Cookin’ with Molly Birnbaum

Writer and editor Molly Birnbaum lost her sense of smell but found her sense of place.

molly birnbaumAuthor Molly Birnbaum was not one of those people who knew she wanted to be a writer when she grew up.

“I didn’t know that I wanted to write at all when I was in college,” says the curly-haired writer, who published her first book at age 28 and at 30, became the first managing editor of Modern Farmer magazine, a quarterly publication that focuses on issues of food production and the way we eat today, in places big and small, all over the world.

Before she knew she wanted to write, Birnbaum discovered that she wanted to cook. She fell in love with food accidentally, while studying art history in Italy during a semester abroad from Brown University.

“I took a cooking class in Italy. We were following these very simple, traditional, Italian, ingredient-focused recipes, but at the same time these recipes had been passed down for generations,” Birnbaum says. She is at her cozy apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where, until recently, she lived – and cooked – when she wasn’t editing copy at Modern Farmer’s office in Hudson, N.Y. “It really opened up kind of a world of what you can see when you start at the plate – the stories that come from that, and the relationships that come from that and the histories that can be told from food and recipes.”

Birnbaum returned to the U.S. with a crazy idea: She was going to become a chef. In June 2005, the spring of her senior year, Birnbaum drove the 53 miles from Brown’s campus in Providence, R.I., to Boston to find a job in a kitchen.

“I went in to this restaurant [in Cambridge] that I had heard great things about and asked for a job,” she says. That restaurant was the former Craigie Street Bistro (now Craigie on Main) from James Beard Award-winning chef Tony Maws. He gave Birnbaum a job as a dishwasher. If she wanted to learn to cook, he said, she would have to do so from the bottom up.

Birnbaum spent long nights that summer elbow-deep in hot, soapy water, cleaning maggots out of trashcans at two in the morning and taking orders from line chefs. It was hard work, but she realized her glimpses into busy restaurant life and the personalities inside the kitchen made great stories. During her days, Birnbaum began writing about her job as a dishwasher. “It helped me to do the work and to move forward with it,” says Birnbaum, who that summer began a blog, “My Madeleine,” to record her musings. “It helped me to distance myself from the actual maggot-cleaning experience to think, ‘I’m going to write about it, and I’m going to use these words to describe the smell.’ And that made it all OK.”

One August morning before work, Birnbaum was out for a run when she was hit by a car. The accident broke both of her legs and, she discovered after leaving the hospital, caused her to lose her sense of smell. Plans to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America, to which she had been accepted, were put on hold while Birnbaum spent the next several months recovering. Without her sense of smell, Birnbaum could not cook. With both of her legs in casts, she could barely walk. So she focused on her writing. “Writing about [the accident] made it feel real to me, like if I could acknowledge what happened and what I was feeling to the people who were reading my blog, then it wasn’t just me suffering alone,” she says.

She found a fan in a Boston-based writer who liked her work and recognized her potential. He offered to edit her posts, and encouraged her to find a job at a magazine when she was well enough to walk again. “I had no idea what to do. I could only just walk again. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t work at a restaurant,” she says. “He told me to move to New York City, to get a job, to see what the business is like from the inside in order to really understand what editors want.” She packed one suitcase and boarded the Chinatown Bus to the city, where she found an apartment in Brooklyn and three roommates.

After three months of searching, Birnbaum landed an unpaid internship at ARTNews Magazine. “I opened mail for them for a couple of months and then they gave me one assignment,” she says. “I had to write a 200-word piece for the front of the magazine about cocktails at the rooftop bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I poured my heart into it.”

The article came back covered in red ink. Her editor handed it to her and said, “Good work. Here’s another one.” Birnbaum cranked out a few more short pieces, working harder each time and soaking up the lessons of the magazine world. “She taught me how to be direct in reporting – to know the story you want to tell before you tell it, to ask questions that mean something, to ask a follow-up question for every question, to always ask, ‘Why?’ I would write drafts and send them to her and she would write back and say, ‘What’s at stake here? Why did that happen? I don’t understand what’s going on here.’ And I would have to re-report it,” Birnbaum says. “It taught me that every single thing matters in writing. Every single sentence has to mean something. Every single word has to have a place in the story, even if that story is about cocktails on the roof of the Met.”

Eventually, Birnbaum was promoted to editorial assistant – a paid position – and after a year and a half, she left to attend the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She knew that she had a story to tell.

“When I moved to New York, I couldn’t smell, but over the course of time that I lived and worked there, my sense of smell slowly began to come back. It was like watching the city change from a blank slate to something that was alive, had color, had smell. And I wanted to understand what was happening to me,” she says.

While at school, Birnbaum began interviewing scientists who specialized in issues related to smell and tracking down people with similar afflictions. It was healing for her to talk to them. “The writing gave me the opportunity to have conversations with people who understood what was happening to me,” she says. “It was a very powerful thing and once I started, it became impossible to stop.”

By the end of graduate school, Birnbaum had completed a proposal for a book about losing her sense of smell, the science of smell and how she learned, slowly, to smell again. But after graduation, Birnbaum put the proposal on hold, moving instead to California to go write obituaries and cover local politics for the Point Reyes Light newspaper. “I spent a lot of time out there talking to people whose loved ones had just died and summarizing what it meant to live a meaningful life,” she says. “And the thing that always came up were the risks the deceased had taken, or not taken, and why.” And so one night, sitting alone in her small apartment after a day at the newspaper, Birnbaum packed up her proposal and sent it off to an agent.

A few months later, on a very cold January morning in 2009, people across the country watched as Barack Obama was sworn into office. And somewhere in Northern California, Birnbaum learned that she had sold her first book proposal, a blend of personal narrative with an investigation into the science behind the sense of smell.

Birnbaum moved back to the East Coast and spent the next 18 months working on the book full-time.

“Molly has two of the most important gifts any writer can have: a deep sense of curiosity and natural charm,” says Matt Weiland, who was Birnbaum’s editor for the book. “She was able to make her efforts to understand her loss of smell (and its recovery) into a kind of quest that the reader takes pleasure in following; one cheers for her right from the first page. She also mastered a near impossible task – to describe scent on the page.”

By the time Season to Taste: How I Lost my Sense of Smell and Found my Way hit stands in 2011, Birnbaum was working at Cook’s Illustrated, editing a book about the science of cooking. “What impressed me most in her writing was the ability to blend personal narrative with complex science. Most writers can do one or other but not both,” says food author Jack Bishop, chef and editorial director at America’s Test Kitchen, who worked with Birnbaum on The Science of Good Cooking.

The juggling act of a job, new book and personal writing was one Birnbaum embraced.

“I got up early and wrote before I went to work,” she says, “so I could use the freshest part of my brain. It made me very tired by the end of the day, but it was worth it.”

She later became senior editor for Cook’s Illustrated magazine and this spring, after two years with the Boston-based company, Birnbaum left to join the editorial team at Modern Farmer shortly after the first issue dropped. It’s a job that gets back to Birnbaum’s first love – cooking – and her second – writing about ingredients, people, traditions and politics that come together to make a meal.

“What I fell in love with when I was first learning to cook in Italy was the story of food beyond the plate – the history of it, the personalities behind it and the social aspect of it,” she says. “What I saw at Modern Farmer was the opportunity to expand the narratives that are being told about food [in general] and food before it hits the plate.”

“I think the best food writing, or anyway the writing about food that means the most,” Wieland says, “is ultimately about much more than food; it’s about ourselves and the way the world feels as we weigh it (and it presses back on us). Molly seems to me to be working in that line – a bit of soul and a good sense of humor.”

Today, Birnbaum thinks back on her own story – with food, with cooking and with writing – and she is happy with the plotline. “So much changes between the ages of 20 and 30,” she says. “I fell in love with cooking at 20, and then at 22, I couldn’t cook. Then I fell in love with writing. Now, at age 30, I have found a way to combine them both. I can cook at home, cook for friends, cook as much as I can and write about it. And the writing about it puts me in contact with the people who are doing it, who are thinking about it and who are inspiring to me. I like where I’ve landed, between them both.”

Julia Rappaport is managing editor of communications and social media for a Boston-based international education nonprofit. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix and online and print magazines.

Tips on the writing life from Molly Birnbaum

On pitching a good story
“Pitches that are good are clear, concise and short. They convey what the story is, why it’s important and why the writer is the one to write it. If you can get all of that across in three paragraphs, that’s a solid pitch.”

On what makes a good story
“The stories that are great to me – from pitch, to first draft, to final draft – are the ones that surprise me, that make me ask questions, that make me realize what’s at stake and what the bigger issues are. They are the stories that make me care.”

On finding time to write when it’s not your full-time job
“Get up early. If I wait until I get home from work, then I’m too tired or too hungry or I just want a glass of wine. But if I make myself get up and do it before I start my day, then I can do it. For me, it’s really about discipline and time management. And finding a writers’ group that meets every couple of weeks is very helpful. My writers’ group gave me the inspiration to write and kept me accountable for the things that I was writing on my own. It helped me set deadlines if I wasn’t writing for publication and allowed me to get feedback.”

On breaking into food journalism
“If you look at a plate of food, there are so many stories you can tell – personal stories, social stories, political stories. My advice for breaking in is don’t be afraid to ‘be the dishwasher.’ Don’t be afraid to do the thing that doesn’t feel like it’s going to get you very far. There are so many stories that aren’t being told right now – stories of food and climate change, of growing food during wartime and of the people around the world who are working to grow things either in small or large batches. And that’s what we’re interested in. I’m just floored by the stories that haven’t yet been told.”

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