Tuesday, September 27, 2011

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

I was intrigued with the premise of this memoir from the moment I heard about it - Molly Birnbaum, a chef-in-training about to start classes at the Culinary Institute of America was hit by a car and lost her sense of smell. How can you cook if you can't smell?

I think in my head I was expecting this to be more like a nonfiction Left Neglected, talking about an obscure brain injury from the insider's view. What was unexpected was how much research Ms. Birnbaum did and how that was sprinkled throughout the book. Some of the research seemed overly wonky, but as there's very little research at all on the sense of smell, naturally some works she'd read would have to be academic. She is now a journalist (not spoiling anything you can't learn from the author bio) so it makes sense that she thoroughly researched her condition, and as much as I love obscure facts, those were the bits I had to get through to get back to the memoir parts, which I did like more.

Also in this book the author seems very young. Yes, she is young - the car accident happened when she was 23 - but I wish a little bit of the early-20s entitlement had been scrubbed from the book by the editor first. Such as when working at her first job at a restaurant, she marvels that she can't sleep when she wants and just sit around a library all day. I wanted to say to her "no shit, and that would be the case with any job, it's not particular to restaurants." While flaws often make the narrator more sympathetic, in this case her naivete made her seem a little bit snobbish (and I say this as a privileged white kid who went to an excellent college myself. If I wrote a memoir at her age I hope to God my editor would have thoroughly excised all such references.) That said, it's a minor quibble of an otherwise enjoyable memoir.

You wouldn't think losing your sense of smell would be so impactful, but it truly is. Most people who lose it also lose a great deal of weight and even become malnourished and depressed. It's not just that food doesn't have a taste anymore - some foods up to 90% of the taste is actually in the smell - it tastes like sawdust. It tastes fairly bad. Can you imagine forcing yourself to eat a pile of sawdust? And then doing that again and again and again? My boyfriend says that food is just fuel and he'd have no problem with it but since he's currently reading a book all about bananas, his favorite food, I think he's full of it.

But for Molly, the real trauma is having to come up with a new plan, a new identity for herself, one that doesn't involve her becoming a chef or even cooking at home much. In that regard, I think this book is actually a perfect gift for a college senior, as many, many kids have to go through that recalibration in the first few years out of college for a variety of reasons - hopefully not many for as traumatic a cause. And Molly does push through and she does remake her life.

I read this book very fast, and it was hopeful and light, and made me very hungry and made me go around sniffing all sorts of things for days afterwards. After all, it isn't only food that smells. I love the smell right before it rains, and the smell of clean clothes (Tide and Bounce) and fresh-cut grass and the smell outside right now as it's turning to fall and the air smells of dry leaves and a little hint of smoke. Ahhh.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.


christa @ mental foodie said...

I have an ARC of this book, I need to finish it. I started, but wasn't in the mood to read a memoir (well, I was, but like you said, this has a lot of research compared to the typical memoir and I wasn't in the mood to read that much technical stuff).

Kristen said...

I have been wondering if this book would be any good, and maybe I will read it once I get through some books in my TBR pile. It sounds interesting and I can't imagine living with no sense of smell.