Last night I read Molly Birnbaum’s Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way (Portobello). Birnbaum was well on the way to becoming a professional chef: she lived and thought food, worked in one of the top restaurants in the U.S.(starting at the bottom, washing dishes, in order to learn and observe) and had a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America tucked away. Before she could get to the C.I.A. Birnbaum was hit by a car – her injuries were so bad, so consuming, that it was some time before she realised she had completely lost her sense of smell. Pretty much all anyone could tell her was that it was gone, maybe for good, perhaps it might come back or maybe just certain smells would come back…
This is a fascinating book: Birnbaum – who can write as well as cook – describes what the world, food, other people, safety (what if you cannot smell the gas leaking from the faulty pipe?), is like without this sense that mostly we take for granted. Food, for an aspiring chef, is at first, the big one: your tongue can taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savoury) but your sense of smell provides the flavour of foods. She is honest about her sense of desolation and confusion, how hard it is to try to start again, how exciting the small victories, how most people just don’t get it.
Birnbaum also starts a mission to find out as much as she can about the science of scent and what science and medicine can do or try to do when people lose their sense of smell. It becomes obvious pretty soon that there isn’t much to be done, especially as we don’t really know quite how smell works in the first place – what to do when it doesn’t work is still a mystery. Birnbaum meets Oliver Sacks, who cannot help with a lack of smell, but can help with learning to think about yourself in a new way, she meets flavour chemists from the secretive world of industrial flavour production and she travels to Grasse, the perfume capital of France, to learn about perfume.
If you’d like to see what happens after the book, have a look at Birnbaum’s blog My Madeleine (named after perhaps the most famous smell event in literature, the scent of tea and small cake crumbs that provoked Proust’s multi-volume In Search of Lost Time).