“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
They left the house at half past nine...
The smallest one was Madeline.” – Ludwig Bemelman
I’ve decided it’s time to read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
And while you might assume this decision coincides with a long convalescence, or incarceration, in fact, the decision to pull the two hard covers off the top of the bookshelf, blow off the dust, and begin what may be the longest slog in my reading career, was a result of wanting to find the oft-quoted madeline scene.
I also decided to actually make the cookies today, which required a trip to the Market for a pan, a trip that ate into my reading time. I may have been able to stave off the napiness of my “Sunday afternoon” (that’s Wednesday to you) long enough to find the paragraph, which occurs within the first 100 pages, but the walk to Pike Place, the time spent browsing through the giant bouquets, the decision to bring home a trout for dinner (Lewis stared at me the whole time I ate), the light chores, the chat with Mother, the fiftieth episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the re-reading of a Connelly: all conspired against settling in with Marcel.
But I think that’s okay. I spent some time looking at Wikipedia pages and the handful of blogs devoted to Proust and I’m running the risk of losing my original point. Which was simply that there are certain phrases, certain thematic elements running through a handful of books which were so crucial to the collective brain as to obviate the actual book.That is to say, there’s no sense in sitting down to a tasty read if the read in question has been read so often, taught so often, misquoted, plagiarized, and dissected to the point where you believe you have the full story, and so, contrariwise, I wanted to actually read the damn thing instead of flipping through the collective brain's wacky card catalog, I wanted to read a paragraph that may encapsulate the meaning behind food writing, the impetus to evoke.
But what I learned today was that the “Madeline moment” as I’d come to think of it, was really much more of a neurological function of the hippocampus, and much less an evocation of past through taste and smell. You see, I had thought that when Marcel tasted the bit of soggy cake floating in lime-blossom tea (um, what?), he was reminded of something, which is what I think we all tend to use the madeline moment to mean, but a closer reading of the passage, and the helpful words of a Proustian scholar-blogger, indicate that rather than simply being reminded of a simpler time, as I am when I smell Countrytime Lemonade™ (once the coughing stops), Marcel was transported. As though he existed in both times at once. I also found out that translations of the story more recent than mine are called In Search of Lost Time. Very different than Remembrance of Things Past. The active verb suggests a certain tension, as when at work, trying to make the flour mixture for the fried chicken bits, we were searching for lost thyme, not idly remembering where it was wrongly put away in dry storage.
In any case, the sensation is called Involuntary Memory. And like most brain stuff, it’s cool, and complicated. Not just evocation. More like time travel.
But I need to focus if I’m to bake these cookies.
There is that other thing though – the evocation, the welling-up, the oral tradition of food stories. Food writing is jam-packed with vignettes recalling the “first time I tasted something tasting like something”, or “how my life changed because I ate something slippery.” Bourdain, Aschatz, Fisher, Hamilton, the 40,000 plus food bloggers out there, ALL write about those firsts. Not because it’s bad or boring (sometimes it’s really boring), but because those moments DID change their lives. I’m staggering down memory lane right now, working on a food memoir, not because sharing the ways in which tasting macerated strawberries on my third birthday set me on an unwavering course to a career in food (it was a wavery course), or because those strawberries are a landmark in my cognitive development, but because sharing stories about food, since food is something we all have to relate to, provides a truly profound sense of commonality.
(A somewhat major digression: I’m a big fan of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an outfit that provides a haven for elephants and rhinos orphaned by poachers. They recently shared a study measuring the survival rates among herds which had lost the older matriarchs to ivory hunters. Apparently, younger herds suffered greater mortality during times of drought and stress because they had lost the memories of the matriarchs, who, as tiny baby girl elephants, had been led by their mothers and aunties to remote watering holes. Now, I’d bet my incisors that the food-writing tradition, the recipes shared through story, shared kitchens, community cookbooks and the rest of it, is a spoke on the same evolutionary wheel. This may be obvious, given the predominance of women in the food-writing blogosphere, but what I just said about commonality? Well maybe we should think about those shared stories as a way of bridging the vast divide between species. Maybe thinking about old lady elephants as grannies with battered old gnocchi boards would lessen the world market’s demand for ivory. Just a thought. Okay, back to Proust.)
One of the problems with food writing, with writing in general, actually, is the fatigue one feels with one’s voice. Proust had to lock himself into a house with cork-lined walls in order to channel his voice long enough to write his masterpiece, but you can bet there were days when he must have longed for a moment of cerebral silence. In food writing, as you sit down to write about tea (not lime-blossom) (and yes, it’s actually a teasane), you cannot help but slightly loath the tone, the voice, the perky food writing chatter prattle, when beginning a sentence with “The first time I tasted rooibos…”
So instead, I will tell you about the fifth or maybe sixth time I tasted rooibos. And then we will bake cookies.
October, 2004. I had rented a car in Cape Town, driven north up the coast, turned onto a mere squiggle of a road that took me through the Cedarburg Range. Unpaved, uninhabited, steep blasted reddish rock landscape on the edge of the Great Karoo. At the time, I was trying to escape feeling sad. Or, at least to give the sad a larger seat so it didn’t seem so big. Stepping off the side of one’s known world is a good cure, or maybe only a tonic, but I do recommend it. After hours of driving, of mastering the stick shift with my surprised left hand, I arrived at the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein, a faded relic of a time during which sick whites took their tubercular lungs into the middle of nowhere for “the air.” After dinner and trifle, I had a pot of rooibos, which was my routine while I was in South Africa, because the taste of the tea, the smell of it, took me back to the south-facing, ponderosa pine spotted hillsides of my childhood. The taste was not Proustian in intensity, I was not transported the way I am when I smell blanched fin herbes and recall the verbena tea(sane) I foisted on the younger siblings. Simply reminded. The smell and flavor illuminated a landmark in my sensory past, helped me see my origins, which was the reassurance I needed at the time. If you know where you come from, you might have a better chance of figuring out where you’re going. Or at least more informed.
Rooibos is delightful. Iced or hot, with lemon, or with milk and sugar. There is no caffeine but there is a robustness to its flavor which makes it seem almost like a black tea. In South Africa you can buy it in a can, like our Nestea Brisk Tea™ (a taste that would evoke tennis lessons and hot tar), but I preferred the evening ritual of a hot pot of tea. The name means “red bush,” because, get this, it comes from a red bush. Not really. It’s green and then dries to red. I just read the Wikipage and guess what?! It’s a legume! The legume thrill-ride continues! Also, rooibos has about a million cancer fighting, antioxidant, cure-what-ails-ya compounds. As it only grows in one place, however, climate change will probably cause its extinction within a century. I’m going to start hoarding.
So where are we? We explored the differences between my idea of what a Madeline Moment was and what the big brains say it is. We talked about the importance of sharing stories about food and also confessed to a claustrophobic sense of self-natteryness when writing about it. We revealed our love for hot beverages made from spiny bushes. Nothing left now but to bake some cookies. This is a food blog, after all.
Lemon Lavender Madelines
This recipe couldn’t be easier. Could. Not. Be. Easier. So the next time I try baking madelines, I will use ground nuts in place of flour, change the way I add the butter, maybe experiment with savory (jalepeno-cheddar? Bay-leaf and black pepper?), or adding fruit. The fun thing about madelines is the shape – the cookies are the perfect size to slip right into your face. There are conflicting stories about the origin of the name but I’ll let you do the foodwork, I mean foot work. Look in the Gastronomique, or The Professional Pastry Chef.
2 large eggs
2/3 c sugar + ¼ cup for post-baking dusting
1 Tbsp lemon zest + 1 tsp to combine with post-baking dusting sugar
¼ t lavender (be sparing or your cookies will taste like soap) + ¼ tsp for post-baking
1 t vanilla extract
1 c cake or all purpose flour
10 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus 1 Tbsp for the pan
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Generously butter and flour your newly acquired madeline pan, ignoring the fact that you couldn’t quite get the goo from the price tag scrubbed off, even though you know this will bother you for years.
In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until a lifted fork/whisk/beater drips mixture resembling ribbons. Add the lemon zest, lavender (or don’t), and vanilla extract. If you want to use orange zest and almond extract instead, that’s fine, just means a different name at the top of the recipe. Sift in the flour and mix until barely combined. Drizzle in the butter, mixing until again, it’s just combined (you’re trying to avoid stretching out the glutens in high-protein flour – if you use cake flour, you’ll have less of a problem in this department).
Spoon one Tbsp into each declivity.
Bake for about 14 minutes, turning the pan half-way through, or until the edges are brown and the cookie “springs back” to the touch.
Gently remove the darling baked goods and sprinkle some lemon lavender sugar over them.
Repeat. This recipe gave me about 20 cookies – two pan’s worth.
Brew a cup of your favorite tea. Sit, sip, taste, relax, remember.