The Chef Who Couldn’t Taste

Molly Birnbaum was about to start cooking school when she lost her sense of smell. Instead she wrote about the science of scent—and learned why some strippers earn more and why Ben and Jerry’s tastes the way it does.

06.23.11 2:30 AM ET

In her evocative debut book, Season to Taste, Molly Birnbaum recounts the experience of losing her sense of smell when a car ran her over one morning while she was out for a jog. She was 22 and due to start culinary school in just a few months. Unable to smell, essentially unable to taste, and unsure that she ever would recover, Birnbaum was forced to switch course.

She spoke to The Daily Beast about the science of smell and the art of finding her way.

You do such a vivid job in the book of conveying to the reader exactly what has gone missing in your life as a result of losing your sense of smell. But after the accident, did you struggle to convey the loss to the people around you?

It was difficult to explain. Smell is an invisible sense. No one could see it on me—I looked normal. At first, the only thing that bothered me about losing my sense of smell was the fact that I couldn’t taste, because I was training to be a chef and flavor was a huge part of my life. So when I realized that I couldn’t smell, I was just devastated that food tasted monotone. But then as time went on, I began to worry about the memories that might be gone. Like my mother’s perfume had always brought back these very strong memories of childhood and home. Or if it was a specific one that I bought for her from Italy, it was these memories of studying abroad. I realized there were all these memories that I’d once had that I didn’t know how to access anymore… I could look back on them and think, oh yeah, I remember Italy, but we’ve all had that experience where we smell something surprising but familiar and it’s that sudden, emotional memory in a way that’s much more moving than just thinking about the same event. It was that depth of memory that I was really terrified I had lost.

Why is so much known about our other senses compared to what’s known about smell?

That’s something I wondered the whole time I wrote the book. I think, just on a basic level, smell is not something that is so important to the everyday. We need our other senses in a much more concrete way. Scent is invisible. You can get through your day without it. Over time, you realize how much you’re losing without it, but it’s not critical. People haven’t really realized how much smell is a portal into learning about other things in our lives, like flavor, and like sexual attraction.

You met so many interesting scientists along your way, like Stuart Firestein, Oliver Sacks, and Richard Doty. What do they consider to be the biggest mysteries in the field of smell?

It’s still not entirely clear how we perceive smell, what exactly is happening to the smell molecules on their way to the brain. There’ve been a lot of theories in the past. Most people think it’s a lock-and-key analogy—smell molecules come up and fit into certain olfactory neurons in specific ways. Other people have brought up theories of vibration. Other questions that are big are how smell relates to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. How can we take smell and use it to understand more about the human body and its aberrations and diseases?

What makes scientists think we should?

There are so many unanswered questions and smell relates to so many of them, like pheromones, and like these diseases. Also, the olfactory neurons are constantly regenerating even in a healthy nose, like stem cells, so many scientists wonder if these neurons can be used in other ways. Can we use them to help people who’ve been paralyzed or are struggling with other diseases?

Let’s talk about pheromones. I was surprised to learn how much uncertainty surrounds the question of whether or not human pheromones even exist. What’s the state of understanding on this subject?

We don’t really have very clear answers about human pheromones. There’s pretty solid science that pheromones exist and work in the behavior of animals. With humans, it’s much more controversial. In many animals, there’s a separate pathway of the olfactory system called the vomeronasal organ—or the VNO—that has been shown to process pheromones. It’s not the sole way of processing pheromones, but it plays a role. In humans, the developing fetus also has a VNO, but it disappears before we come to full term. So there’s something in our past that relates to this but it’s not clear that we do react to pheromones.

One fascinating study on this was done in 2007—on strippers and their tips, in which women who were ovulating, so at their most fertile, earned much more in tips than those who were on their period or on birth control. We don’t know why that’s happening, but it is. So what does that say about pheromones?

And to connect that back to your own experience...

It’s not clear that pheromones are something that you smell. One of the conflicts in the definition of pheromones is they are invisible, non-scented chemicals that get communicated through the skin, or through another part of the olfactory system, or are they something that you smell and react to on a conscious level—or are they both? I was worried that if I couldn’t smell, that might hinder my ability to react to these chemicals that may or may not be floating around when I interacted with anyone. And no one could tell me the answer to that.

Through the process of losing and slowly regaining your smell, you highlight the connection between mood and smell.

That was one of the most surprising things about this whole experience: My ability to smell shifted with my moods. Over months when I was feeling down, I found that my ability to smell decreased. At times when I felt happy, my ability to smell really increased. Smells came back faster and more intensely. I talked to a number of people about the connection between smell and emotion, and there are no clear answers, but there are theories. I talked to one scientist, Rachel Herz, who has a theory—she calls it the depression-olfaction loop—in which, when you lose your sense of smell, you grow depressed, and when you’re depressed, you lose your ability to smell. This is possibly because our olfactory system is close to or attached to parts of our brain that process emotion and memory and so if one is dulled, the other is, too.

You talk about how mood affects your ability to smell, and you also talk about how smell affects your mood. Let’s talk about the armpit study.

This was a study in which women were exposed to two different swabs—one without scent, one taken from a male armpit. And these women reported feeling much calmer, as opposed to the women who were smelling the non-male scent.

The implications of that are shocking to me.

Truly. We don’t realize what smell does in terms of mood or context because it’s such an invisible and silent sense. And so it affects us in ways that we’re not conscious of. But it’s there in the periphery, we’re smelling it, we’re experiencing it, and it does affect us. That’s not to say that I think people who are single are never going to feel calm, that’s certainly NOT the case.

You write about how, after you’d regained your initial sense of smell, you still struggled to know what was what. A familiar smell would hit you and you’d think, I know what that is, what is that? What was that experience like?

That was frustrating to say the least, but we all often encounter smells and we don’t’ know what they are until we have context. When they come out of nowhere, they can be very confusing. And especially so for me, because I’m not entirely sure that my sense of smell came back exactly as it was before. Before the accident, skunks smelled bad to me. But I like the smell of skunk now. It smells good to me, in some strange way.

There’ve been a lot of people who lose or damage their sense of smell, or are born without one. I was shocked to learn that Ben, of Ben and Jerry’s, was one of them. To you, that made perfect sense. Why?

I spoke to Ben Cohen on the phone and he told me that he’s had very, very little sense of smell since he was young. One of the reasons that Ben and Jerry’s has so many delicious, flavorful, textural chunks is because he couldn’t really taste the flavor of the ice cream, so he wanted something to really perk his interest.

What did you eat during that time when you couldn’t smell?

It was very much based on texture and temperature. I liked dueling textures—something soft and something crunchy at the same time. Something hot with something cold. I ate a LOT of spicy stuff. I put Tabasco sauce on almost anything because I could feel the heat on the nerves of my mouth, rather than any kind of herb that I had to smell in order to understand. It was all about how it felt in my mouth, rather than how it tasted or smelled.

In the end, even though you got your smell back, why did you choose not to return to culinary school?

I fell in love with food because I fell in love with the context—the history and the culture—how you bring your family and friends together around the table, how feeding people makes you happy, and the smells bring back memories, and it’s just this beautiful thing that food can bring to people. But as the years went on and I couldn’t smell and couldn’t taste and I began writing about smell, I fell in love with the possibility of words and what it means to write. At 22, I thought I was on a path that would be a straight line to forever—as we often do, though it’s hardly ever the case.

Edited and condensed by Casey Schwartz.