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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

David's Madeleine Moment

Okra, tomatoes, onion, herbs

You know what I’m talking about -- Proust’s narrator in Remembrance of Things Past and the memories of the past that suddenly flood through him, bringing his past alive when he tastes the little madeleine cookie-cake dipped in tea, the taste that brings back an entire era of his life.

My own first, strongest sense experience of Paris was audible. The first morning I awoke at 39 rue de Vaugirard, Paris came to me through sounds: the flutter of pigeons outside the window, voices from other apartments, and the dear, unmistakable, thrilling chink of spoons against bowls and cups as neighbors took their breakfast café au lait. China and spoons, flutterings and cooings, and high, birdlike women’s voices. Next came the heady perfume of lilies-of-the-valley, because that morning was the first of May, and the little white flowers were everywhere.

Sounds and smells, the latter so closely related to taste. The sound and feel when one cracks the crust of a warm baguette...its warm, mouth-watering aroma...then the give of the mie and the satisfying taste.

My first visit to Paris in 1987 was necessarily frugal, and David’s, in 1992, was similar. Simple meals, prepared at home in the evenings....

And now to the present: Monday, April 25th was a cold, blustery spring day in northern Michigan, with a strange, unsettling east wind and the dismayingly regular sound of the furnace blower. I had done a frugal, meager, end-of-winter grocery shopping in Northport and found canned tomatoes on sale, so our supper was to be leftover buckwheat noodles and gravy, stewed chicken, and a simple vegetable dish of canned stewed tomatoes, frozen okra, chopped fresh onion, and a sprinkling of herbes de Provence. Those vegetables were David’s madeleine.

He went into a trance.

“Did you make this up from scratch?”

I admitted the stewed tomatoes had come from a can.

“It takes me right back to Paris! I found a brand of canned okra and tomatoes at a little neighborhood store, and many evenings that was my supper. Sometimes with a baguette, sometimes not. Is there more?”

He decided he didn’t want any chicken at all, just a third helping of the stewed vegetables.

“What was the name of the street you lived on?” I asked.

“Boulevard Beaumarchais, number six,” he said dreamily, savoring his last bite.

Without trying, I had hit upon something important. For this post, not having photographed the dish as it came to the table. I used a second can of tomatoes in my assembly of ingredients above, to show you how simple it was, but I know the effect on David depended on the conjunction of his memories with the look and smell and taste of the food.

What is your madeleine? What taste or sound or smell carries you back in time?


  1. And you didn't know the combination of okra and stewed tomatoes would evoke this response in David? That's very special. I'm trying to think what would take me back years, and I think it's a homemade coffee cake my mom used to make some Sunday nights. I have the recipe but haven't made it in years. Times change. It might be worth the calories for the memories though.

  2. His response was a complete surprise to me, Dawn. I've tried to make mac-and-cheese as good as his mother's, but that seems the impossible dream.

  3. One of the best compliments I ever received was when a friend told me my home-made dish tasted like memory.