Saturday, March 31, 2012

Kitchen Reader - Season to Taste {Guest Post}

This month's Kitchen Reader selection, Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum, was chosen by Katherine Martinelli.

{Note from Victoria ~ When I decided to give up secular reading for Lent, my biggest misgiving was having to skip a Kitchen Reader book.  Enter my dear friend, Erin, who graciously agreed to read and report on this month's selection.  Erin is the blogger behind The Law School Transplant.  She is a recovering lawyer, a blossoming  yogi, my favorite healthy-food cooking companion, and all-around one of the most wonderful people I know.}

First, many thanks to Victoria for having me here to post a review for The Kitchen Reader. As someone who is loath to commit to anything longer than a month or two, the opportunity to drop in this month was a perfect one for me!

As I was reading Molly Birnbaum’s Season to Taste, the song “Ironic” by Alanis Morrisette kept popping into my head. If there were an additional line in one of the verses, it might very well be something along the lines of, “Losing your smell/When you want to be a chef.” After all, your sense of smell is part and parcel of your ability to taste. And how can someone become a chef when they can neither smell nor taste? The unfairness of it all was jarring and tragic.

The book is part narrative/memoir, part science lesson. In between sections of her story, Birnbaum weaves in loads of information about olfaction, neurology and the intersection of the two. These sections are interesting, but tend to get a bit long and pedagogical at times, particularly towards the last half of the book.

However, the most striking – and wonderful – feature of Birnbaum’s writing style is her use of language, and particularly adjectives, to create images for the reader. Because scent (or the lack thereof) is central to the book’s theme, she devotes a great deal of time describing smells – both good and bad. Smell is also the only sense that is tied strongly to memory, and so each time she describes a scent, she also paints a picture of a memory or experience. Indeed, I often found myself remembering experiences from my own life that are connected to the scents she was describing at certain points.

I also found myself relating to Birnbaum’s struggle to redefine herself. Like the author, at a certain point in my life I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do and how I was going to get there. But, life frequently throws us curveballs. For Birnbaum, it was the accident that robbed her of her sense of smell, forcing her to find a different path. Similarly, I’ve experienced an event – albeit much less traumatic – that forced me to reconsider my career trajectory. It’s a path often painful and rarely clear, but I identified with Birnbaum’s journey and admired her willingness to lay bare her insecurities for the world to read.

Finally, this book really made me consider how crucial our sense of smell is to everyday life. It’s not just an accessory sense that is nice to have; indeed, it is central to our ability to experience life, create memories and build interpersonal relationships. It’s also still very much a mystery to doctors and scientists, but so important and simultaneously so frequently taken for granted.

I really enjoyed Season to Taste, both for the story itself, and for the author’s gifted use of language. Oh, and because I couldn’t resist, I read her blog and was delighted to discover that her happy ending is ongoing: Birnbaum has almost entirely regained her sense of smell, and is still with the soldier-cum-writer she met in graduate school. Sometimes, after all, being thrown off your path allows you to find a new, better one: The one you were meant to walk all along.

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.


  1. It's lovely that you, Erin, got to read and report on our Kitchen Reader book this month! Perhaps you would consider becoming a full time member? Hint, hint. ;-)

    I think you are not alone in feeling that the science sections were a bit too lengthy and dry. But I definitely have a new appreciation for my nose after reading this book!

  2. Ha! I love the Alanis reference. Molly's story is so perfect for that song. :)

    I agree that the writing really made the story. Every single anecdote, no matter how short, included vivid details about smell. It's made me take a closer look (or: sniff?) at details of my every day life, with more of a focus on what I'm smelling. I appreciate my nose so much!

    I kind of like this idea of having a stand-in participate in the KR during the months I'm unable... hmmmm...

  3. I LOVED Molly's adjectives. This was the first book I read after I sat in on a one-day writing seminar with Dianne Jacob, so I'm fresh with "new writing tools," and read the book with a pencil and piece of paper so that I could jot down words I wanted to use later. :)

    I'm a little ADD, so I glossed over the research, but I did find the rest of the book to be enjoyable, and I definitely value my sense of smell now more than I used to.