Marcel Proust in 1900

Because we are huge fans of the formidable French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922), and because today marks his 141st birthday, we honor this writer with a post of his own because he was a master at exploring human sensation and is renowned for his ability to write about taste.

American food writer and chef James Beard, in his foreword to Dining with Marcel Proust: A Practical Guide to French Cuisine of the Belle Epoque, observed: “I feel that Proust must have had a deep sensual and intellectual appreciation of food…. I am certain he must have possessed the faculty I call ‘taste memory’; that he enjoyed a good meal–whether a picnic, a luncheon in a garden or a formal dinner–not for the moment but for a lifetime, storing it in the memory….”

Recapturing time through taste and smell

Petite Madeleines

The most celebrated passage in Proust’s seven-volume, 3,200-page novel In Search of Lost Time describes how this monumental work–a fictional “remembrance of things past”–is set in motion when the book’s narrator dips a petite madeleine into a cup of lime-flower tea. “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon this extraordinary thing that was happening to me.”

A subsequent sampling ultimately awakens a long-dormant memory of the same taste-sensation experienced in childhood, and–out of the blue–“something leaves its resting place and attempts to rise, something that has been anchored at great depth.”

What conscious effort and intellect couldn’t recapture is unleashed by the taste of the madeleine dipped in tea. All of a sudden and involuntarily, people and places and the essence of the narrator’s childhood “sprang into being, town and gardens alike” from this cup of tea.

Art meets the science of taste

Taste and smell connect to this part of the brain

In a fascinating book that explores the intersection between art and brain science, Jonah Lehrer, in Proust Was A Neuroscientist, reports that “our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental. This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory.”

“Proust intuited this anatomy,” Lehrer continues. “He used the taste of the madeleine and the smell of the tea to channel his childhood. Just looking at the scalloped cookie brought back nothing.” It was the taste and smell of the little cake dipped into tea that was the “revelation.”

Inspired, not nourished, by food

Up until his mid-thirties, before he committed to writing his masterpiece, Proust frequented the salons of  the Belle  Époque, enjoyed dining with friends, had a strong appetite, and relished a wide variety of food. Some described him as a gourmet.

Over time, though, his habits changed. By 1919 he was so fully occupied with his novel that he rarely left his Paris apartment, where he often worked nights and slept days and eventually subsisted on a diet of croissants and coffee. (At the end of his life Proust drank only iced beer.) Apparently it was no longer food as physiologic sustenance that mattered; instead, it was how he felt about food (and so much else) and what food (and so much else) meant to him that was key.

What if Proust had been able to order from Jules?

Of course we’d never dream of interfering with an artist’s productive habits, but we like to think that culinarily speaking and in terms of health outcomes things may have been different for Proust–that he might have regained his appetite for actual food and been better nourished and lived beyond the age of 51–had he been able to pluck up his telephone (which, in fact, he had disconnected) and place an order with Jules!

If Proust had called on a midsummer day and had asked for a recommendation, we might have suggested a juicy heirloom tomato filled with salmon salad:

Salmon-salad-stuffed heirloom tomato for Marcel Proust's birthday

Happy Birthday, Marcel! Who knows what Jules’ heirloom tomato with salmon salad might have inspired!

And, of course, Jules also bakes petite madeleines.

Finally, for “extra credit”…

We know that Marcel Proust isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but if we’ve succeeded in whetting your appetite for more, you may enjoy the following passage from the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. It highlights the artistry of Francoise, the family cook and “the Michelangelo” of the kitchen. James Beard describes the food Francoise prepares as the unpretentious and savory “glories of French bourgeois food.”

Proust’s writing is as fresh and sensual as Francoise’s food:

“For upon the permanent foundation of eggs, cutlets, potatoes, preserves, and biscuits which she no longer even bothered to announce, Francoise would add–as the labour of fields and orchards, the harvest of the tides, the luck of the markets, the kindness of neighbors, and her own genius might provide, so that our bill of fare… reflected to some extent the rhythm of the seasons and the incidents of daily life–a brill because the fish-woman had guaranteed its freshness, a turkey because she had seen a beauty in the market at Roussainville-le-Pin, cardoons with marrow because she had never done them for us in that way before, a roast leg of mutton because the fresh air made one hungry and there would be plenty of time for it to ‘settle down’ in the seven hours before dinner, spinach by way of a change, apricots because they were still hard to get, gooseberries because in another fortnight there would be none left, raspberries which M. Swann had brought specially, cherries, the first to come from the cherry-tree which had yielded none for the last two years, a cream cheese, of which in those days I was extremely fond, an almond cake because she had ordered one the evening before, a brioche because it was our turn to make them for the church. And when all this was finished, a work composed expressly for ourselves, but dedicated more particularly to my father who had a fondness for such things, a chocolate cream, Francoise’s personal inspiration and speciality would be laid before us, light and fleeting as an ‘occasional’ piece of music into which she had poured the whole of her talent. Anyone who refused to partake of it, saying: ‘No, thank you, I’ve finished; I’m not hungry any more,” would at once have been relegated to the level of those Philistines who, even when an artist makes them a present of one of his works, examine its weight and material, whereas what is of value is the creator’s intention and his signature. To have left even the tiniest morsel in the dish would have shown as much discourtesy as to rise and leave a concert hall before the end of a piece under the composer’s very eyes.”

In Search of Lost Time, “Swann’s Way”
Translation by  C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin

Photo Credits:
Marcel Proust: Wikimedia Commons
Petite Madeleine: Pierre Ferland and Associates
Hippocampus: Gray’s Anatomy, Wikimedia Commons
Heirloom tomato filled with salmon salad: Liz Muir