Smelling the way to reality
I can’t begin to adequately express how much I enjoyed this book.
As the publicity info indicated, Molly Birnbaum, clearly a highly talented chef-in-the-making, lost her sense of smell and taste as a result of a traffic accident, shortly before she was due to start training at a prestigious Culinary School. This book charts her personal story around the loss of 2 lesser-valued senses, smell and taste, and also contains a more scientific journey into olfaction.
Like Birnbaum, I am someone who had a profound awareness of living in a world full of aroma, a good smell memory, a strong realisation of the fact that the world is full of aromatic messages, and smelled my way around my world with as much pleasure as hearing it and seeing it. Like Birnbaum, I have experienced anosmia. And the loss of the particular pleasure olfaction brings is something I mourn. I’ve been fortunate not to lose my sense of taste, but from time to time I am anosmic, hyponosmic and, gloriously, sometimes fully scenting – without fully knowing, or being able to predict, why I move through these states rather than having a steady sense of smell
So, I know that part of my extreme pleasure in this book is because it feels personal and pertinent – but even if I were not intermittently anosmic, I would have adored this book. Birnbaum (who after having to give up her culinary dreams, trained as a journalist) is a beautiful and evocative writer, particularly about olfactory and gustatory experiences, painting her way through smells and tastes with her choice of words. I found I could smell the smells she was describing, and taste the tastes, through her ability to engage my imagination fully.
There is some fabulous, clearly explained science within these pages (lots of it, I revelled in her ability to be so clear about olfaction, the flavour industry, perfumery, the testing of olfactory neurological disorders) However, she also explains a personal, evocative, profound journey about how odour cements and enriches relationships.
This book is a wonderful marriage of head, heart, soul and gut – olfaction and taste are both the most visceral of senses – they are, after all, how we take in ‘other’ whether that other is the food we eat to live, or the real chemistry, the odour molecules, of the world. We literally breathe each other in. Birnbaum explains both the metaphysics and the physics of this, and how aromatics are part of our 3D experience of the world, profoundly, movingly, and most engagingly.
Highly, highly recommended