It's well-known that our senses of smell and taste are intricately tied. A whiff of freshly baked bread or caramelized nuts will start us drooling; holding your nose while eating jelly beans renders the flavors indistinguishable. Cooks know better than anyone the importance of smelling and tasting your food to best understand it. Aspiring chef Molly Birnbaum relished in the sensory experiences of the kitchen, until a car accident in her early twenties wiped out her sense of smell. She explores the emotional and physical consequences of her accident in her memoir Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way.
Birnbaum's car accident sent her flying into the windshield, and the impact on her forehead damaged nerves in her brain that allowed for scent recognition. During the weeks of recovery following the accident, she was so wrapped up in healing her physical injuries that she didn't realize the extent of her loss. It was a freshly baked apple pie, whose heat and steam yielded no mouth-watering aroma, that forced her to grapple with a life without smell.
Birnbaum was enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America before her accident, and had just finished an internship at one of the top restaurants in Boston. A future in the kitchen seemed natural and necessary—until she could no longer identify ingredients or flavors. Eating became a joyless task, textures and temperatures the only way to distinguish between foods. She lost her inspiration and desire to cook, and the kitchen became a place of anxiety and loss.
Birnbaum spends much time describing research she did during her recovery, trying to find a cause and cure for her condition. She found that as many as 3 million people in the U.S. suffer from anosmia. Some were born without smell, others lost the sense in accidents such as Birnbaum's. None of the experts were optimistic in their prognosis; they told her that she would never regain her ability to smell.
But miraculously, smells started to come back. No one could explain exactly how or why she was so lucky, but Birnbaum's scent identification returned over a span of several months. She worked hard to retrain her nose and brain to pick up odors, and eventually regained the confidence to enter the kitchen again. She started with baking, following precise measurements, and moved slowly into improvisational cooking. She re-learned the joy of food and eating, with all the more appreciation after having spent so long without flavor.
Birnbaum's account of her trials is touching and readable, informed by research and richened by real honesty about her experience. While at times her narrative turns a bit too didactic and scientific, she balances it with sincerity and desire to help the reader truly understand her condition. From Birnbaum's unique experience of loss and recovery comes a message of strength—and an appreciation of the unbelievable power of scent.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.