When aspiring chef Molly Birnbaum was hit by a car, she soonafter noticed her world was missing something – that rich, lively and ever-changing dimension of smell. Being diagnosed with anosmia meant her dreams of chefdom were dashed.
We chat to Molly about her life-changing experience, what it's like to eat food you can't smell, and her journey to get it all back.
At the time of the accident, you were working as a kitchen hand. As an aspiring chef, what did you learn that continues to guide your cooking today?
Working at the Craigie Street Bistrot [in Boston, now defunct], I had the opportunity to watch and learn from some great chefs. I learned how important it is to know your ingredients – by flavour, by origins, the best way to prepare them – and how it’s possible to cook with intuition and not recipes alone. While there, I began to concentrate on the perception of taste and smell, sound and visuals to guide me in my cooking. I learned a lot about the hard work and knowledge that goes into every single plate of food.
Some mightn’t realise how integral scent is to the enjoyment of food. What was it like to not smell?
Without smell, I was left only with taste. I had the salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami of my tastebuds on my tongue. I had the texture and temperature of food in my mouth. But nothing more. I couldn’t smell the herbs or the spices; all of the detail and nuance that made food good. Without a sense of smell, the only recognisable tastes were the sweet from sugary foods; the bitter from things like black coffee; the salt on a crunchy potato chip; or the sour edge to lemon juice squeezed into hot water. Most – if not all – flavour was completely gone.
Your research revealed that smell is so complex and mysterious. Do you feel you got to the bottom of it?
Through the years of research that went into my book, I do feel like I answered many questions that weighed on me in the process of losing – and recovering – my sense of smell. But, unfortunately, science itself hasn’t reached the bottom of all the complexities and mysteries of smell. Many of the answers I received simply led to more questions; ones that don’t yet have any semblance of answers. I have hope that in my lifetime they will, however. There is so much we still need to know.
The first scent you recognised after the accident was rosemary. Explain what it triggered for you.
I had been helping my mother to cook dinner at her home in Boston when, suddenly, the scent infiltrated my nose. It took me a minute to realise what, exactly, I was smelling. But when I did, first I was shocked and then I was elated. The scent was deep and earthy, herby and green. It reminded me of my childhood, when I had first gone horseback riding out West, most likely on a trail littered with rosemary bushes. This smell was not only delicious, it gave me hope that the rest of my sense of smell would also return.
Do you approach cooking and eating differently, now that your ability to smell has returned?
I concentrate on all of my senses while cooking now. I look at the colors of my ingredients, and the food on my finished plates. I listen to the sound of butter melting in a pan, the sound of the fish fillet I slide in to fry. I touch the meat on the grill to see when it’s done. And, as an eater, I find myself drawn to simple dishes and powerful flavours. Instead of fancy, complicated meals at restaurants, I choose cooking at home with a handful of good-quality ingredients, bringing people together over the table. If anything, today I view eating as an act that inspires a sense of community – whether or not you can taste every single flavour on your plate.
You have a love of baking. What’s something you like to whip up when you’ve only got a handful ingredients?
I like to cook simple things with bold flavours these days. If I’m baking, I love to make a simple pound cake flavoured with lemon zest and juice, for a really sweet-tart combination. In the oven, it fills my apartment with the scent of citrus and butter. Cooking, I love to whip up a pot of fresh pasta with a sauce of really ripe, juicy tomatoes, basil, parmesan cheese and a healthy glug of olive oil.
What’s it like to have “selective smelling” ie, to smell some things and not others? Are there any benefits to this?
For the entire first year of my recovery I couldn’t smell anything bad or disgusting. In some cases this was a positive, of course. It’s good for changing babies’ diapers and cleaning up after your dog. But, of course, this selective smelling is nothing I would choose. Not being able to smell – even if those smells are bad – was devastating to me. I felt like I was missing huge cues about the world around me. The first time I smelled a bag of rotting trash on the sidewalk in New York City, I was ecstatic. To me, after all that time, it smelled great.
You described New York City as dull and mute when you couldn’t smell the scent of bagels wafting from street vendors. Are these the scents you now cherish?
Of course. Is there anything better than the scent of a fresh-baked bagel? I love walking the streets of New York City, or Boston (where I live now), and smelling the world around me. From bakeries to coffee shops, subway stations to fresh-cut grass in the park to the cool scent of just-fallen rain. I am so grateful to be able to register them all today.
Some are saddened by their favourite foods once they lose ability to smell them. Did you experience this?
When I couldn’t smell, I had a hard time facing the kitchen and eating foods that had once been my favorite. Apple pie, my mother’s roast chicken, fresh bread. The smell, taste, and flavour of these foods had once meant so much to me, reminding me of my childhood and my home and making me happy. When I confronted these foods again and no longer had those associations, it was incredibly sad.
In some ways, are you grateful for the accident?
As strange as it sounds, today I am grateful for the accident. I was lucky to recover. And along the way I learned so much about myself and what it means to pick oneself up after a devastating fall. I learned about the brain, the senses, and how they all work together. Today, I feel stronger, happier, and more equipped to face the future than I’m sure I would have otherwise.
You’re now working as a food editor for America’s Test Kitchen. What does this involve?
I am an Associate Editor of cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen these days. I get to read, think, and talk about food full time, and that’s pretty great.
Follow Molly on her blog, My Madeleine.