a madeleine moment


If you haven’t read Proust’s sprawling novel Remembrance of Things Past and you consider yourself a serious reader, it’s time to get to work. In the early days of Covid, I created a list of classics, particularly lengthy ones that I wanted to immerse myself in during that rare period of enforced isolation. Even though I had read the book almost half a century earlier, I remembered so little I knew it would be as if it was a first encounter.

Of course, I did remember one moment from early in the book because it is quoted so often that even people who haven’t read the book are familiar with it. That, of course, is the famous madeleine scene. While eating one of “those short, plump little cakes…which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell,” Proust’s childhood memory of his Aunt Leonie feeding him crumbs of madeleine soaked in her tea floods his consciousness and essentially brings with it the whole constellation of memories that constitute the novel.

Although Proust presents this as a taste memory, we know that much of what we think of as taste is actually rooted in smell. The psychiatrist Ernest Schachtel has written about the power of smell memories which are particularly potent because they reach back into our pre-verbal history to recreate global sensations unencumbered by language. Smell is the most primitive of our senses, preceding sight, preceding hearing.

That was only of intellectual interest to me until last week when I had my own madeleine experience. We recently shopped at Costco for snacks for the house concert I wrote about recently. Among our purchases was a package of something called Aussie Bites which, true to their name, were miniature muffins crammed with healthy ingredients – raisins, dried fruits, bran and other grains. They looked like a good antidote to the unhealthy treats which filled our cart.

A number of the Aussie Bites went uneaten, so over the course of the following week we were dipping into them until there were only a handful left in a plastic bag. When I opened the bag and bit into one of the survivors, I was transported to a particular moment in my childhood which opened onto a broader set of memories of the period. When I was 8 or 9, my mother decided that I was overweight. She worried that there might be some underlying problem, so she arranged for a visit to a clinic, located in a hospital somewhere in Brooklyn which I think we traveled to by trolley car, which was still a common sight on the city’s streets.

I was there for what they told me was a “basal metabolism” test, something measuring the extent to which I was or wasn’t! burning the calories I was consuming. Of course, that’s all grown- up language but I had a vague sense of what it all meant. My most vivid memory of the lab visit was an experience we would call today “fat shaming.” When I undressed and presented myself to the doctor, he took a layer of fat that encircled my stomach between his thumb and index finger and declared, “Nice little spare tire you have there.” Memories like that die hard. My mother, of course, was the guilty one; she, like so many overly anxious mothers, stuffed me like a goose, which is how she thought she could keep me healthy.

By the time the exam was done, our early breakfast was a distant memory and there was a long return trip home ahead of us. At that moment my mother did something unprecedented. She suggested we get something to eat in the hospital cafeteria. You have to understand that at that point in my single-digit life span I had almost never eaten anything outside of what was on offer in our apartment’s kitchen. It was a combination of frugality, adherence to the laws of kashrut and my mother’s arrogant belief that no one could produce any food as good as hers. Consider the fact that I ate my first restaurant meal in celebration of my high school graduation.

The bran muffin was probably my mother’s choice. When I tasted that Aussie bite and inhaled the smell that had been accumulating in the plastic bag that had contained it, there I was, back in that hospital cafeteria eating my exotic muffin. And in its wake came all the memories I’ve just recounted, as well as widening circles of recollections of my childhood on that mid-twentieth century Brooklyn block. There was no Aunt Leonie, and I most certainly was not in Com -bray, but I had just duplicated the great author’s profound sensory experience. I didn’t need an elegant fluted cake to erase the years; one Aussie bite turned out to be magic.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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Marv Hoffman

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