20 Questions with Author Molly Birnbaum

Interview conducted by Social Media Intern Linda Yung. You can Read more of her work at her blog, spoonhau5.

Molly Birnbaum

Molly Birnbaum will be discussing Season to Taste at CGNE's November Book Club

1. Favorite childhood snack:

My mother used to make applesauce every fall. I loved to eat it warm, with lots of cinnamon sprinkled on top. Then I would add a big scoop of cold vanilla yogurt, which kind of melted into the sauce. In fact, that was the only way my family could get my little brother, Ben, to eat fruit for years.

2. Best place to relax in greater Boston area:

Arnold Arboretum. I like to pack a picnic—a baguette, some kind of soft and creamy cheese, and a pile of fresh peaches (in the summer) or ripe pears (right now). It’s an escape from the crowded streets of Harvard Square, where I live.

3. Go-to last minute dinner:

I take an onion, slice it up, and cook it over low heat until it gets nice and caramel brown. When it’s done, I set it aside, turn up the heat and add some sliced up Andouille sausage to the pan, which I often have around the house, because my boyfriend is from New Orleans and he got me hooked, and get that all crisp and browned. Meanwhile, I bring a pot of water to boil, salt it, and cook up some spaghetti, or linguini, or whatever pasta is in the cupboard. As it cooks, I add a few large handfuls of baby spinach to the pot with the sausage, and the onion back in, too. When the pasta is done, it goes in as well, along with a bit of pasta water, salt and pepper and hot pepper flakes. Just before serving, some Parmesan. So good.

4. If you were a fruit, what would you be?

An apple. Sometimes I’m rather tart. But with a little time in the oven, I’m a real softie.

5. Guilty pleasure:

Ice cream. Any kind. Any time. Any where.

6. Guilty pleasure midnight snack:

See previous question.

7. Favorite class in college:

I studied art history as an undergraduate. With this as a major, I was able to spend a semester studying abroad in Italy. While there, I took a class on pasta. This was in the very beginning of what became my obsession with food and cooking, and really taught me the power of making things from scratch. I’ll never forget that first butternut squash ravioli, which we ate with browned butter and sage. It was a classic dish, made in the way it’s been made for generations, but for me, it was a whole new world.

8. Most memorable meal you’ve had:

When reporting Season to Taste, I had the luck, and pleasure, to eat at Grant Achatz’s restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago. He is a chef who truly understands the importance of smell—and all of the senses—and uses that in his cooking in different, fantastical ways. My meal lasted for hours, and vacillated between simply delicious and intellectually challenging. The most memorable moment, I think, was the sweet potato tempura that arrived at the table on a smoking cinnamon stick.

9. Biggest inspiration:

In cooking? After thinking about that meal at Alinea, I’d have to say Grant Achatz. He was diagnosed with tongue cancer right in the midst of his meteoric rise in the world of restaurants and food. As a result of the treatment, he lost his ability to taste. While he did eventually recover—from both the cancer, and the treatment—he had to spend more than a year cooking without all of his senses. But he made it work. And that is a huge inspiration. But in writing? Oliver Sacks, who I was fortunate enough to spend time with during the reporting of Season to Taste as well, is a master at taking the flaws of the human body, the mysteries of science, and turning them into a narrative.

10. Signature pot-luck dish:

I recently brought a batch of Cook’s Illustrated’s Swedish Meatballs, with quick-pickled cucumbers and lingonberry jam to a pot-luck. They went fast.

11. Favorite food-related television show:

I will not lie: I love Giada de Laurentiis.

12. Preferred cuisine:

It’s hard to narrow it down. But Italian? I’ll never say no to a good piece of pizza.

13. Favorite travel destination:

This is impossible to narrow down. I loved the street food of a trip to Kunming, China. The vineyards from a drive up to Salta, Argentina. More recently, I took a trip with my boyfriend to Romania, among other spots, and fell in love with the colorful painted monasteries still intact from the Middle Ages in Bucovina. The tripe soup that we tried there, however, I could probably live without.

14. One thing you can eat every day for the rest of your life:

Mustard. I think this is genetic. When my father was a boy, he actually had scurvy because the only thing he would eat was mustard sandwiches.

15. Favorite time of year:

Apple season. (I love apples.)

16. Signature drink:

Negroni. I love bitter things.

17. Favorite restaurant in the Boston area:

Craigie on Main. I worked as a dishwasher and prep chef for Tony Maws when it was still the Craigie Street Bistrot, before I lost my sense of smell. He puts out some of the most interesting, high quality cuisine in the city.

18. Best advice you’ve ever received:

You’ll sleep when you’re dead, from my mentor at Columbia, where I earned my masters in Journalism.

Molly Birnbaum is the author of Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, CGNE’s Book Club choice for November. Molly will be joining the book club for a Q&A and discussion on her book.

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