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Despite graduating from Brown with an art history degree, Molly Birnbaum had spent most of her college years dreaming of culinary school. She read cookbooks the way her friends read novels, and she spent hours baking, cooking, kneading, and chopping.
Two weeks after graduation she had already applied to school and was starting work in a professional kitchen--a prerequisite to enrollment in the Culinary Institute of America. Two months after that, Birnbaum was hit by car when she was out jogging. Her head, pelvis, and knee injuries would heal, but her sense of smell seemed to be gone forever.
In Season to Taste, a fascinating account of the years after her accident, Birnbaum relates her personal depression and frustration about losing her sense of smell and the results of her research into the genetics, neurology, and psychology of the olfactory sense. She visited clinics, met with leading researchers, read novels and memoirs, toured a flavor factory, and learned about the perfume business. Birnbaum then brought all of this information together in a well-written, straightforward account of what it means to smell . . . well, nothing.
Birnbaum takes a reporter's approach to her memoir (and, in fact, she attended journalism school), and the mix of personal and objective is particularly appealing. As part of her own story, she discusses the utter devastation of being anosmic (unable to smell). Taste is strongly connected to smell (think about how you can't taste anything when you have a bad cold), and without it, food loses all appeal. For Birnbaum, a budding chef, that loss was particularly rough--food came down to texture and a vague sense of sweet, acid, and salt. Away from the table, she describes her fear of not being able to smell smoke, spoiled food, noxious chemicals, or leaking gas and her realization that she lost a critical way in which humans sense danger.
Through her examination of the scientific literature as well as novels, memoirs, and poetry, Birnbaum discovered that smell is also strongly connected to emotions, memory, and sexual attraction. Without the sense of smell, she seemed to lack strong connections to places and people. Furthermore, Birnbaum suddenly had trouble cooking, sometimes even when following a recipe exactly. Her sense of self was beginning to slip away as her dark mood and disappointment intensified.
Birnbaum, however, was one of the lucky people who suffer from anosmia. At first, her ability to smell would return randomly and in very short spurts. Eventually, she was able to detect a few distinct odors. Later, she noticed that her ability to smell was strongly linked to her emotions. In an odd twist, after Birnbaum regained some of her olfactory powers, she discovered she often was unable to identify smells, sometimes misidentifying foul odors as pleasant.
Rather than being inspirational, Birnbaum's memoir is more in the style of nonfiction author Mary Roach. She uses her personal experience as a springboard to talk about the powerful connection between smells and emotion, memory, food, cooking, and eating. Season to Taste is highly recommended for readers who enjoy memoirs and/or easy-to-read science-oriented nonfiction. Food fans will find plenty to hold their interest, including Birnbaum's experience in a professional kitchen, her encounters with other cooks who have a diminished ability to taste, and her relearning how to cook a simple fresh meal for her boyfriend.
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