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Scentless Apprentice

MAKING SENSE Six years ago, Molly Birnbaum was hit by a car and became unable to smell.
Her struggle to regain the sense is covered in a new memoir, Season to Taste.

Six years ago, while jogging in Brookline, aspiring chef Molly Birnbaum was struck by an oncoming Ford. The impact broke her pelvis and shattered her skull. But worst of all, it mangled her olfactory nerves, destroying Birnbaum's sense of smell and her ability to taste all but the most overpowering of flavors.

At the time of the accident, Birnbaum had just graduated from Brown University, was about to begin classes at the Culinary Institute of America, and was working as a dishwasher and prep cook at Craigie on Main.

"I fell in love with cooking because I saw it as something much larger than taste and flavor — it has to do with getting rid of cultural barriers and language barriers," the Cambridge resident told me last week at the 1369 Coffee House in Inman Square.

Losing her ability to taste dashed her hopes of becoming a chef.

"When it disappeared, it felt like certain elements of my personality were chopped off and I didn't know what to do," she said.

While recovering, Birnbaum sought answers. She spoke with dozens of people — eminent scientists, an ice-cream mogul, a famous chef — in hopes of understanding her loss. Though she had no science background, Birnbaum tried to teach herself all she could learn about the mechanics of smell. Her search became the subject of a recently published memoir, Season to Taste (Ecco).

"I wanted to figure out what was happening to me," she said. "I began reading and speaking with people, trying to figure out why smell means so much and why my world collapsed when I couldn't smell."

She met others who shared her impairment. Those who suffer, though unlucky, aren't at all rare: there are over three million people in America who have lost some, if not all, of their ability to smell. Not all of them have endured head injuries, either — one can become anosmic from the common cold.

"People who are born without a sense of smell often rely on other senses to make [food] enjoyable and meaningful," Birnbaum said.

One such person is Ben Cohen, whom she contacted shortly after her accident. While researching her condition, Birnbaum discovered that the Ben and Jerry's founder is a famous sufferer of congenital anosmia. In a brief phone call, Cohen told her that he imbues his ice cream with such varied textures because he was born without a sense of taste.

But Cohen never knew what it was like to smell normally. Acquired anosmia is more devastating than its congenital form, Birnbaum said: "It's [the loss of] the smell of the people you love or the smell of your children or your childhood home. It's such an important part of how you place yourself in your world and among the people who you've felt close to, that it really tears people away from familiarity and safety and all these cues."

At her mother's suggestion, Birnbaum penned a letter to the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks. To Birnbaum's surprise, Sacks answered her letter and agreed to meet, first at a café and later at his New York office.

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  Topics: Features , Chicago, Oliver Sacks, Ben Cohen,  More more >
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