Memories of Madeleine
French writer Proust took an erotic pleasure in tasty morsels. Highly vulnerable and sensitive, he found a sensual and poetic language to express such experiences. It is fascinating to read of his delight in an asparagus whose “iridescence” and “celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures that had been pleased to assume vegetable form”.*
The probably most famous scene from his novel In Search of Lost Times takes us to a higher dimension of culinary arts. Somewhat disheartened at the prospect of a dreary morning, the narrator says: “I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure…”
All at once, an entire universe of childhood memories opens up. Every Sunday, when the narrator was small, he would say good morning to his Aunt Leonie and receive a little madeleine dunked in lime-blossom tea in return. With the tender taste on his tongue: “…all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”
Smells and tastes travel directly to our brain stems, which is why these senses are considered our oldest and most reliable. We are deceived less often by our memories of them than we are by memories that rely on our eyes and ears. Marcel Proust demonstrates this. His genius lies in remembering not only times past, but also the visual experiences of the child that make the world bigger and wider. And all because of a delicious little cake.