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season to taste

29 november 2011

Season to Taste is Molly Birnbaum's memoir of cooking her way through anosmia. As a severe hyposmic who loves to cook, I have been fascinated lately by discussions of the sense of smell, and when I saw Birnbaum's book it leapfrogged over everything else in my reading queue. It's a fine book: heartfelt without being melodramatic, expository without being pedantic. Birnbaum has studied every important aspect of what's known about smell, and she remains judiciously skeptical of all the major theories. There's no attempt to win you over to a school of thought here; you get instead the sense of someone who loves learning and sharing that learning with others.

Birnbaum, after graduating from Brown, was on her way to the Culinary Institute of America when she was smashed by a passing car. Injuries to her hips and knees healed slowly. A head injury was not life-threatening, but it wiped out her sense of smell immediately and completely. A culinary career was suddenly out of the question. Would she ever smell again?

Season to Taste made me realize how lucky I am to have lacked most sense of smell for so long. I have been very hyposmic since grade school (and have written elsewhere about my own condition, one where only a few specific smells get through, and I experience most odors weakly if at all; if they were sights, it would be as if my corneas were permanently Vaselined). When you grow up, basically, without much use of one of your senses, you learn elaborate coping strategies unconsciously. To be instantly bereft of a sense – even the apparently least important of the senses, smell – is a change worthy of the Twilight Zone.

Birnbaum quotes odor expert Rachel Herz: "People who have lost the sense of smell fall into a deep depression . . . those who are depressed lose their ability to smell" (159). Birnbaum herself descended into the depression-anosmia spiral. She despaired of enjoying food again, of sharing happy smells, of pleasing others with her cooking. (Everyone around her was supportive, but Birnbaum quotes her mother at one point saying "Your cooking is erratic . . . it needs something" (80), which might sound like constructive criticism for a smelled person but is a cruel tease to the anosmic, who can't perceive what she's lacking.)

Birnbaum even despaired of love. What if she couldn't enjoy a boyfriend's T-shirt or his aftershave; what if her sex drive itself were driven by pheromones that she now couldn't even subliminally perceive? Smell guru Luca Turin thinks the human-pheromone theory is largely nonsense (118), but from inside her anosmia, Birnbaum wasn't so sure.

And Proust's-madeleine experiences were right out. Without smell to remind her of the richness of her past, would Birnbaum lose access to it? Smell scientist Avery Gilbert (author of the wonderful What the Nose Knows, 2008) thinks that Proustophiles go too far in ascribing indelible emotional affect to remembered smells. But even if the nose is not a direct gateway to childhood, you have to concede that being unable to smell makes you unable to re-experience important things. Birnbaum feared that her very being would evaporate: "an indefinable, often un-word-able, but nevertheless integral measure of self and identity—past, present, and future" (192).

In the end, things didn't get as bad as she'd feared. Birnbaum regained much of her sense of smell. She found love. She found a calling; if she'd wanted to become a chef, she was now a writer. She got to hang out with Oliver Sacks. The reader should be aware going in that this is the story of a highly privileged anosmic. Birnbaum, the Ivy-League-educated child of medical professionals, gets the finest assessment available (but little treatment; little treatment exists). She can jaunt overseas for some scent research, and she can get everybody who's anybody on the phone to talk about her condition. Before losing her sense of smell, she could walk into one of the top new restaurants in America and get a job prepping food, and the close attention of a gifted chef; after losing it, she gets invited for a sensory experiment by another rising culinary star. A lot of disabled people don't have such resources. But we should remember that privilege doesn't make trauma any easier to bear.

Birnbaum, Molly. Season to Taste: How I lost my sense of smell and found my way. New York: Ecco [HarperCollins], 2011.