More than just cake: Proust’s madeleine and finding ourselves through food

Proust’s monumental novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) was published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927. It is renowned for two things – its length, and ‘the episode of the madeleine’: 

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin… And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

Delicious though they may be, this episode is not really about the madeleine, the ‘short, plump little cakes…which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell’. Proust’s infamous musings on his madeleine dipped in hot tea are a vehicle for the novel’s primary sentiment: the capacity of a sensory experience to unlock involuntary memory. Indeed, recently published manuscripts of À la recherche du temps perdu have revealed that Proust’s metaphor began as toasted bread mixed with honey, and later, a biscotto, or hard biscuit. It was Proust’s editor who suggested employing the madeleine, a visually beautiful and therefore memorable delicacy. The metaphor retains a prominent position in the French imagination; in France, a madeleine de Proust is a colloquial expression to convey a sound, taste or smell which excavates a buried memory, and the French edition of Desert Island Discs was known for a time as ‘Madeleine Musicals’.

The evocation of memory through food is a universal sensation. It is poignantly chronicled in the animated film Ratatouille, when one bite of the eponymous dish transports the acerbic food critic Anton Ego back to his mother’s kitchen. We all have a particularly nostalgic food which reminds us of home. One of my own strongest food memories is tucking into a piping hot bowl of my granny’s ‘apple snow’ – hot stewed apple topped with a duvet of billowy, toasted meringue. Today, one mouthful takes me straight back to her blue-and-white striped oilcloth-covered table, in a draughty kitchen occupied by several terriers, and feebly heated by a battered old AGA cooker.

Of course, there are other means of triggering memory – music, for instance, can hold strong associations of a certain time or place. However, if I was to reflect on some of the more poignant moments in my life, a great deal of these memories are centred around food. According to the anthropologist John S. Allen, this is no coincidence:

Evolution has seen to it that food in general may be a privileged target of memory in the brain…The hippocampus is particularly important for forming long-term, declarative memories – those that can be consciously recalled and which contribute to the autobiographies that we all carry around in our heads.

Our brains’ response to food is fundamentally rooted in the fact that we need food to survive. The hippocampus (the part of the brain critical for memory) is directly linked to the digestive system, and is specially tailored to form memories about food in order to help us find food for survival. However, as agriculture evolved and the acquisition of food became less of an elemental struggle for many of us, food abundance became a tool for the enhancement of memory at a cultural level. This relative abundance has enabled food to garner a symbolic status, and it has since become a system of cultural communication or even language of its own. 

Taste memories are so evocative precisely because they are so sensory; memories centred around eating are the only kind to arouse all five senses, creating particularly rich and vivid vignettes. When we encounter a food memory, we don’t just think about what we were eating, but who we were with, and in what environment. Food memories from childhood are especially nostalgic since they can induce the reassuring feelings of safety and comfort that so often come from the family experience; whilst we can recreate a favourite childhood dish, it is impossible to recreate the context.

If food is intertwined with memory, it is also instrumental in connecting individuals not only to their own identity, but to others as well. The food we prepare, eat and remember enables us to communicate who we are and where we come from, and in turn, can connect us to others.

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