Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum

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Just months before Molly Birnbaum was to enter the Culinary Institute of America to fulfill her dream to become a chef, she met with a violent accident. Although she escaped with her life, in addition to other physical wounds she had lost her sense of smell. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way (Ecco, July 2011) is Molly’s story of finding her place in the kitchen again. But Season to Taste is far more than a personal memoir: it’s also a journalistic study of what smell means to flavor, cooking, and daily life.

Although I claim to like cooking, I regularly go through phases of repulsion when it comes to pondering what to cook for dinner. I just get burned out1. Nevertheless, I find “foodie” memoirs and stories inspiring, probably because it reminds me how much good food can influence your life, your day, and your relationships. Life revolves around food, and the community aspect of eating adds joy to our relationships.  Reading Molly’s account of her journey made me so grateful for my senses of smell and taste.

I was almost in tears in the beginning as she detailed her new post-accident life without scent. I never before considered the importance of smell in my daily life. But as she pointed out, her dad was different without his signature smell, food was tasteless, and fall? There was no smell to the leaves, the pumpkin pie, and the season as a whole. Since I’m well in to fall now, this seemed extra tragic.

Since I read the book, I’ve been overly aware of the smells around me. For example, when I took out my box of maternity clothes last Sunday, I was overwhelmed with the smell of Australia. That’s where I was when I wore them last. Obviously, the smell is of the laundry detergent I used when I was in Australia, but smelling the clothes took me back to those first weeks searching for a condo, the weeks I spent waiting for my little baby to arrive, the last weeks of not being a mother as I took the train to the doctor, volunteered around the community, and otherwise came to love the wonderful place I lived down under. Smelling the clothes was such a beautiful remembrance of the past.

It was amazing to feel a rush of memories from the smell of a laundry detergent. I can’t describe it other than it smelled of Australia. And I can be all the more grateful now for my sense of smell, that I can relive the past through the memories that smell gives me.

Molly goes beyond these personal memories, though. As a journalism student learning to recover from her lost sense of smell, she diligently sought facts about the sense of smell, talking to specialists around the globe, including neurologist Oliver Sacks, perfume experts, and a famous chef that has the ability to smell but the inability to taste (Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago! which is where I live if you didn’t know that).

The result is a book that is a fascinating tribute to smell as a part of daily life. I enjoy popular science books, and this has a nice blend of memoir mixed in to it. I appreciate that Molly’s memoir isn’t “pity me” but rather a seeking to understand and recover. Molly’s story, despite the tragedy and her frustrations, is an inspiring one for all, whether you are an aspiring cook, a scent professional, or simply a person who walks outside and experiences life through an abundance of smells that we take for granted. After reading Season to Taste, you won’t notice smells in the same way again!

I received a complimentary advanced reading copy of Season to Taste for review from the publisher at BEA in May. I also got to meet the author and she signed my copy!

What smells remind you strongly of the past (good or bad)?

Which of the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell) do you most appreciate?

  1. This summer, a few months of morning all-day sickness, made this repulsion to cooking far worse…
Reviewed on November 3, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

    • Suzanne » yes, I think sight would be quite difficult. But touch — that one I rely on constantly. I think I take the sense of touch for granted the most and I think I”d miss it the most too…

  • I’m very sensitive to smells. But how crazy that she would lose her sense of smell and taste just as she was to embark of her culinary journey. I’m not religious but sometimes one can’t help but question this damn universe! She sounds so courageous and amazing to have turned this all into a positive. Thanks for the review.

    • Kinna » It was fascinating to consider her love of cooking and then having to regain direction having lost the sense of smell. It is a very positive story and I really enjoyed it.

  • What a great review. The sense I can’t live without is touch. The absence of touch reminds me of death: it’s the inability to touch those we love. I could live without sight, smell, and hearing but touch. . . not me.

    Thanks for reminding me about Season to Taste.

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