Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum (Book Review)

This month's The Kitchen Reader selection was Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, a memoir by Molly Birnbaum.

As an aspiring chef, all Molly needs to do before she begins her first year at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is real life experience in a restaurant kitchen. While going for a run, Birnbaum is hit by a speeding car. In addition to many broken and shattered bones, she also suffered head trauma. It wasn't until weeks into recovery, that she realize she couldn't smell. In turn, that meant she couldn't taste her food either. The rest of the memoir recounts Birnbaum's journey as she attempts to learn about her condition and how to smell again. Could she ever become a chef?

The first chapter gave a lot of insight on Birnbaum's love of food and cooking. When she spoke of making pies with her mom, I remembered how I made banh bao with my mother. Her awe of the foods in a restuarant's walk-in fridge made me worry that she'd become locked in, it felt like she was in there so long. Her passion for food and learning everything she could was palpable.

The rest of the book didn't have the same excitement or urgency for me. Birnbuam deferred her acceptance to the CIA as she tried to figure out her next steps as an anosmiac (person who has loss their sense of smell). Each chapter in the book was interspersed with scientific research about olfactory neurons, how humans smell and other similar studies.

While it made sense to share some of this research with her readers, I felt it really bogged down the pace of the book. I enjoy learning and reading about science, but I found many of her recounts of various studies dry and unnecessarily long. I really wished that these recounts of research was written in a more personal manner. It felt like a science report instead of her personal research to find out if she was curable. I wanted to skip all of these parts and find out what happened to Molly. Not some study about men's sweat or
women's cycles.

Photo by Helga Weber via Creative Commons

It's not until Chapter 7 "key lime and lavendar," that her research and her personal journey melds together. She visits a flavor factor in New Jersey to learn about how flavors are created. Artificially flavors draws on our sense of smell through our noses, taste on our tongue and taste on the back of our throat. Here flavor isn't just chemicals, but memories of clean cut grass and mouthwatering juicy berries. This connection is what I was waiting for throughout Birnbaum's memoir. I'm sorry that it took 200 pages in to truly find her voice.

If I were not reading this book for The Kitchen Reader, I might have abandoned the book well before Chapter 7.  Though the last 100 pages of the book were much more enjoyable, I'm not sure it redeemed the book for me. The pace was too slow for me.

However as a cook and foodie, Season to Taste opened my eyes about our sense of smell. I think many of us take it for granted. I know I do. I don't follow recipes when I cook. I add ingredients that I know, intuitively, work together. I taste as I cook and add ingredients accordingly. I never thought about how my sense of smell played into my cooking process.

I've always had a sensitive nose. In fact, as I was reading my library copy of Season to Taste, I kept sniffing a hint of plastic scent. I couldn't figure out where it came from. (I'm usually like this when I smell something I don't recognize.) I sniffed the pages of the book, but only got a musty library paper scent. I sniffed the binding, nope not the glue. I sniffed the plastic book jacket, maybe that was it. I finally gave up.

I guess I'll notice my sense of smell much more often from now on. Not just when I change my toddler's dirty diapers.

What about you? Could you live without your sense of smell?

This month's book, Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum was chosen by Katherine Martinelli. Learn more about The Kitchen Reader and April's selection.  I borrowed my copy of the book from my local library. This post contains affiliate links.

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