Medeleine Moments

In this week’s report from the Humanities Research Seminar on Food, Emma Stewart, a student at TU, reflects on the uncanny power of food to plunge us into our memories of the past.

marcel_proust_1900-2At the outset of Marcel Proust’s renowned French novel In Search of Lost Time, the narrator tastes a madeleine cookie dipped in tea, and the once-familiar tastes and smells bring back enough memories of childhood to fill seven volumes. This moment in literature is important to the study of food, because it precedes later research proving the power of smell memory to spark old, emotional remembrances, an ability that some modern psychologists have even dubbed “the Proustian Phenomenon.” In Volume I of his novel, Proust writes:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”[1]

Proust’s food-inspired reflections of childhood prompted me to search for “madeleines” in my own life by preparing a few family recipes. Standard favorites such as chocolate chip cookies and mac-and-cheese, however, did not spark any particularly vivid recollections, and I began to lose faith that Proustian remembrances could be cooked up in my kitchen. As it turns out, these recipes were missing an element of rarity. In other words, because I have tasted foods like chocolate chip cookies often, even into adulthood, they have lost any strong associations with my past.

The solution came in the form of a marshmallow cinnamon roll recipe that, as a child, I used to prepare at my grandma’s house. While my parents slept in, my siblings and I would wake up early and sneak downstairs to awaken my grandma, who would lovingly guide us to the kitchen after donning slippers and a bathrobe. After setting out the ingredients, she would show me how to roll the marshmallows in melted butter and then cinnamon-sugar, and next how to carefully wrap them up in dough, pinching the edges to tightly seal the sugary package. By the time the cinnamon rolls were done baking, the rest of the house would be awake, and we would all gather around the table to enjoy both the company and the food.

emma-marshmallow-cinnamon-roll_rThis was my first attempt at making my grandma’s cinnamon rolls[2] on my own, and a phone call home verified that I had the right recipe. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting, but the sweet aroma of melted butter and cinnamon-sugar, as well as the motions of rolling the marshmallows, folding the dough, and pinching the edges, making sure to do it in just the way my grandma had taught me, hit me with emotion so strongly that I was brought to tears. I felt the presence of the love and guidance of my grandma, while at the same time feeling more acutely the distance between us.

In preparing this food, I was all at once the young girl following her grandma’s instructions and the college student trying to recreate the recipe over a decade later. I think this is the same phenomenon that Proust describes when his narrator takes a bite of the madeleine, though I opted to fill just this one blog post rather than seven volumes. What Proust reveals in his writing and what I was able to experience through my grandma’s recipe is the power of food to link moments in the past with the those in the present. For me, this meant the ability to bring a little piece of my grandma’s kitchen in Wisconsin to my apartment in Tulsa. I can only hope that one day people will gather around my table with the same excitement and love with which we gather around hers.

[1] Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Ed. D. J. Enright. Vol. 1. New York: Modern Library, 1981. Print.

[2] I found out years later that my grandma’s marshmallow cinnamon roll recipe is actually Pillsbury’s, though I will forever associate it with the former.