Molly Birnbaum spent the summer after college up to her elbows in dishwater, certain of her destiny: She would become a chef. Her passion for cooking helped to earn her a small scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, but first Birnbaum has to acquire the requisite professional kitchen experience. Rising culinary star Tony Maws agrees to take her under his wing at his establishment in Cambridge, Mass., the Craigie Street Bistrot, on the condition that she start at the bottom.
Birnbaum's long, grease-spattered evenings in Maws' kitchen come to an abrupt end when, out for her jog one morning, she is struck by a car. "With that impact, there was friction. My brain rubbed against the cribiform plate and sheared off the little neuronal endings coming toward it, like a lawnmower over grass," she writes in her memoir, "Season to Taste." "In effect, the impact severed the neurons that connect my nose to my brain."
Of the many injuries Birnbaum sustained from the collision -- a fractured skull, a pelvis broken in two places -- the most enduring and haunting damage was the loss of her sense of smell. Without smell, tastes are flattened to their most basic components: bitter, salty, sweet or sour. For Birnbaum, a budding gourmet who once hung on every nuance and development of aroma and flavor, this loss is devastating: "Ice cream was a thick and cold slush. Lattes were hot, sometimes even gelatinous liquid. I ate yogurt for its smooth chill and bread soaked in Tabasco sauce because I could feel the spiciness."
Once so sure of her future, Birnbaum finds herself plunged into uncertainty. She moves to New York with the vague notion of becoming a writer. She pursues a career in journalism, falls in love and, astonishingly, begins to smell again: first rosemary, then chocolate. "Slowly, painstakingly, almost secretly, individual smells had begun to return," she writes. "They arrived one at a time, confusing me with a combination of familiar and strange." As Birnbaum wanders around New York City, she lovingly describes the new depth, texture and vibrancy the city assumes as she regains her sense of smell.
Fascinated by olfaction, Birnbaum takes her readers on an educational journey through the art and science of smell. Along the way, she interviews neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, restaurateur Grant Achatz, and Ben & Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen, a fellow anosmic whose attunement to texture is reflected in his ice cream.
In the process of this informational quest she drops somewhat the thread of her own recovery; a reader is left to wonder how the act of eating evolved over the course of her gradual rehabilitation. What remains constant, however, is Birnbaum's insatiable curiosity, convivial voice and talent for unpacking the significance of smell.
- Megan Doll is a Minnesota book critic.