“…I brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had softened a piece of madeleine. But at the exact moment when the mouthful mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I shivered, attentive to this extraordinary thing that was taking place in me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated, no notion of its cause. It had instantly made me indifferent to the vicissitudes of life, made its disasters harmless, its brevity illusory, in the same way that love operates, filling me with a precious essence: or more accurately this essence wasn’t in me, it was me.” –Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann
Shell-shaped madeleine cakes were a part of my life before I ever knew about Marcel Proust and the memory-inducing power of his petites madeleines. When I was a student in Paris, a bakery close to my school sold five madeleines for five francs—a deal! At lunchtime, I’d often make my way down the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs to pick up one of the tidy white bags holding five portable cakes. Sometimes they were still warm. Madeleines were my ideal student snack—simple, toothsome, and shareable. A chocolate éclair or strawberry tartelette would have been more impressive, but the dainty butter cakes comforted me. I imprinted my own madeleine experience well before encountering Proust.
Later, I would discover that Proust, too, found comfort in madeleines. In the first volume of his 3,000 page novel Remembrance of Things Past, tasting a madeleine dipped in tea unleashes the narrator’s memory of taking tea and cake with Aunt Léonie. In French culture, a madeleine de Proust refers to a heart-warming, evocative culinary experience that joins past and present. Madeleine cakes are one of my madeleines de Proust. They bring me back to the sweet, exhilarating sadness of being so far from home. Other sweets unleash my involuntary memory, allowing me a delicious, temporary dance between past and present: Grandma Rose Mary’s orange cookies, Grandma Mary Ellen’s sticky rolls, and the frosted graham crackers Mom served me as a toddler. The frosting was always homemade, and she always served them on a rectangular, strawberry-patterned tray that is still in her kitchen.
What foods bring your past into the present? Tell me about your madeleines de Proust in the comment section.