Book Review: Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum

Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum
A book about a cook that couldn’t smell… that sounded really interesting. And the cover attracted me too!

And yes, it turned out to be a very interesting memoir. It’s more about smelling than cooking, though.

Season to Taste: What it is about

The author, Molly Birnbaum, secured a place at a chef’s school, a great dream of hers. Before she could start she need to get some experience in a professional kitchen, and so, she spent some time working in a local restaurant.

Then one day, before she took up her place at school, she was in a car accident. After she recovered, she found that she couldn’t smell anything. As it was, she couldn’t do any cooking, let alone start her course at cooking school.

Really worried, she realized that chances were slim that she would be able to fulfil her dream to become a cook. She wrote to doctors and scientists that study olfactory science to get some idea of the possibility of ever recovering her smell.

In the book, she alternates descriptions of her daily life with her findings. First, she gives an outline of how the olfactory system works, then she reports on her meetings with various people, amongst which the famous Oliver Sachs, as well as other patients with a loss of smell, perfumers and a chef for whom smell is a major part of any meal.

She also discusses interesting facts about pheromones, how smells may evoke memories, flavor and smell, emotion and smell, and training the olfactory system.

She also falls in love, moves in with her boyfriend, and starts cooking again.

Season to Taste: What I thought

I’m attracted to stories about cooking (and cookbooks) and that is what I expected to get. Instead I got an interesting story about losing the ability to smell. That was fine too, it turned out.

The book was quite an easy read, except for some of the science bits, which may put some people off. Read on, skip a paragraph, and you’ll likely find the next bit interesting again.

I had never really thought about smell, how it affects so many things in my life (such as taste, attracting a partner, knowing the next room is on fire, etc.). Birnbaum discusses quite comprehensively (but not tediously) all aspects of smell in an easy to understand and personable way.

I did felt a little cheated when she started to contact all kinds of professors and doctors, knowing that she probably did so because she was already writing the book or thinking of writing one. Does the average non-smelling person get access to all kinds of professional people with little time on their hands? Probably not.

Thus, without mentioning it, the process of writing the book was in some way also discussed in this book, which did not feel right. A memoir should be about the author dealing with her affliction, and not with her finding material for her book. Anyway, that was only a small point of critique because I enjoyed reading the book a lot.

Rating: 4/5

I got this book: from Ecco (a HarperCollins imprint) for review, uncorrected proof copy

I read this in: English, the original language

Number of pages: 320

First published: 2011 (July)

Genre: memoir, science


About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

21 Responses to Book Review: Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum

  1. I hadn’t heard of this book before, nor do I have an interest in cooking (eating yes, cooking no) but the story about the smells has really interested me. Have you read Perfume by Patrick Suskind? That’s a great book and really made me think about smell too.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Yes, I did read *Perfume*, Boof. I loved that story (more than the movie). If you enjoy stories about smell, than this is a good book, too.

  2. Tes says:

    Nice review 🙂 I feel like I’m in love with this book already 🙂

  3. Misha says:

    I don’t have interest in books about cooking, but this seems to have much more than that. I can’t imagine what it is to lose one’s sense of smell. Overall this seems like an interesting book, apart from the science bits.

  4. Uniflame says:

    Hmm this is different than I thought. I actually rely a lot on my smell, since I am blind in one eye, my hearing and sense of smell are very strong. I smell things that my BF never does. So it might still be a very interesting read for me.

  5. Cindy says:

    I just can’t begin to imagine not being able to smell … I’d probably enjoy this book.

  6. What an interesting idea for a novel, and it’s a memoir so you know the experiences are real (for the author).

    I can only speak from experience but here in the US, we can reach out to experts. I have talked with doctors specializing in a type of cancer after reading a research study they published (helping a friend research her rare cancer). It’s more common than you might think over here. In our medical system we are told to ‘be our best advocate’ your doctor won’t do this for you.

    I wonder if your experience reading the book about her research would different if you lived in the US… I might have to read this one (I do love memoirs about women’s stories/life’s).

    Glad you liked this book!

    • Leeswammes says:

      Mari, maybe it’s different, I don’t know. But a famous scientist might end up with 5 calls a day from people with a certain affliction if he’s the expert? There must be some filter to stop anyone contacting everyone? I felt she had a foot in the door because of the book she was writing, but maybe I’m wrong.

      Yes, I think you’d enjoy this book!

  7. liannouwen says:

    Sounds like an interesting read! I’ve never really given smelling a thought either, guess I took it for granted..

  8. Can I already find the book in a store? Because I read it was available from July. (In Belgium too?)
    Seems interesting, because of the special view about cooking. (I’m sorry if you can find a lot of mistakes. My English isn’t that good.)

    • Leeswammes says:

      The book is in the shops, Katrien/Ellen, but maybe not yet in Belgium. It will be in the online shops, for sure ( has it).

      Geen zorgen om de taal, je mag ook in het Nederlands schrijven hoor! Het boek is nog niet vertaald denk ik, dus je moet het dan wel in het Engels lezen. Het gaat trouwens meer over ruiken dan over koken! 🙂

  9. A friend of mine actually lost her sense of smell after a terrible sinus infection, and she hasn’t enjoyed cooking since. Or eating. I have always felt so bad about it. I think I would really like to read this book.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Col, yes, it will give you a lot more insight into the affliction. Can you imagine if everything tastes like cardboard? Or not even that?

      One way to make a meal more interesting is to do something with texture so even if she doesn’t taste anything at least it’s not all the same slush in her mouth.

  10. RFW says:

    I read Bonnie Blodgett’s “Remembering Smell” – her memoir about losing her sense of smell – and she’s a gardener – pretty traumatic to lose a sense we take so much for granted.

  11. Beth F says:

    She does mention that she went to journalism school and she is a freelance journalist, so I was less put off by her adventures in research than you were.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Beth, I didn’t think it was normal patient behavior, so that put me off. But yes, she’s a journalist, so from that point of view it makes sense.

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