Molly Birnbaum, creator of the blog My Madeleine, always dreamed of being a cook. Even if it meant starting at the bottom as a dishwasher, she was determined to see her plan through. But when a car accident left Birnbaum badly injured, she was soon faced with a new challenge—the loss of her sense of smell. Gone were the aromas of freshly baked bread, garlic, roses, even her boyfriend’s familiar scent. Birnbaum chronicles it all in her savory memoir, Season to Taste, charting her path back to the kitchen, where she determined to find out how and why smell works—and how she could get hers back.
Read more about food and life with Roy Cloud's To Burgundy and Back Again.
Where were you in life when you decided that you wanted to cook?
I fell in love with cooking in college. I spent the summer volunteering in Africa, which was a fascinating, overwhelming and devastating experience. I really was impressed with the culture of food I saw there despite the conditions. And then I brought my own past into the kitchen when I made an apple pie with my host mother. That was the first time I’d cooked in a strange environment. From there, I went straight to Italy, which was such a strange juxtaposition. There was an excess of food and culture and joy. For me, it brought into focus the power food has and the great joy and celebration it can bring. I just fell in love.
Do you know if all of your smells have returned at this point?
I think they have all returned, but it’s hard to know. It has been a long time since I’ve been around someone who can smell something I can’t.
Were you at all interested in science or medicine before you began researching your own loss of smell?
I did not have much of a science background. I just wasn’t attracted to it. I considered it to be nothing more than boring textbooks. But when the accident happened to me and I could no longer smell, I became interested. I began to realize the power of smell and how it affected my life in such a deep way. Then all of the nodules and neurons and atoms became very applicable to my life and I grew kind of obsessed with learning about it. I don’t want people to cringe at the science I’ve included in the book so I tried to incorporate it in an interesting way with my own story.
Is there one smell you missed the most—or one you missed the least?
There are a lot of smells that meant a lot to me growing up—my mother’s perfume, roast chicken, fresh bread, smells of home and of the kitchen. I didn’t miss the bad smells. I was OK not being able to smell something foul.
You began baking more, using baking’s precise measurements vs. cooking’s smell-and-taste method. Do you prefer cooking savory or baking sweet?
I love to bake. I love to eat baked goods most. I also love to cook and as my sense of smell has come back, I’ve become more comfortable with the savory side of cooking, and I’ve had better results. I love to have people over and bring them together at the table, with whatever I’m preparing in the kitchen.
When going through this, did people tell you things like “Oh, you’re lucky you can’t smell this giant pile of rotting garbage?” Though good natured, I’m sure being called “lucky” smarted.
There was that, and I understand what they meant. It was still frustrating. And I will say that if there’s one smell I had to lose, it would be garbage dump or stinky public bathroom.
Have you been back in touch with Chef Tony Maws, who gave you your start?
I have. The restaurant where I started is in a different location now, but I’ve eaten there a number of times. I believe [Craigie on Main] is one of the best restaurants in all of Boston.