I first heard about “Season to Taste” by Molly Birnbaum a few weeks ago while I was browsing catalogs to find books to buy. I love cooking, so any new memoir from a chef or a foodie never fails to grab my attention. However, this book appeared to be about much more than just the preparation or love of food.
Birnbaum was an aspiring chef in Boston, working at a swanky French restaurant and about to begin studying at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Food was her life, and at the encouragement of her chef mentor, she spent a lot of her time at work memorizing the smells of exotic herbs. Soon she was able to correctly name ingredients such as pineapple sage and lemon verbena blindfolded. Then one morning she went for a run and was hit by a car. She was lucky – she escaped with injuries that could be fixed – except, it seemed, the damage done to her sense of smell. Suddenly, she could no longer smell a clove of garlic in a frying pan or the scent of apple pie in the oven. She sank in to a deep depression when she realized that an inability to smell meant an inability to truly taste, which is so essential for a chef. She could taste the sweetness of a grape, but the taste wasn’t any different from that of an apple.
Eventually Birnbaum moved to New York to find a job at a publishing house and slowly began to rebuild her life. To do this, she threw herself in to the study of one of our most important senses, smell, and what it means for one’s life to be without it. She studied the links between smell and taste, mood, and attraction. She interviewed doctors, researchers, and writers to understand the process of smell and if it can be regained or relearned once lost. This book opened up a new world for me, where a loss of smell can be dangerous. Birnbaum said she constantly worried about not being able to smell gas if there was a leak. I have considered what the world would be like if I couldn’t see or hear, but I admit I take the ability to smell completely for granted. Well, not anymore. Days after reading this book, I’ve caught myself being much more conscious of and grateful for the wonderful variety of smells around me. I respect books like this, which shed light on an issue most people don’t think about. In the science and medical communities, the study of smell is not particularly well-funded or well-researched. Perhaps Birnbaum’s book will do something toward changing that.