Memories. You can taste them.
Tastes bring them back, in fact. Tastes and smells. Smells do it so accurately – a hand cream or shampoo or floor cleaner and I can almost see the place from my childhood where I smelled it then. Or the taste of something I haven’t had in so…
We know what a taste trigger of a memory is, a little ping into the wall of memory that cracks it and releases a flood. It’s Proust’s madeleine.
Remember Proust’s madeleine? “Everyone” “knows” about Proust’s madeleine. Actually, the first time I heard about it I was quite irritated. I was driving my dad’s car home from downtown Edmonton, having ushered a show at the Citadel Theatre, and I had CBC Radio on and some talking people were talking. “We all know about Proust,” said one, “that he ate a madeleine and…”
No, I didn’t. Who is Proust? And what is a madeleine? And why should I know? It was like my first time, as a child, visiting an Anglican church (on my first visit to Toronto, too, as it happens) and being very put out when everyone else seemed to know exactly where to turn to in their prayer books and what lines to recite by heart, theretofore unheard of by me. Do you mind?
Well. Proust dipped a madeleine, a little biscuit, famous from Commercy in France, in a cup of tea – no, actually, of limeflower tea, or tisane, or what some Anglophone tea-makers are trying to call teasan but no I don’t think so no – and memories of his childhood came flooding back. Flooding back. And apparently Proust is one of the greatest novelists of all time and he wrote an extraordinarily long novel that people are still studying and arguing over (those 32 or so who have read it, anyway) and it was so long he couldn’t manage to see the ass end of it off to press before he was toast, pushing up limeflowers himself. And here’s an author on Slate (nice web magazine, Slate, they sometimes publish me, though I never find out in advance because it’s always a pick-up from The Week) going through baking exercises to see if he can produce a madeleine of just the right kind of crumbs that Proust wrote of stimulating memories. Proust wrote it so we must replicate it or diet trying. Because that is what people do: Someone or something becomes famous and people revere it and argue over it and rearrange their kitchens for it because it is famous. Mona Lisa. Tell me why the Mona Lisa is so much better than any of several paintings by Gerhard Richter or Andrew Wyeth. Because it’s so famous. Life is a succession of idols to burn incense before, apparently.
I’ve never really understood why people would rather argue over, for instance, whether Kant said this or that, exactly, than over whether this or that idea Kant expressed is more optimally in correspondence with observation and experience. And yet there are scholars whose whole career is based on that. Because famous person. Don’t burn your fingertips trying to write with that stick of smouldering incense.
What? Oh. Yes. Sorry, easily incensed. Madeleines. I haven’t eaten one, as far as I can remember. (Wouldn’t it be delicious irony if I had, sometime in my youth, but had forgotten it? I probably have.) But I also haven’t read Proust’s magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past. No, no, sorry, the title that everyone knows and refers to has been corrected. That may sound better because it’s the famous title, but really it’s actually In Search of Lost Time. No, actually, it’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust, that crafty beggar, wrote it in French.
Look, I read Joyce’s Finnegans Wake end to end when I was in second year university, ten pages a day like an exercise program (ergo 63 days). I think that absolves me from reading any other literary tome-stone. Oh, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow too. I think I can skip past David Foster Wallace and proceed into heaven now, thanks. If I want to research lost time, I don’t want it to take all the time I have remaining. I still want what T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock had to look forward to,
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
During which I will taste the mad leanings of words, sometimes maudlin and sometimes middling and sometimes my delight. So. What is a madeleine?
Well, according to my copy (in English translation) of Larousse Gastronomique (inscribed “To James, on your 14th birthday – with love and great expectations! Mom + Dad”), “The recipe for madeleines remained a secret for a very long time. It is said that it was sold for a very large sum [two verys – wow, such important] to the pastry-makers of Commercy, who made of this great delicacy one of the finest gastronomic specialties of their town.” It then proceeds to the recipe, which is 625 g of fine sugar, 625 g or sieved flour, 12 eggs, 1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda, the grated rind of a lemon, a pinch of salt; work together in a bowl until smooth, then add 300 g melted butter, mix well, put in buttered madeleine molds and bake in “a very slow oven.” Seems straightforward enough, but I guess it was one of those “pedo mellon a minno” things, gastronomic version? Or maybe it was improved in the telling. Or maybe the Larousse recipe isn’t quite right. After all, The Oxford Companion to Food says they are “made from egg yolks creamed with sugar and lemon zest, with flour, noisette butter, and stiffly beaten egg whites folded in before baking in little shell-shaped moulds.” Oh, separate the eggs and handle the whole thing like a soufflé? Now, why wouldn’t Larousse say so? Preserving the secret? Who paid them off?
Why are they called madeleines? After some woman named Madeleine, to be sure, but which one? Some say a pastry maker called Avice who worked for Talleyrand invented them. Others say they were brought into fashion by Stanslas Lezinski, father-in-law of Louis XV. In either case, they may have been named for Madeleine Paulmier, who was a pastry cook for one or the other of those aforementioned dudes.
But where does the name Madeleine come from? Not from my friend Madeline Koch, I’m pretty sure, because she’s younger than all that, though she’s so lively you never know, and after all Koch does mean ‘cook’. No, no, it comes from Magdalena as in Maria Magdalena, which is Mary Magdalene, which is Mary of Magdala. She’s the character whose song gets everybody teary-eyed from Jesus Christ Superstar, “I don’t know how to love him,” although I’ve always sort of liked “Pilate’s Dream,” but then I would, it’s a baritone number and I used to do it at auditions. So yeah, she is, according to tradition, the prostitute saved from stoning by Jesus, but actually the Bible doesn’t say that, just that Jesus cast out seven demons from her and she was one of the first to see Jesus after he was resurrected. More recent books have said she was married to Jesus and they had kids, but really that idea came out ages ago in Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which is a towering example of hyperventilative speculative results-oriented “research.”
Towering. Magdala actually comes from Hebrew migdal מגדל meaning ‘tower’. She was from a place with a tower, and researchers think probably it was Magdala Nunayya, ‘fish tower’, near Tiberias, which is now Teverya; I stopped through Teverya when I was in Israel and it was hot and I walked a bit to a box beach and dipped a page of my journal into the Sea of Galilee just so I could say I did and some machine I tried to buy a soft drink from ate my shekels (that’s not slangy, shekels are the unit of currency in Israel). So I got on another bus and went to Nazareth. Which is where Jesus is said to have been from. But let me tell you, you want improved in the telling, try religious sites in the Holy Land. All you see is structures from a few hundred years ago, some of them really gaudy and overdone, built on top of spots that supposedly are where some event in the life of Christ happened two thousand years ago. Somehow the crucifixion and the burial happened upstairs-downstairs from each other in a smoke-smeared church in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth is pretty darn new, you sure wouldn’t see anything like what was there for the angel to tell Mary she was going to have Jesus, but of course it’s nice and all for a church (I prefer gardens, but hey). When I was there the church was suddenly filled with the sound of the call to prayer from a nearby mosque on their loudspeakers. Now that’s layered history for you.
So anyway, the Mary the mother of Jesus is a different Mary from Mary of the fish tower and the tasty little dry biscuits. But they both had the same name, which wasn’t Mary, that’s a New Testament version (and an Anglophone one at that) of a name that’s rendered differently when you see it in the Old Testament. Just as James is really the same name as Jacob (now there’s a story, but later) and Jesus is really the same name as Joshua, Mary is really the same name as Miriam, which is to say Maryam. There are different ideas as to what that name means but never mind, nobody really knows, what it means to people is what it makes them think of. Which is all the people they know named Mary, including of course Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Tyler Moore, and Queen Mary, and Mary Mary Quite Contrary, but not my mother because she’s Mary Anna, which is different.
Well, there it is. Things change over time. Memories get improved in the telling through a hundred visions and revisions. From a few stones we build a tower. Time toasts it, and you drink toasts to it, and then you’re toast. Memory may be provoked involuntarily, cued by a myriad of things, more likely by a jolt to the amygdala than by a bite of mini-Magdala, but what you get when it pours forth is not the small beer of daily life but the small-batch whiskey that it has been distilled to, soaking in the toasted wood of say, why is my glass empty?
Life is full of madeleines, every moment or word another dip in the cup and nibble and recall, but pretty much none of them are actually madeleines. Even the memory cues are improved in the telling. Proust’s prolix peregrinating prose perambulation is thought to have been at base autobiographical, but in an early draft of the book, it was not a madeleine that he took with tea. It was a bit of toast.