Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Season to Taste

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

Format: ARC
Published: Ecco; June 2011
Pages: 320
Genre: Memoir
Grade: C
Source: Publisher

Synopsis: An aspiring chef's moving account of finding her way—in the kitchen and beyond—after a tragic accident destroys her sense of smell
At twenty-two, just out of college, Molly Birnbaum spent her nights reading cookbooks and her days working at a Boston bistro, preparing to start training at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. She knew exactly where she wanted the life ahead to lead: She wanted to be a chef. But shortly before she was due to matriculate, she was hit by a car while out for a run in Boston. The accident fractured her skull, broke her pelvis, tore her knee to shreds—and destroyed her sense of smell. The flesh and bones would heal...but her sense of smell?And not being able to smell meant not being able to cook. She dropped her cooking school plans, quit her restaurant job, and sank into a depression.
Season to Taste is the story of what came next: how she picked herself up and set off on a grand, entertaining quest in the hopes of learning to smell again. Writing with the good cheer and great charm of Laurie Colwin or Ruth Reichl, she explores the science of olfaction, pheromones, and Proust's madeleine; she meets leading experts, including the writer Oliver Sacks, scientist Stuart Firestein, and perfumer Christophe Laudamiel; and she visits a pioneering New Jersey flavor lab, eats at Grant Achatz's legendary Chicago restaurant Alinea, and enrolls at a renowned perfume school in the South of France, all in an effort to understand and overcome her condition.

My Take: I really enjoy any book about food. As I believe I've said here before, the older I get, the more of a foodie I become. I also love memoirs. It's one of the genres I read most. So it should be no surprise that Molly Birnbaum's memoir appealed to me. It's about food, or more specifically, our sense of smell related to food.

Season to Taste takes us on Birnbaum's journey through her discovery of wanting to be a chef, to a tragic accident that makes her lose her sense of smell, her quest to regain it, then finally how she learns to live in this new reality and what it will ultimately mean to her quality of life. 

At first I was totally drawn into the story. Birnbaum's discovery of wanting to be a chef and her reasons behind that decision totally appealed to me. Before the accident she about to start at the Culinary Institute and was working as basically a peon in a famous restaurant. One day she decides to take a jog and a car runs right into her causing, among other things, severe neurological damage which causes her to lose her sense of smell.

At first blush, you might think well of all the things that could have happened from this accident, losing your sense of smell isn't such a big deal. However, as Birnbaum slowly teaches us, a sense of smell is connected to everything. She can no longer taste her beloved food. She doesn't even want to eat because it's completely tasteless. The only thing she really has a taste for is spicy because it at least causes a sensation in her mouth. Should she still continue to be a chef if she can't taste her own creations? How will she know if they are tasty?

More than that though, your sense of smell can warn you of danger so she becomes concerned about that. How will she know if something is on fire or if there is a gas leak? Also, a sense of smell helps with your attraction. Will she ever be able to fall in love if she can't even find comfort in the smell of a mate?

All of these topics, and many more, are dealt with in this memoir and I enjoyed the path Birnbaum took. I really felt for her. However, where it lost me was that most of the chapters were taken up by huge sections of medical facts, scientific studies, and the like. At first I enjoyed getting to know more about a topic that I didn't really know anything about but after a couple of chapters in, the science became a little repetitive. Basically, it's unlikely she would fully regain her sense of smell. It didn't matter how many doctors, scientists, journals, or whatever that she visited or read, they all led to the somewhat same conclusion. Bottom line, my mind started to drift and it quit becoming a page turner for me. That's not to say I wouldn't read more from Birnbaum. I enjoyed this memoir enough to hope to see more from her, but perhaps with a little more heart and a little less science.

Cover Lust: I love this cover! The cartoonish drawing of a woman sitting at a table with ingredients is perfect for this book.


  1. I do love memoirs and food books but think the medical facts would bother me too.

  2. So this is actually a memoir? Wow. I don't think I could cook without a sense of smell. I do love foodie stuff and I happen to like medical facts so maybe this will find its way into my hands some day.

    1. Yep! The idea of cooking without the sense of smell is mind boggling, I agree and the way she dealt with it was very interesting. I think you might enjoy this one!

  3. Sounds interesting enough, but yes, the droning on of scientific facts would be a bit tedious...shame.

  4. Sounds like a compelling premise, though I'm sorry to hear it began to lose its appeal! I do love foodie fiction/memoirs and am always drawn to them, so I might still give it a go... but I'll definitely keep your review in mind and temper expectations!


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