cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Proust's Cookie

But my cup of tea

Excerpt from Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time: Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, 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 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 at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?...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.

Proust's cookie was not really a cookie, it was a cake. But to this measure i here provide no astute revelation, for what would it matter if it had been a cookie, a cake, a pot of kraut, or the dried-out back end of the prior nights dinner loaf. The cookie matters not; the chicken or the egg right, what matters is the expedited fashion in which the cookie propelled him down memory's wistful garden lane. Now reader, special brownies aside, is it possible for the average Joe, comme toi et moi, to achieve such prompt from a taste--from any taste? Perhaps it is not sweet little old mum who brings you a dainty cake to jog your romantic existential query into your past self, but perhaps for you it is your cousin Leon whose generous offerings of overcooked blood sausage on your tuesday evening visits that bring you back to that street corner at age twelve accepting from that vendor what you thought to be a neuveau bratwurst "stick style" but in fact, and to your hearts horror, produced for you a mouthful of iron. Proust didn't give a shit about the cookie or the tea; though many a food writer and culinary historian have spun the reference to spur their own crusade to create the bonafide proustian madelein--what the asthmatic mama's boy wanted us to focus on was the concept of involuntary memory triggers. Side note: did you know that Freud was a coke user? When we examine food as a memory trigger in allusion or comparison to Proust, we miss the point. Food as a stimulus for memory should not be an involuntary sub-conscious exercise. no no no. Where is any humanistic purpose in that? Perform it as an exercise.

Memory, memory, i'll tell you a bit about memory. Proust....mumble mumble...Proust....mumble
mumble...n'est ce pas? Rang the droning comentary of Monsieur Quoi during our stimulating literature course at le Catho--me, averting my gaze from the window framed roof-tops: hmm? ah oui oui, n'est pas, oui oui Proust, quel(le) homme bien sur...attendez--on parle de quoi? Here is what i tread on Proust: (note-i do not imply that i have stomped his marble at Lachaise ) I envy the man and I want a cookie equivalent. I want to twine together a taste with a remembrance so strong that my body physically aches under its pressure. I echo the sentiment of acting mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow. But then i look down and see my tea. No sight to behold, my tea is always there, my constant companion, the warriors sword, the journalist's pen, Linus's blanket. I want to create a memory with this tea, i muse, though perhaps it would be wise to cease musing out loud. What will i remember it as?

I will remember it as yesterday, as tomorrow, and as today. I will remember it as morning, as midday, and as sundown. As a tireless companion to late night essays on Roman conquest, as a comfort to both soul and soles after early morning runs. No discrimination of weather; will take pleasantly in positive as well as negative mercury. Sometimes with dinner, sometimes as dinner. You cannot hide from me--i'll search and consume you in Dublin, in Paris, in Rome. The kitchens of every hostel, you they proudly boast: in Krakow, in Lisbon, in Lille you succumb to my will. At home, the round crystal jar forever bursting with your geminates. Half full, and sometimes half empty you are left on counters and chairs in the dash to the door. In the car you've been many a time, sloshing against the plastic cylinder contracted for your containment. I have sipped you with sugar, and gulped you bitterly without. Always with milk, though sometimes with soy (for here when i say "tea" i am referring solely to the milky English style. all others need not apply.) Too often you are mixed with tears, the salty reminder that more often than not life is not perfect. But more is the reprise--and not to mention sweeter and less diluted--when mixed with cheer. But I don't need to create a memory with this tea, it creates one every moment. It's a memory of everyday this tea, a memory everyday of--me.That being said, perhaps i have an unhealthy relationship with this tea bag?

Well we know Proust liked Madeleines, but what about Montaigne? Perhaps a rum cake, maybe. And Voltaire, Rousseau? Rousseau would prefer something a bit hereby; of potpourri in the feeling of having just ingested
perfume thus triggering the gagging reflex, not unlike moonlit river boat cruising. But i can see Baudelaire with a nice plump poppy seed cake. What would dead French literary figures favorite food stuff be. Who cares? Exactly. But you know, someone must.

So reader this is now where i ask you for your pity and good wishes--a good luck, a bonne chance, a boa sorte, a shot of tequila, whatever--for this monday i am to take my oral comprehensive exam on French literature (in French) and am one step short of nervously breaking down (ahhh, you sigh, now it all makes sense.) But what do i know about French literature? Let us put it simply as minds are not meant to stay as tabula rasa. Pass the exam and receive a bachelors degree in the French language. Fail, and well...i'm down to one degree. What does a BA in the French language do anyways? Dunno. What do i need a "degree" for to tell me that i can speak
French--i think it is evident whether i can or not just by opening my mouth non? But for some reason i want it. And the only thing separating us is a one hour conversation on the dead. Will it get me any nearer to ceasing to feel mediocre, contingent, and mortal--well the tea and cookie did it for Proust. So perhaps the panel members will allow me their audience with teacup in hand.

à bientôt


Lori said...

Your beautiful writing and photos are always so inspiring. Best wishes, luck and whatever else you may need for Monday!! You will do great!

Christy said...

What a beautifully written post, Mallory!! I love how you described the involuntary trigger of memories through the senses---sometimes these memories lurk just beneath the surface, waiting to catch you unaware---just like what those madeleines revealed to you when you dipped it in your cup of warm tea.

I just lost my job earlier this week so I am in need of the proverbial madeleine and tisane, though I can't say that I am devastated by what I have lost. I thought that I would have minded it more.

On the other hand though, memories about food could drive you to the brink of insanity due to the incessant quest on finding that perfect (insert food here). And fair enough that you have eaten said food at some point during your childhood and the taste of lesser replicas at this point in your life revolts you to the core. Or you could be left stranded in a country where said food have never existed, nor ever will. I don't know which is more tragic.

But anyway, you'll do great on your french exam. Just go in bearing a basket of madeleines and a big pot of tisane (for the panel members).

Mallory Elise said...

thank you~ i only "half" failed it the first time. at least i get to keep doing it.

its NICE to know my public subjects are only interested in physical cakes and not metaphorical cakes. hehehe. all right all right. let them eat cake then-

Aran said...

your photos are getting so, so good mallory! wow!!

Sierra said...

yummmmmmm tea....I want should make me a cup!