Saturday, May 21, 2011

When You Can't Wake Up and Smell the Coffee (Or Taste It Either): Reviewing "Season to Taste" by Molly Birnbaum

Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My WaySeason to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having been admitted to the Amazon Vine Program I was eager to find a book to try that I would not normally come across. This one, in which Molly Birnbaum relates her loss of smell due to a head injury and intersperses her story with delving into the science of smell, filled the bill. What makes Birnbaum's loss of smell, and subsequent almost complete loss of the ability to taste, all the more painful is that she was set to go to the Culinary Institute of America to begin training as a chef. Watching her learn to deal with her unexpectedly debilitating infirmity is fascinating and is making me more aware of all the scents that make the pattern of my life.

Birnbaum is an unexpectedly good writer. Possibly because she had to focus on the visual and textural aspects of food and the world around her after losing her sense of smell, she describes her environment and experiences in a way that takes the reader into her world. This can be unexpectedly jarring when she points out aspects of scent that affect us daily in ways that we never thought about. For example, if one isn't smelling pine or mint or some other vivid fragrance, can we remember what it is like? It was rather disturbing to realize that I couldn't actually do so in the way that I can recall a flavor. These experiences enhance our appreciation for what Birnbaum and others deprived of scent go through. The science of the book was interesting and I appreciated the fact that it was interwoven with the personal story. This added gravity to Birnbaum's story and lightened the science enough to take it all in. Her quest takes her to science labs, Ben and Jerry's ice cream factory, perfume experts, and a chef who managed to keep cooking despite developing tongue cancer. One of the most fascinating sections of the book was when the author went to perfume training school in France in an attempt to give her olfactory neurons additional stimulus and herself extra training to help her recognition of scents.

My one negative feeling about the book was that Birnbaum kept on worrying about how much of her sense of smell would return, even after much of it had come back. While understandable on one hand, and probably an accurate accounting of her feelings, the overall effect was to make the book was to become tedious and whiny seeming at times.

I did wonder, as the book went on and time seemed to be passing year by year, was how Birnbaum was supporting herself. A job or two is mentioned but only ever as a method of helping to cope with or try to train her limited sense of smell. At other times, she clearly is not employed and I wondered how she was able to afford living in New York City or traveling to France to attend perfume school. It didn't detract from the story but it did occur to me forcibly from time to time.

Overall, I recommend the book to anyone who is interested in cooking, taste, perfume, and the science of scent. Oh, and an interesting story well told.

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