Many food writers, at some point in their careers, drop the Proust bomb. Whether they’re eating mushrooms in a field in Jerusalem or slurping noodles in downtown Beijing, at some point their soul will be stirred, a childhood memory emerges and they write: “Like Proust and his madeleines, I feel myself whisked away to the past…” Heck, even I’ve done it.
Yet how many of these food writers have actually read Proust? How many of you have actually read Proust? All we really know of Proust is that he ate a madeleine and felt memories wash over him.
That’s about to change. See, it just so happens that the current book on my summer reading syllabus (built from the lectures Nabokov gave at Cornell) is “Swann’s Way” by Proust. It’s the first book in his massive six book masterwork “In Search of Lost Time.” I like this quote from Virginia Woolf on the front flap: “My greatest adventure was undoubtedly Proust. What is there left to write after that?”
I’ve finished the first part of the first section, “Combray” and on page 45 I suddenly spotted that passage that was known to me before I even began the book. It’s like seeing clips from a famous movie that you’ve never seen—like “Here’s looking at you, kid” or “Rosebud”–and then actually watching the movie and understanding the context. The madeleine episode in “Swann’s Way” comes at the end of a long lyrical account of some of his childhood; specifically the desperate need he had for his mother to kiss him goodnight. I won’t spoil it by revealing what happens (and it may seem, when you start reading it, that not much is happening at all: but eventually there’s story) I’ll simply jump to the cookies.
I ate these rainbow cookies the other day on Bleeker Street with friends:
If I were deceitful, I’d tell you they whisked me away to my childhood home, where mom would surprise me with packages of rainbow cookies from the bakery. And it’s not that that’s not true: she did surprise me with rainbow cookies from a bakery. But the thing is she still DOES surprise me when I come home with rainbow cookies so they’re a constant; that memory has never been deeply buried and suddenly shot out when triggered by one of my senses. That’s why reading Proust himself is helpful: he has a very clear definition of what it means to have a madeleine moment.
“It is the same with our past. It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.”
The madeleine bit lasts for three pages. I recommend that if you are going to read the book, you don’t read the following quotes because they’re so much more magical to encounter in context–after getting there with Proust. But if you’re a lazy ho-bag, here’s the bit where he puts it in his mouth:
“…I carried to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine.” (NOTE: his mother offers him tea which he usually refuses but this time he accepts.] “But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Where could it have come to me from–this powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp it?”
He goes on to identify the memory–it takes him a while–and “as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me (though I did not yet know and had to put off to much later discovering why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street, where her bedroom was, came like a stage set to attach itself to the little wing opening onto the garden that had been built for my parents behind it….”
That’s a beautiful passage, is it not? And I love this bit that comes before it: “But, when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.”
If that weren’t the grandest defense ever for writing about food and caring about food, I don’t know what is. “Smell and taste”: this is what you pay for when you go to Masa, or Jean-Georges, or Babbo; this is what you long for when you remember your grandmother’s cooking or your last trip to Europe. I remember when my great-grandmother Helen died we still had some of her nightgowns hanging in our closet (she sometimes stayed with us) and they smelled like her. I missed her so much (she was the jolliest woman ever) and I remember going into that closet and smelling her clothes to try to bring her back a little. It’s amazing how the brain works; how sensory triggers can unlock buried treasure chests of memory.
So in conclusion, before you drop the P-bomb, remember not to take it lightly. Proust’s madeleine ain’t no rainbow cookie. It’s a spiritual thing, a matter of chance, not something you can self-induce. Have you ever been taken by surprise tasting something, smelling something, hearing something that you couldn’t identify but that conjured up your past? Congratulations. Proust dropped his bomb on ya.