Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way
“Molly Birnbaum’s memoir might be the best food-related book of 2011. . . . Like the many subjects of the book—pain and recovery, art and education, food and cooking—Season to Taste has many virtues. It is well written, authoritative but honest, and imminently readable—like bestsellers should be.”
What makes a book readable? This is a question to keep in mind while reading Season to Taste because it is both a pleasurable read and an instructive one.
Molly Birnbaum’s memoir might be the best food-related book of 2011. One reason is that it’s an enlightening book for readers from chefs and home cooks to food scientists and memoir fans.
Ms. Birnbaum is a talented writer and a brave, remarkable woman. As an ambitious and openminded student, she opted to study art while nurturing her growing interest in food and cooking. She set her goal as to work as a master chef. Wisely, she was willing to start at the bottom of the career ladder—or rather the kitchen sink—as a dishwasher keenly absorbing all levels of restaurant work.
In that lofty position, she learned from every person, head chef, pastry chefs, line cooks, salad composers, and wait staff. Tony Maws, her mentor and owner of the Craigie Street Bistrot, was a strict man, perhaps because he knew how dedicated and serious his student was.
But then when Ms. Birnbaum was hit by a car, causing serious, painful injuries and a long recovery, her ambitions seemed impossible. Her treatment of this disaster is straightforward about her pain and treatment without being melodramatic—again making the book readable. She does not scream her anguish. Her factual account of a long recovery is akin to Stephen King’s account of his own accident when he was hit by a car (On Writing).
Both authors minimize their obvious shock; and Ms. Birnbaum smartly employs the device of writing about others’ reactions instead of using narrative hysterics. While she is in pain in a hospital bed she hears her father, a doctor himself, outside in the hall yelling at her doctors. The reaction of others tells all about her situation.
Along with being a brave woman during her recovery and, later, a fine cook with extensive knowledge of culinary matters and the science of scent, Ms. Birnbaum is a natural writer with talents that go beyond her education in journalism. She has rare instincts when, and when not, to use poetic devices in her work, such as the zeugma: “tasted of summer and herb;” or onomatopoeia: “the chocolate cakes oozed a dark molten center with a crack of a spoon.”
At other times, she simple relies on perfect word choice to pull the reader ahead. “. . . my nose went haywire.” Ms. Birnbaum has a masterful control of language. Writing “fat” prose is a common error when writing on such sensory subjects as taste and scent—not to mention pain. This author knows the sweetest is prose close to the bone.
Season to Taste will please the most serious food lover who is familiar with fine dining and “how” such diners eat. This does not mean how mannerly, it means with such vast and considered appreciation that conversation stops. Gourmands might talk food with a fine preprandial champagne and an amuse-bouche to start the meal, but when the server leaves the first course on the table, these diners will often remain silent. They consume the food in many more ways than swallowing and digesting it, and such appreciation demands thoughtfulness—about purveyor, season, presentation, suitability of cooking method, and more—along with taste and scent. Ms. Birnbaum knows this is true, as is reflected in the following excerpt:
“I didn’t watch as the guests dug their spoons into the ramekins of steaming chocolate cake. . . . Instead, I stood in the kitchen and I listened. I waited for a reaction, something beyond the clink of spoon on plate.
The room was quiet. Very quiet.
“Too quiet? I asked Ben.
“No,” he said, peeking around the doorway. “I see smiles. I see plates licked clean.”
The author also has the ability to find that subtle transition from “enough of this subject” to the next “Oh, interesting!” the new subject—more readability, more smooth prose. She writes of meeting Oliver Sacks, the famed neurologist and author, and then makes a graceful exit to anecdotes of her graduate years. “I thought about Sacks and scent, about science and its mysteries, about those who study them and why. I thought about what I would do next.”
Whether her particular topic is the scent of dark red basil or visual assault of a man wearing wooden bracelets, mismatched primary colored socks, and a vest covered with various pins, Ms. Birnbaum successfully juggles several or many senses at once—some lines seemingly afire with passion and understatement, both.
Like the many subjects of the book—pain and recovery, art and education, food and cooking—Season to Taste has many virtues. It is well written, authoritative but honest, and imminently readable—like bestsellers should be.