I remember as a child holding earnest discussions with my fellow pre-adolescents about which sense it would be easiest – or hardest – to live without. It always seemed to me in those talks that the sense of smell got awfully short shrift from my fellow kids. In particular, I thought the ones who would give up smell before taste hadn’t really thought it through.
Then again, maybe I was the only ten-year-old in my neighborhood whose parents had taught her to cook by scent, giving me a visceral appreciation of how interconnected smell and taste are in the human condition.
Besides, my step-grandfather was blind and got along just fine. I’m not saying losing any sense would be a walk in the park or that I could lose my sight entirely without mourning it. I’m just saying, there’s more to scent than a lot of people seem to realize.
A few days ago, I found a book that reminded me of those late-night Girl Scout camp out and slumber (HA!) party talks. It’s a memoir entitled Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum.
You see, one day Molly Birnbaum was a recent college graduate working in Chef Tony Maws’ Craigie Street Bistrot in Boston, gaining kitchen experience and saving up some cash before heading off to accept a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America… and the next a terrible accident while jogging left her in the hospital for weeks with a shredded knee, a pelvis broken in two places, and a head injury that caused her to become anosmic. Her sense of smell was gone, quite possibly forever.
Season to Taste is the story of her recovery from the accident, and how she built a new life for herself when her plans were shattered in one, horrible moment. Along the way, we get the benefit of her research into the science of scent. We also learn some interesting trivia of the anosmic. For instance, Ben Cohen – co-founder of Ben&Jerry’s Ice Cream – is anosmic. It’s because of him that Ben&Jerry’s runs so heavily to chunks of things in the ice cream. You see, he may not taste the subtleties of the flavors due to his inability to smell them, but the chunks make eating the ice cream interesting texturally.
Birnbaum discusses the connections between scent and taste, and between scent and memory.
As I greedily drank in the text, I found something funny happening to me. I became hyper-aware of the scents around me. When I put the book down and went to take a walk around my neighborhood, I couldn’t stop smelling things: freshly cut grass, roses, the exhaust from the cars whizzing by, every aroma seemed more intense.
All of a sudden I stopped dead in my tracks. The house next to where I stood had all the windows thrown open and there wafted from within the most delicious scent of baking. It was something bready, with an intense ribbon of anise seed.
Not only could I taste the anise, in the blink of an eye I was eight again, and watching my father bake Christmas cookies. I could see his ever-present stick of licorice root in his mouth, his hands forming the dough with precision and strength. He was baking a batch of springerle, dotted with anise seeds, as I knelt on the stool across the countertop from him. I could hear my childish self pleading for a fresh-from-the-oven cookie and hear my father gruffly tease me that I couldn’t have one because ‘we have to save them to throw them out!’
I think I could adjust to a world that is silent or sightless. It would be difficult, and I would mourn my loss. To never see a flower or hear Mr. Twistie sing again would be painful beyond expression. But to lose scent is to lose flavor and memory as well.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t give those up willingly for anything.