Thursday, January 1, 2009

Proust's Madeleine

I wish I could remember where I recently ran across a reference to Proust’s madeleine. Intrigued, I googled it, and then I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before. Maybe I had and I wasn’t paying attention. Who knows? It’s not as if I sit around reading Proust, although if you’d like to think I do, I’m fine with that. If only I were that high-browed. I’m never even sure if I’ve pronounced his name correctly—not that it comes up often in my conversations.

Every writer must dream of writing such a deep and enduring metaphor, one that has coined a phrase used in psychology, “involuntary memory.” Proust writes that he was having a bad day, so his mother gave him a snack. He took a spoonful of tea with some crumbs of madeleine floating in it, and suddenly he felt much better. He spends a significant number of words describing his internal search for the memory that tiny sip of tea must have evoked. Eventually he ties it to his aunt having given him bites of her madeleine years before when he was a boy.

Who hasn’t experienced tasting something that transported you back, in both memory and feeling, to another time and place? Often these are fleeting, whispy moments; we barely pause in that place out of present time and space, that place where we are the ghost watching like Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Past. Since I learned about Proust’s Madeleine, I’ve been on the prowl for such an experience, but they’ve been like that lone fly that buzzes and buzzes around your head until you finally get up and find a flyswatter or a section of newspaper, only to have the fly mysteriously disappear until you turn your light off to go to sleep and then just as you’re about to drift off you hear that buzzzzz….you get the idea. I was getting discouraged, thinking maybe my madeleine would never come. And then on Christmas Day, a peanut did the trick.

I invited my usual “family” of friends over for Christmas Dinner. We were eating at 3:00 and I didn’t want people to starve while they waited, and yet I didn’t want them to spoil their dinners, so I put out a basket of peanuts in the shell so they’d have to work for their snack. Phil and Joe were the first ones here. They poured coffee and eggnog for themselves and started shelling peanuts. Phil commented that I’d bought unsalted—totally unintentional on my part—but they still ate them until it was time to make the gravy.

After everyone had gone home and the dishes were done, I grabbed a peanut on my way out of the kitchen, thinking as I did that I might as well just put them out for the squirrels. Who likes unsalted peanuts? I cracked the shell, pulled it apart with my fingernails, slipped the peanuts out, popped them in my mouth and chewed.

All of a sudden I was standing outside a three-sided tent in the yard of the courthouse, which stood in the middle of the square in the small Iowa town where I grew up. Packed snow crunched under my boots as I waited in line behind what seemed like hundreds of other kids. It was probably only five. In the tent, sitting on a big chair, straw covering the ground around him, sat Santa, and soon I would sit on his lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas.

Winn Geeseman played Santa every year. His daughter, Valerie, was a year younger than me, and even though by the time I was seven I recognized him, he was magical once he put on that red suit. (I certainly wouldn’t have sat on his lap if he hadn’t been wearing that costume!)

I wasn’t one of those kids who asked for big impossible things like ponies or red sports cars or bringing people back to life. I always asked for what I knew was possible—clothes, go go boots (never got those), a crying baby doll (she gave me away several times after I was supposed to be in bed asleep), a Barbie with bendable legs. (I was the first girl in first grade to get one. I took it to school for show and tell and Sherry Ryan broke one of the knees so it flopped instead of bending. I was devastated. I still haven’t forgiven her.)

After we had taken our turn on Santa’s lap, his helper would hand us each a small brown-paper bag half-full of hard candy—ribbons, raspberry-filled, a couple of small candy canes--and some unshelled, unsalted peanuts. We got the same bag of candy and peanuts at the church on Christmas Eve, after the annual nativity play. I wonder if they were the leftovers.

Although we didn't live in a little house on the prairie, Christmas was the only time we got nuts, except the little black walnuts we picked up in the fall. Somebody would give Dad a fruit basket with big, shiny red Delicious apples and basketball sized navel oranges — not like those nameless little sour apples Mom bought in three-pound bags or the wormy green ones we stole from the neighbors’ trees and nuts in the shell — pecans, fancy English walnuts, almonds. They were so fun to crack open with the silver nutcracker and they tasted so exotic, coming as they did just that one time a year, probably from very faraway — New York, maybe, or even California. And they weren’t selfish with their meats, like our home-grown black walnuts.

Oh, and then there was Grandma’s peanut brittle, shards of hard, amber candy impregnated with Spanish peanuts. I didn’t like it as well as the chocolate-covered cherries and fluffy white and pink divinity she made. And two kinds of fudge — regular chocolate cut into squares and the maple fudge that she put into tiny fluted paper cups. And caramels, creamy and chewy at the same time. One year when I was helping her make candy she told me about how her mother had to invite several friends over to make divinity. Because they had to beat it by hand, one woman couldn’t beat long enough for it to set up so they took turns beating the egg whites, sugar and corn syrup into divinity. If the weather was too humid, sometimes they never could get it to peak, and so they’d just make sticky disks of candy, failed divinity they called it. (I only remember one year when my grandma’s divinity failed in spite of her electric mixer. It was never mentioned.)

It’s surprising how the taste of one unsalted peanut can bring back so many memories. I still want to write a Proust’s Madeleine poem, like the one below, written by the late Kenneth Rexroth.

Have you ever experienced your own madeleine? Would you be willing to channel your inner Proust and share it here?

Somebody has given my
Baby daughter a box of
Old poker chips to play with.
Today she hands me one while
I am sitting with my tired
Brain at my desk. It is red.
On it is a picture of
An elk’s head and the letters
B.P.O.E.—a chip from
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip
It idly in the air and
Catch it and do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,”
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars. I can
Hear him coming home drunk
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart
Indiana, bumping the
Chairs in the dark. I can see
Him dying of cirrhosis
Of the liver and stomach
Ulcers and pneumonia,
    Or, as he said on his deathbed, of
    Crooked cards and straight whiskey,
    Slow horses and fast women.


  1. Certain smells do it for me. The right mix of funeral flowers, pipe tobacco, beer oozing out of an old man's pores.

    I had a bourbon with 7-up for the first time ever at a bar a couple of weeks ago and I said, "This tastes like Christmas," but I can't remember why. It just did, even though I don't remember ever drinking bourbon before.

    I loved the way your memories came to life in this post.

  2. The smell of freshly-brewed coffee will transport me to my great-aunt's house, when we'd wake up to that heavenly smell.

    Too bad it doesn't taste as good as it smells! :)

    I haven't had the taste-memory connection yet. Maybe I need to find a peanut.

  3. Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peanut just now...Anybody else remember that Girl Scout song?

    Smell is my most evocative sense too, although music comes a close second. Like Proust describes though, it doesn't evoke memory first. It evokes emotion and then, if I pay attention to that out-of-place feeling, comes the memory that goes along. I question whether "involuntary memory" is really the correct name for it, because I know there must be times when the feeling passes before the memory comes forth.

  4. This post brought back some interesting Christmas memories for me. My grandparents were Baptist, and they did not drink at all. My parents went to a Tom and Jerry party every Christmas Eve afternoon at the Elks lodge, when my father finished his half day of work. They never told my grandparents what kind of party it was, but you could smell rum on their breath when they got back. We stayed with my grandparents. Then we would all have Christmas there when they returned.

    My grandmother made tons of candy for every Christmas. Fudge: chocolate, peanut butter, and white with hickory nuts we picked in the fall. Cinnamon logs, the only thing my father asked me to learn how to make while she was still alive. Rum balls, and ones without rum for the kids. And divinity, all different kinds, with nuts, without nuts, different flavors.

    My grandmother died just before Christmas last year. I never learned to make the cinnamon logs. My mother turned 70 on Christmas Eve, but we no longer spaek and I didn't remember until New Year's Eve.

    Hickory nuts are scarce around here. I haven't tasted one more than three or four times since I moved away from Indiana. The taste of one brings me immediately and totally back home.

  5. I had to go looking for cinnamon logs. Are they cookies? Or are they this unique and yet tasty-sounding mini cinnamon roll? These just look like something that would be a special family recipe (although I found variations in several places.

    Cinnamon Logs

    1 loaf white bread, thinly sliced
    8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
    1 egg white
    ½ cup powdered sugar
    1 cup sugar
    1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
    ½ cup butter or margarine, melted

    Trim crusts from bread slices. Roll slices to ¼-inch thickness. Beat cream cheese, egg white, and powdered sugar at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Spread evenly on 1 side of each bread slice. Roll up, forming logs. Stir together granulated sugar and cinnamon in a shallow dish. Dip logs in melted butter, and roll in sugar mixture. Place on lightly greased baking sheets. Bake logs at 350°F for 15 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool.

    Yield: 1 ½ dozen

  6. Please to read you, from a fellow Ohioan! I too just came across the madeleine reference, and couldn't believe I'd never heard of it. The involuntary sense-memory thing makes me think of the climax in the animated film "Ratatouille" (sp), in which the cynical food critic takes a bite of the title dish, and is instantly transported to a comforting boyhood moment in his mother's kitchen. Wordless & universal, the most perfect 10 seconds in any movie I've ever seen. Anyway, having read the Proust description, I see the filmmakers must have been doing an intentional riff on his exploration of the phenomenon.
    Last New Year's, I had a "medeleine" experience, very similar to one another poster (Jen) described. At a bar, my husband wanted to try an "old-fashioned" sort of cocktail, and I conjured the name "highball" from my parent's parties in the 1960s-70s. One sip--no, really, it must have just been the smell the moment before it hit my lips, and I was literally standing in my parent's living room the morning after a party, sniffing at the glasses with whiskey & melted ice, and ashtrays filled with grit. Time-travel Lives!
    Michele in Cincinnati

  7. I saw Lindsay Lohan's densely freckled shoulder in a magazine and was taken back to the swimming pool when I was 5. I was sitting in the kiddie area and Micah Tibbit's (my sister's crush at the time), his mom was wearing a blue one-piece bathingsuit sitting on the side of the pool. I SOOO wanted to touch her freckles and just knew that it was not proper... which in turn I think was also a huge realization that this involuntary memory was an alusion to my first restraint to a curiosity involving a woman.
    I've been fortunate to have several other Proustian experiences, but this one has been the best!

  8. So you decided to draw people instead! :-)