Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way

Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way

by Molly Birnbaum


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Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum

“A rich, engrossing, and deeply intelligent story….This is a book I won’t soon forget.”
—Molly Wizenberg, bestselling author of A Homemade Life

“Fresh, smart, and consistently surprising. If this beautifully written book were a smell, it would be a crisp green apple.”
—Claire Dederer, bestselling author of Poser

Season to Taste is an aspiring chef’s moving account of finding her way—in the kitchen and beyond—after a tragic accident destroys her sense of smell. Molly Birnbaum’s remarkable story—written with the good cheer and great charm of popular food writers Laurie Colwin and Ruth Reichl—is destined to stand alongside Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia as a classic tale of a cooking life. Season to Taste is sad, funny, joyous, and inspiring.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061915321
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/29/2012
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 227,202
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Molly Birnbaum is the recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship in Arts and Culture from Columbia Journalism School. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, and ARTnews magazine, and she writes the popular food blog My Madeline.

Read an Excerpt

Season to Taste

How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way
By Molly Birnbaum


Copyright © 2011 Molly Birnbaum
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061915314

Chapter One

Instead of writing a college thesis, I read cookbooks
in bed. I flipped through culinary magazines and food memoirs,
burying my head in the biographies of iconic chefs until the
early hours of the morning. After obsessively researching recipes
online, I kneaded bread dough on my kitchen counter and
assembled fat cakes layered with fruit and cream. I cooked
intricate Middle Eastern tagines and watched chocolate soufflés rise
slowly in the oven. I was studying for my bachelor's degree in art
history, but in my final years of college I thought of little but the
stove. I knew what I wanted: to be a chef.
Once I baked a different apple pie each week for months,
feeding an ever-changing group of friends with plastic forks
and knives in a cloud of cinnamon and butter, until I perfected
the recipe. As a result, I won a small scholarship to the Culinary
Institute of America, the finest school for aspiring chefs in the
country. I wanted to escape term papers and deadlines, Michelangelo
and Gauguin. I wanted to master the formal technique
of boning a duck, chopping a carrot, and curing a cut of pork.
The only thing standing between me and my starting date at
culinary school was the required experience in a professional
Upon graduation, I returned to my hometown and moved
in with my mother and her boyfriend, Charley. After days
scouring the Internet for job listings, I picked one of the best
restaurants in the city. The Craigie Street Bistrot, a pint sized
establishment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was housed on
the ground floor of a large apartment complex on a residential
street near Harvard Square. I walked down a set of stairs to the
dark-paneled entrance, opened the door, and poked my head
inside. The dining room was light and airy. The scent of roasted
chicken, which I had noticed as soon as I stepped out of my car
in the parking lot, filled the room. A young woman was arranging
flowers in vases.
"Hi," I said. "I'm here to apply for a job."
She smiled, but didn't look up from the bouquet of lilacs. "As
a server?" she asked.
"No," I said, closing the door behind me. "In the kitchen."
She glanced at me, taking in my white button-down shirt and
heels. In a manila folder under my arm, I had my résumé and
cover letter, which outlined volunteer work in Africa and cashier
positions at late-night undergraduate eateries but held nothing
close to the scramble of a line cook over the stove. She said she
would get the chef, gesturing to a table in the empty dining room,
which looked naked without people or plates. I sat.
Tony Maws, the executive chef and owner, emerged from the
kitchen a few minutes later. He wore a stained chef's coat and
fat black clogs; a long and frizzy ponytail snaked down his back.
His nostrils pointed upward in his sharp-edged nose, highlighting
a set of deep brown eyes. Known for sourcing his ingredients
from local farms and a rabid enthusiasm for "nose to tail"
cooking, or the use of every part of a whole beast, including the
unsavory offal bits like the thymus gland or stomach, Maws had
just been named a "Best New Chef" by Food & Wine magazine,
one of the greatest honors for a rising chef in America. I stood
and we shook hands. He glanced at my résumé and raised his
"You have no experience?"
I shook my head.
"And you went to Brown?" He looked skeptical.
I remained silent.
"How serious are you?" he asked.
"Incredibly," I said in a voice that surprised me with its
volume. He stared at me. I didn't blink.
"Okay," he said. "But you'll start from the bottom."
He meant as a dishwasher. Maws promised that if I could
handle the dishes, in all their oily, stinking glory, then he would
teach me to cook—and not in the casual, dinner-party, Gourmet-
magazine style. He would teach me how to handle a knife,
wrestle a vat of chicken stock larger than my torso, and clean pounds
of wild mushrooms in buckets of water, removing dirt from their
knobby contours, bathing in their scent of liquid earth. I could
never abandon the sink and the dishes, but in our ephemeral
free moments I could learn How To Cook.
On my first day of work, I paused inside the walk-in
refrigerator. The heavy metal door thumped shut behind me and
I inhaled the sharp scents of garlic and onions, vinegar and salt,
fillets of tuna and grouper. A lamb carcass hung from the ceiling,
sinuous and pink. A vat of chicken stock cooled on the floor.
Four bins of fresh specialty herbs were perched on a corner shelf
waiting to be plucked, their exotic labels—lemon thyme, anisehyssop,
Moroccan mint—reminding me how far I stood from my
mother's suburban garden. I longed to touch the produce.
It had only been two weeks since I'd donned a cap and gown
to receive my undergraduate degree. At the restaurant, wearing
the uniform white-buttoned shirt and a bandanna tied tightly
around my curly hair, I was surprised to find myself in a world
that didn't involve laptops or cell phones, one where I couldn't
sleep when I liked or lose myself in the silent recesses of the
library hour after hour. It didn't involve much thought or speech,
only movement and speed. It was a world filled with boxes of
foraged forest mushrooms, stacks of chocolate bars from Venezuela,
and plates of quail so carefully assembled that they arrived in
the dining room looking like works of art. There were knives so
sharp I didn't feel the slice on my finger until blood began to run
down my hand. There were sauté pans so old that they no longer
dented when the volatile head chef slammed them against the
counter. There were eleven-hour shifts and sweat soaking every
inch of cloth on my body.
I started with the herbs. The restaurant had dozens of organic
herbs delivered to the kitchen each morning. There were familiar
ones like basil, rosemary, and thyme; and then there were the
exotic ones, ranging from pineapple mint to Syrian oregano. They
were delivered from a local specialty farm, tied in tiny bundles
and labeled by hand. It was my job to clean and pluck the jumble
of leaves and stems and have them ready for dinner service. I bent
over the tiny metal table in the back corner of my workspace— a
crowded hallway in the shadows of a staircase—and pinched my
thumb and index fingers over the rough branches to release as
many leaves as possible. Each herb left its scent printed on the
tips of my fingers. There was the calm, woodsy odor of rosemary
and the cool tang to mint. They blended into a mash of forest
green that reminded me of trips to the plant nursery with my
father when I was young.
"The most important thing, Molly," Maws repeated
constantly, "is that you know the ingredients. If I hold up this
chicory flower, you need to identify it in one glance. If I blindfold
you, you need to know it as soon as it hits your tongue."
I painstakingly cleaned and tasted the herbs whenever I
wasn't swamped at the sink with piles of dirty dishes. I tested
myself constantly. I discovered that breathing through my nose,
slowly and conscientiously, was the best way to understand the
intricacies of such subtle flavor, which, Maws insisted, was the
only way to become a chef.
One night in the small kitchen I watched from my perch at
the sink as Maws prepared to butcher a thirty-pound fillet of
tuna in the back hall. He held a long glistening knife, grasping
it tightly by the handle with the sharp edge horizontal to the
ground. He brought the blade sideways to his face and pressed
his nose against the metal, sliding the knife slowly, painstakingly
lengthwise. His nostrils flared with each breath. He even smells
his tools, I thought. It's how he understands.
I didn't spend my time with many knives at the restaurant.
Instead, I was at the sink, spraying grimy sauté pans with the
water nozzle. I constantly scurried to and from the bin where
the servers wearing immaculate black aprons tied around their
waists dumped the dirty dishes, lugging large stacks of plates to
the electric sanitizer in the kitchen. I strained chicken stock and
pulled delicate skeletons out of hundreds of fresh, glassy-eyed
sardines. I stuck my hands into countless buckets of water and
wild mushrooms—black trumpets, hen-of-the-woods, morels—
to clean the slippery clouds of fungi. I sorted bunches of bright
green arugula for the garde manger, the line cook whose job was
to make cold appetizers and dessert, and delivered them to his
station, which always smelled of burnt sugar from the torched
tops of his crème brûlée.
It wasn't easy. My arms shook with the strain of unaccustomed
weight. My legs bore welts from hot sprays of oil, and my
neck was constantly swathed in a thick layer of slime, the liquid
detritus that clung to my body from the sink, from the fridge,
from my late-night cleaning of the deep fryer. Maws expected
perfection, and I was terrified of making mistakes. He exacted
the best, though, and I spent my every moment in the kitchen
watching. He moved with confidence and economy; butchered
meat with swift, clean swipes of his knife; and could sear perfect
fillets of fish using only the sound of its sizzle to gauge its
progress. Maws plated soft poached grouper on an electric green
sauce made from sorrel, scattering orange nasturtiums over the
top like a painting. His flavors were bold, his concentration
intense, and critics sang his praises. Only open for two and a half
years, the Craigie Street Bistrot had already been named "One
of 5 Best Restaurants in Boston" by Gourmet magazine and the
"Best French Restaurant" by the Boston Globe.
One late night in August I forgot to close the door of the
refrigerator that held all of Maws's confits, the slow-cooked cuts of
meat cured in oil or fat. At Craigie Street they were mainly an
array of heartier parts: chicken thighs, lamb and duck tongues,
and hunks of pork belly, which I had already spent hours pulling
apart that night, my arms submerged to the elbow in buckets of
slick yellow fat. When a sous chef discovered the door wide open
two hours later and told the chef, I watched Maws's jaw clench.
The contents of the fridge were—thank God, I thought—fine.
But I could have ruined thousands of dollars' worth of food. My
hands were shaking as I approached to apologize. I braced myself
for the chef's voluminous, vocal anger. But instead he just looked
at me for a moment, his gaze level and serious.
"This is a restaurant, Molly," he said. Disappointment dripped
from his voice.
My guilt hindered my movements for the rest of the night,
clumsily cleaning heads of garlic for hours in the back. At 1:30
A.M., after we had finished dinner service and my fellow
dishwasher, Santos, and I had completed cleaning every crevice of
the now empty kitchen, I heard Maws call from his office.
"Molly, come here for a second."
"Yes, Chef?"
I came running.
"One of the trash bags split in the trash compound outside,"
he said casually, not looking up from the papers on his desk. "We
seem to have a maggot problem."
Oh, shit, I thought.
"There are three five-gallon buckets that are . . . not pleasant.
You need to bring them in and clean them." He smiled. "Now."
I cleaned out the buckets filled with juice from the torn bags
of garbage, stinking of meat and milk and the sour stench of
active mold, as the tiny white maggots writhed in the sink. What
am I doing here? I thought as I scrubbed, breathing through my
mouth and trying not to gag.
But I knew why I was there: to learn. I learned to listen to
the sound of meat in the pan, to smell the endnote of the nuts
toasting in the oven. I learned to judge by color and texture, to
leave the safety of published recipes and instead operate with the
senses alone. Maws could be tough, but he never failed to inspire.
With his pleasure, the kitchen blazed—the fresh rolls perfuming
the hallway with fresh butter and yeast. I tackled herbs and
garlic, lamb's tongue and rich logs of pâté de campagne. I peeled
beets and shallots, chopped onions and churned bundles of arugula
around the barrel-sized spinner again and again until they
were clean and dry. I was learning the basics one by one. That
was the only way to become a chef.
Before service began one night, I stood at the sink in the
kitchen while the rest of the staff prepped at their stations for
dinner. I had just finished filling the bottles of oil and replenishing
the chef's supply of butter when Maws arrived to take his
spot. He looked over at me and smiled. His grin was broad,
almost manic when paired with his chef's knife in hand. The first
orders of the night were just about to come, and he stood poised.
Ready to cook. Excited to feed a crowd. "This is what I live for,
Molly," he said. "This is life."


Excerpted from Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum Copyright © 2011 by Molly Birnbaum. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Amanda Hesser

“Molly Birnbaum writes with great curiosity and depth, reawakening in us all the sense of taste that we take for granted.”

Kim Sunee

“Molly Birnbaum’s fascinating journey, told with charm and compassion, is ultimately a story of triumph. A book for food lovers, sensualists, and all of us in search of our true heart’s desire.”

Claire Dederer

“Molly Birnbaum’s fascinating book takes her—and us—deep inside the mysterious world of scent. Her writing about this unseen force is fresh, smart, and consistently surprising. If this beautifully written book were a smell, it would be a crisp green apple.”

Maile Meloy

“A wonderful book about life’s unexpected turns, about love and its complexities, and about the ineffably mysterious human brain. I couldn’t stop telling people about it, while I was reading it. It will make you see your nose, your life, and your most important decisions in a whole new way.”

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