13 August 2011

Weekend Cooking: Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.


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.

Beth Fish Reads is proud to showcase Ecco books as a featured imprint on this blog. For more information about Ecco, please read the introductory note from Vice President / Associate Publisher Rebecca Bressler, posted here on July 15, 2011. Find your next great read by clicking on Ecco in the scroll-down topics/labels list in my sidebar and by visiting Ecco books on Facebook and following them on Twitter.

Season to Taste at Powell's
Season to Taste at Book Depository
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Published by HarperCollins / Ecco, July 2011
ISBN-13: 9780061915314
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B+
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


TheBookGirl 8/13/11, 6:22 AM  

Sounds like an interesting read; unlike the loss of some other senses, like sight or hearing, I never really thought about how the lack of the ability to smell could actually pose a danger.

I'm curious if the book explains how they think her head injury caused the sense of smell loss?

Uniflame 8/13/11, 6:32 AM  

I really want to read this book! I have read about it on several blogs already, but I guess it will take ages before I can get it in the library in the Netherlands. We are always so behind on American titles. Our library really has a poor English section to begin with...

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) 8/13/11, 7:23 AM  

Sounds interesting. While I'm not much of a cook, I think reading about others' cooking passion is so much fun.

Louise 8/13/11, 7:26 AM  

That book sounds particularly fascinating. I remember loving that book called Perfume which had a main character with anosmia, although I read it so long ago that I don't remember all that much.

The Book Girl- usually with trauma it is damage to the nerves that carry smell from the nose to the brain- they go through quite a fine piece of bone that can be fractured relatively easily- and this then damages the nerves. Not sure if what that is happened to the author here. It would be an awful disability to happen I think.

Beth F 8/13/11, 7:35 AM  

TheBookGirl: yes, severe trauma to the head or nose can damage the nerves leading from the the nose to the brain. Recovery (full or partial) depends the extent of the nerve damage. There are also emotional elements, and post-traumatic stress disorder can also play a role. The book does go into explanations.

Michelle 8/13/11, 7:50 AM  

Sounds like an interesting read filled with siginifican emotional undertones.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 8/13/11, 9:15 AM  

My kind of nonfiction book. I knew about the connection between our senses of smell and taste, but don't understand *how* our sense of smell works -- and I learned a new word (anosmia).

bermudaonion 8/13/11, 9:15 AM  

Birnbaum sounds multi-talented! This sounds like the kind of memoir I love.

caite 8/13/11, 10:17 AM  

I think the whole connection between food and smells and memory is fascinating.
but then I have sworn off memoirs...lol

Jessica 8/13/11, 10:21 AM  

This book sounds brilliant. When I'm done with my self-imposed foodie memoir ban, I'm going to give it a try.

Sheila (Bookjourney) 8/13/11, 11:30 AM  

I bought this book a few weeks ago but have yet to get to it. I think it sounds so interesting.

Vicki 8/13/11, 12:07 PM  

Sounds like an interesting memoir. I used to love to cook but the older I get the less thrilled with it I am. I still love the idea of spending time in the kitchen whipping up all sorts of delicious meals, if that makes sense, and I love cookbooks.

Margot 8/13/11, 1:59 PM  

This sounds like a very interesting memoir. I had no idea that smell effected so many other parts of one's life. I'll look for this one.

Sarah McCoy 8/13/11, 2:01 PM  

Oo, this looks like a good one! You know I love the cooking tales. Happy weekend (cooking), m'dear!

Heather 8/13/11, 2:47 PM  

This sounds like quite the book. I can't imagine not smelling.

Today I have posted about a hummus challenge I am carrying out at the races I'm volunteering at. it would be moot is the runners had no sense of smell.

Rikki 8/13/11, 3:12 PM  

Wow, this sounds interesting. Who would think that the ability to smell is so important and that it can play such tricks on us.

Gilion at Rose City Reader 8/13/11, 4:25 PM  

This looks like a really interesting book. I have a pretty sensitive smeller, associate smells with events and people, and can't imagine trying to cook or enjoy food without smelling it. A good friend of mine has no sense of smell -- food for him is all about texture (he hates pickles on his hamburgers, for example, because they are startlingly slimey). How horrible.

Peaceful Reader 8/13/11, 4:43 PM  

I have a young friend who was born without a sense of smell. This looks like a powerful read!

Julie P. 8/14/11, 8:25 AM  

Oh I think I'd really enjoy this one.

Jane of Australia 8/14/11, 9:02 AM  

sounds like an amazing book by a more than amazing lady.
thanks for sharing
Jane of Australia

Nan 8/14/11, 10:30 AM  

Boy, does this ever sound interesting. I hadn't heard of it, so thank you. Have you seen the movie Tortilla Soup? There's a chef who has lost his much of his sense of smell (and taste) and must depend on another person.

Julie Goucher 8/14/11, 10:31 AM  

This sounds a really fascinating book, thanks for sharing the details of it. I have just posted another post with a tenuous link to food. Next week I will try for a more direct link. Lol!

Nari @ the Novel World 8/14/11, 10:38 AM  

I'm so glad you liked this book. I agree that it was very well written and the concept is fascinating, given how much we take our sense of smell for granted.

Diann 8/14/11, 12:35 PM  

This sounds like an interesting book! Thanks for hosting and have a great day!

Bonnie 8/14/11, 12:58 PM  

I have this TBR and I'm really looking forward to reading it after reading your review. I am a fan of foodie books and memoirs that are science/medically oriented as I work in the health care field. I find them fascinating and this sounds right up my alley.

Rebecca Rasmussen 8/14/11, 1:02 PM  

Wow -- this one sounds really special -- I take for granted my sense of smell almost always. Would be terrible to lose it. Great review!

Zibilee 8/14/11, 2:14 PM  

I can't imagine how frightening and weird it would be to lose my sense of smell, and it sounds like this was the experience of the author as well. This does sound like an incredibly interesting book, for a lot of reasons, and one that I think I should pick up. Great review on this one. I will be looking for it.

Veens 8/14/11, 3:56 PM  

I really like the book cover but I do not read much memoir. But this does sound intriguing.

Barbara 8/15/11, 1:25 PM  

I've never had a good sense of smell which explains why I don't like to cook and really don't much care what I eat. My husband has Parkinson's which has begun to affect his sense of smell and the taste he experiences. Since he used to be a foodie, he's so bummed!

Amused 8/15/11, 9:50 PM  

I am a huge Mary Roach found and a cooking memoir fan so this sounds like a book I will love!

Jennifer 8/21/11, 4:15 PM  

I love cooking memoirs. I find this one especially appealing because it is about more than just delicious food. Sense of smell is definitely something I take for granted. I don't think I have ever wondered what life would be like if I couldn't smell. I bet I would have a lot to learn from this book.

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