Smell is a quiet sense, one often overlooked in favor of sight, sound, taste, and touch. But scent is a powerful tool in experiencing the day-to-day, allowing us to perceive the flavor of roast chicken, to recognize familiar people and places, to resuscitate events from our past. So what happens if it disappears?
I lost my sense of smell when I was hit by a car one morning in 2005. I had been training to be a chef at the time, but the loss affected far more than my work in the professional kitchen. I will speak about my loss, this invisible but vast emptiness that scent once filled. Anosmia, or the clinical name for the loss of scent, affects the ability to taste. It affects memory and emotion, dating and sex. It is understudied and often misunderstood. But it affects a surprisingly large number of people all over the world. I will also speak about the journey that was inspired by my loss. I went on a quest to find people who understood what, exactly, was happening in my body and my brain when I lost my sense of smell – and when I began, very slowly, to gain it back, one scent at a time. I came to understand the intricacies and power of the sense of smell through the lens of my loss. My journey led me around the globe, where I met chefs, perfumers, scientists, and doctors. I also met many anosmics, who, like me, wanted to know: what does it mean to smell?
Molly Birnbaum was born in Boston, raised in its outskirts, and attended Brown University, where she studied art history and architecture but fell in love with cooking and food. Her plan to become a chef was stymied, however, when she lost her sense of smell in an accident. She began to write for The New York Times, ARTnews, the New York Post, and USA Today, among other publications. She was awarded the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship for Arts and Culture from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2008. Today, she works as an associate editor for the public television show America’s Test Kitchen — and can smell almost everything again.