How I Lost My Ability to Smell and Gained a Greater Love for Cooking
By Molly Birnbaum
January 20, 2012
When aspiring chef Molly Birnbaum lost the ability to smell, she learned to rely on hearing, touch, and sight—and to cook more joyfully than ever.
I don't remember the car slamming into my body, torquing my knee, breaking my pelvis, and cracking my skull when I was out on a drizzly August morning jog. I don't remember being brought to the hospital or, later, returning home. In fact, I don't remember much of the following weeks. There is one moment, however, that I'll never forget: when my stepmother held a fresh-baked apple crisp under my nose and I realized that I had lost my sense of smell.
Before the accident, I had been working in the kitchen of an award-winning bistro in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A recent college grad, I had cast aside my degree in art history to pursue my dream of being a chef. I washed dishes, peeled garlic, and watched and learned from my more experienced coworkers as they moved gracefully around the tiny kitchen. Arriving home in the early hours of the morning, my clothes saturated with the scent of fry oil and butter, I felt perpetually exhausted. But I was happy.
After I left the hospital, I couldn't return to the kitchen. I learned that my olfactory neurons, which lead from the nose to the brain, had been severed when I fractured my skull. I was thankful to be alive, thankful that I would recover from my other injuries. But I was devastated when doctors told me I would probably never regain my ability to smell.
The flavor of food is reduced to a mere whisper when its scent is lost. I still had my taste buds, which register salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. I could sense temperature and texture. But nothing more. The nuance that makes a bite of steak, spoonful of ice cream, or sip of coffee delicious had vanished. I began dousing every morsel I put in my mouth with Tabasco sauce just to feel the spicy kick on my tongue. How will I cook? I wondered. It looked like the end of the life I wanted, the one that revolved around the stove.
But I'm stubborn and refused to leave the kitchen behind. I loved the culture of food, the joy of bringing people together around a table, so I decided to teach myself how to cook by relying on my other senses.
I began with sound. I listened—carefully, closely, my ear hovering above the sauté pan—as a pat of butter melted over medium heat. I concentrated on the subtle sound of its liquefaction, focusing on its chattering foam, and waited for the moment it grew suddenly quiet—which meant that it was ready for me to slide a pink-cheeked pork chop into the pan. I paid attention to the sizzle of salmon under the broiler and the crackling sound of sautéing mushrooms releasing their juices, adjusting the heat if the noise grew too loud or too soft. The melodies of the kitchen came together to sing a song I'd never heard before.
I developed my sense of touch. Using my fingertip, I learned to gently press a rib-eye steak on the grill and compare its flesh with the palm of my clenched fist to figure out when the meat was ready to come off the fire, perfectly rare. I kneaded bread dough with care, my fingers intuiting when it was elastic and smooth enough to create a light, airy loaf. My hands had never felt so alive.
I looked at the plate with a newly artistic eye. I realized that arranging red and yellow roasted beets on a bed of bright green arugula or scattering bloodred pomegranate seeds on a tawny ochre chicken tagine could stimulate the appetite in a different way than scent. I learned to inhale with my eyes.
Finally, I embraced my newfound reliance on temperature and texture. I even baked my own apple crisp, luxuriating in the silky, soft fruit beneath the crumbly crust, the icy rivulets of vanilla ice cream melting on top. I reveled in the soft innards of a warm baguette and the cold creaminess of fresh goat cheese, the crisp-tender bite of asparagus poached just so.
It was only when my sense of smell began unexpectedly to return that I truly understood the connection between smell and taste. The first scent I noticed was rosemary, dark green and woodsy. Soon after came the earthiness of chocolate, and then the watery aroma of cucumbers, which was surprisingly strong. When I could finally smell the rich, ripe edge to blue cheese that enhances its pungent sour taste, the pleasure was so intense, I stood up from the table. Today, nearly seven years later, I can smell almost everything again. I'm lucky, I know. This awareness follows me around like a benevolent spirit, reminding me to pay attention and enjoy every meal, bite by bite.
Molly Birnbaum is the author of Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way (Ecco).