Saturday, March 31, 2012

Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum

I really hope I never go blind. I have often thought that this would be my worst nightmare for my elderly days. I am sure I will lose my sense of hearing. I have never contemplated that I could lose my senses of taste, smell, or touch. But of all the senses, I could not bear to be without my sight.

You don't really hear much about people losing their sense of smell. However, Molly Birnbaum lost her ability to smell after a head injury in a car accident. Her account of her life before and after this is detailed in her memoir, Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way. It was our March Kitchen Reader choice, picked by Katherine Martinelli.

If this book is anything to go by, losing one's sense of smell is quite harrowing. More than perhaps I imagined.

Birnbaum's loss of smell forced her to learn about the intricacies of this sense. She had been accepted to chef school and was working in a restaurant when she stopped being able to smell. Her culinary world disappeared. She could barely taste without her nose and cooking became frustrating and scary. Birnbaum points out that smell is the hardest sense to imagine and when it is gone, taste is not the only casualty. Birnbaum also found that memories became dull without their accompanying smells. She suggests that smells are so vital to memories because we come to distinguish aromas through our life experiences. "Smells are associated with specific events, people, and places," she finds, "because we learn them that way."

Without her sense of smell, Birnbaum because disconnected from her past and also felt that her future was a deadend. I have certainly never experienced anything similar to what she did. I wonder if others in her situation also find themselves as frustrated, upset, and misunderstood? The writing in the first half of the book was depressing and whiney - and perhaps this is justified. So few people can identify with losing the smells around them.

Birnbaum eventually regains some smells, erratically at first. I haven't made it to the end of the book yet - it's been a busy month and I've been progressing at a rate of mere pages a week. I presume Birnbaum goes on to live a more positive and fulfilled life. This is the first Kitchen Reader book in a very long time (fourteen months, to be precise) that I have not felt inspired to finish reading. Perhaps it is because I have been reading so slowly that the negative part of the book has become like a large, complaining voice. I trust that if I had read at a faster pace I would have progressed beyond the hard part and could now be celebrating the return of wonderful food smells.

I feel better educated about the important role smell plays in both eating and cooking. And I now feel a lot of sympathy for those unlucky enough to lose their sense of smell. I still think it would be worse to go blind, but I understand that enjoying food relies heavily on smell. And I want to keep enjoying cooking and eating long into my elderly years.

Have you ever worried about losing one of your senses?

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