Saturday, July 2, 2011

Dispatch from the Field: Joe Is Highly Recommending This Book

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.

A moving personal story packed with surprising facts about our senses, Season to Taste is filled with unforgettable descriptions of the smells Birnbaum rediscovers—from cinnamon, cedarwood, and fresh bagels to rosemary chicken, lavender, and apple pie—as she falls in love, learns to smell from scratch, and starts, once again, to cook.
Listen to an interview with the author.

Joe says:

How important is our sense of smell? How does one describe smells? They are fleeting things, scents. Fleeting, but all-encompassing. Scent is tied in with so many things: the pleasures of eating, desire, lore, memory. It is scent that can warn of danger, of rotting meat, of fire, of gas. The pear I just ate. How to describe it? I do not think I can separate the crispness of the pear from the cool odor of it, its grainy consistency. What would you do if you lost your sense of smell? If the whole world were suddenly flat, odorless? And what if you wanted to be a chef? How could you determine if food were flavored enough? Or ready?

Molly Birnbaum lost her sense of smell in a car accident.  Season To Taste is the story of how she regained her sense of smell. But it is far more than that. Part memoir, part study of the science of smell, Birnbaum takes her readers on a tour of what we know of smell. It is perhaps the least-studied of our senses, and one that is tied in with so many others: sight, sound, feel, in ways that surprised, intrigued and delighted me in the book.

Molly Birnbaum's tale of recovery through discovery is inspirational. When faced with such a life-dulling change, she sets out to figure out what happened, how it can be fixed, and what else there is to know. Through interviews with scientists, doctors and experts in fields ranging from sociology to perfume, we are taken on a journey of the edges of human understanding of this sense, and the wonders of the brain. And with Birnbaum's writing, this story is an entertaining one. Through her exact use of prose, her use of vivid details, adjectives bring to life the colors, sounds and even smells of the writer's struggle to understand what has happened. In the end, this surprisingly humble and fascinating memoir is a very inspiring and thoughtful example of how to get one's confidence back.

I highly recommend this book! Part memoir, cooking book, scientific study, this book could easily appeal to readers of Oliver Sacks (in fact, he is in this one!) or Michael Pollan.

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