Molly Birnbaum is the author of "Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way". She was awarded the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship for Arts and Culture from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2008 and blogs at My Madeleine.
I had never really tried to walk with crutches before, let alone cook while resting on them. But one morning in late October 2005, two months after the car accident that left me with a broken pelvis, fractured skull, and a busted knee, I entered the kitchen one wood-clipped step at a time.
I decided to bake because baking seemed to rely on measurement rather than improvisation, and butter cookies seemed a simple enough choice. I decided to add chocolate, to see if I could taste it. And a pinch of cayenne because at least that I knew I’d be able to feel. Before the accident, I had been training to be a chef and was only months away from my starting date at the Culinary Institute of America, but the kitchen felt strange and unfamiliar in that first crutch-bound day. I didn’t know how to operate without my sense of smell.
I was in love with cooking, eating, and feeding my family and friends, but without a sense of smell, I could no longer perceive flavor. I had the temperature and texture of the food in my mouth. I could see my meal on my plate; I could hear the pork chop sizzling on the stove; I could taste the salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami of each bite on my taste buds. But nothing more. All of the detail, the spices and herbs, the hint of lemon and whoosh of vanilla on the exhale: gone.
I would later learn that my olfactory neurons, which run from the nose to the brain, had been severed in the trauma of the accident. My brain had bounced within my skull when I struck the car’s windshield with the back of my head, sheering the neurons on impact. The molecules of scent radiating off of fresh-baked bread and sautéed garlic could enter my nose, but there were no longer any working channels to send their messages to my brain.
For the first month of my recovery, when my bones healed but my nose stayed blank and mute, I wondered what I could do if I couldn’t taste. Could I cook? Would I want to? As it was, I could barely eat, subsisting on a diet that consisted largely of cottage cheese with salsa, because I loved the texture of the dairy and could feel the spicy tingle of the salsa’s heat from the trigeminal nerve, which wraps around the face and into the mouth.
But in the kitchen, this first day that I felt ready to face the stove, I moved slowly on my crutches. First I turned on the oven, and then hopped gingerly on my good leg over to the cabinet where we stored the pots and pans. Out came the electric mixer, and a bevy of bowls. I grabbed a baking pan without having to move at all. I can do this, I thought. Using one crutch, I shimmied over to the refrigerator, where I grabbed some butter. Then the nearby shelf for sugar and cocoa powder. Okay.
Eventually, I wrangled the cookies into balls of raw dough, onto the baking sheets, and into the oven. I could feel the grainy texture of the sugar, the slippery one to the butter; I could feel the heat emanating from the stove. But no smell. When I removed the first batch of butter cookies from the oven, I could see that they were not pretty. Soft and misshapen in my awkward attempts to keep them even and aligned.
I breathed in over them, registering the sticky heat of their steam, and then I let them cool. In the past, the scent of a finished loaf of bread, vanilla cake, or pan of chocolate chip cookies as they exited the oven gave me a sense of purpose and pride. I had turned raw ingredients into something, something that people would love. The scent was a cue to hunger and pleasure. It would bring people together, leaving at least smiles in its wake. Suddenly, that cue was gone.
But then that evening I sat with my family around the dinner table, a plate of cookies between us. I couldn’t taste the chocolate, or the butter. The cookie crumbled lifelessly in my mouth. But even though the flavor was gone, the laughter was still there. And sometimes, that’s all that counts.