with a famous chef who “also knew the power of absence” through his treatments for cancer of the tongue. Always, she is honest and searching – and we want to follow her story all the way to the end.
But then is there really an end? You’ll have to read the memoir to find out. And you might even stop by her food blog, My Madeleine.