Eating My Words: Marcel Proust’s Evocative Madeleines

Written by Rebecca Peters-Golden.
In Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, or more recently translated as In Search of Lost Time) the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea famously brings an ocean of memories crashing down on the narrator. Proust’s stream of consciousness gets at the possibilities not only of modernist prose, but of food’s ability to conjure the ghosts of the past in the present. The smell of a pot simmering on the stove can put us in mind of the long-ago afternoon spent perfecting the recipe with a friend; the taste of bread fresh out of the oven makes us feel like the grandmother who taught us to bake it is with us still. Because food is taste, smell, touch, and sometimes even sound, its powers of conjuration are especially powerful.

Proust's lemon madeleines, via
The first time I ever tried a madeleine was at a tea shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a rainy autumn day and the air smelled of rotting leaves. I was meeting a friend and felt very grown up. I was fifteen. I had no idea what madeleines were, but I loved the name—like Madeline, one of my favorite picture books—and thought the seashell shape was beautiful. When I bit into the first one, it was gummy and oversweet and, unlike the narrator in À la recherche, dipping it in my tea did nothing except coat the top of the liquid with an oily lemon fingerprint. But they were French and beautiful, so of course I pretended that I liked them, just as I’d pretended I knew what I was ordering.

I didn’t taste another madeleine for a long time; not until I made them three years ago after I found a beautiful mini-madeleine pan at a garage sale in Bloomington, Indiana. The lemony smell of them baking reminded me of the plastic tub of lemon frosting I requested on my birthday cake the year I was eight, and I was sure they would turn out badly, like the ones I’d had so many years before. Even these, though, were pleasant memories—tea with a friend; the sticky sweetness of the lemon cake that no one else in my family could stand to eat, leaving it all for me.

Proust's lemon madeleines, via
To my surprise, my madeleines were light and delicate, more cakey than the ones I’m sure had sat for days in the teashop’s dusty counter, and less sweet. So, as exaggerated as Proust’s meditation may be, and as much of a pop culture cliché as his madeleines have become, it’s never a bad thing to luxuriate with food, letting faded memories gain strength as we eat.

“And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine” (À la recherche du temps perdu).

RPGRebecca is a writer living in Philadelphia. When not writing fiction and poetry, she blogs about young adult books at Crunchings & Munchings and copy edits at Hermes Editing. She likes bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and cheese. But mostly cheese.

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  1. Margalit says

    What a delightful post! I often think of places and people when I cook; this was a lovely reminder. I’ll look forward to trying these madeleines! They sound wonderful and are so pretty.