July 2011

Scents and sensibility

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When a speeding car slammed into Molly Birnbaum while she was out for a run, she broke her pelvis, fractured her skull and ripped tendons in her knee. Those injuries, though severe, would heal with time and hard work. But for this aspiring chef, the loss of her sense of smell was more devastating by far.

In Season to Taste, Birnbaum vividly recalls what it was like to suddenly live in a world devoid of scent. “It was an invisible injury, potent and intense,” she writes. “It involved nothing concrete like crutches; physical therapy wasn’t a possibility. But the absence—the monotone blank, the indescribable pale of a scentless landscape—was more painful than the nights I hyperventilated in the hospital after knee surgery.”

At the time of the accident, Birnbaum—who writes a delicious, recipe-filled blog called “My Madeleine”—was about to begin studying at the Culinary Institute of America. She’d spent a grueling summer working in a popular Boston restaurant to prepare for school, washing dishes, cleaning wild mushrooms and herbs, peeling garlic and learning to trust her sense of smell to guide her cooking. And then, in the split second it took for her forehead to smash into a moving windshield, the neurons that connected her nose to her brain snapped. Her brain could no longer receive the messages about incoming smells. There’s even a name for it: anosmia.

Birnbaum began talking with experts in the science of taste and smell, trying to understand what had happened, and what would happen next. After recovering (physically, anyway), she moved to New York City in search of a job and a fresh start. Intriguingly, she began to get flashes of scent. First, rosemary, smelling green and woodsy. Then chocolate, followed by laundry soap, cilantro, cucumbers, old books. Slowly, she reclaimed her life, one scent at a time.

Birnbaum powerfully explores the science of smell and its ties to emotion, love and even memory in Season to Taste. This deeply personal recollection of recovering from a loss invisible to the outside world is a truly mouthwatering read.

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