All about the madeleines - or not
November 9, 2019 2:51 PM   Subscribe

Archeology of Taste is a project about childhood memories Specifically, food memories. Jan Whitaker is an author and blogger who works with social history. The Archeology of Taste project is a series of interviews with people about their food memories. Like Arthur, age 69
It seems like everybody starts by talking about what Mom made and eating at home, that sort of thing. Which in my case is a little different. My mother taught home economics in high school, but she was not a good cook.

I shouldn’t have been surprised how quickly I encountered madeleines, or to be more exact, references to madeleines, those little French cookies that few eat but so many talk about. For Marcel Proust, who thrust the madeleine into the limelight, the taste of a nursery treat brought back a landscape, a life, and framed a literary work structured by remembrance. That’s what this project is all about, isn’t it?, some people asked. Yes and no. Probably everyone has their madeleines, long forgotten taste sensations which vividly invoke a sensory memory of time and place. For Elizabeth it is child-sized bottles of chocolate milk and finger painting in kindergarten. For Benjamin it’s ice-cold tea and a queasy hot summer day spent on a ranch.

But in a larger sense this book is not about madeleines. I did not give Benjamin, Hanna, or the others chocolate milk, violet gumdrops, or cookies and tea, to try to stimulate their unconscious memories. Quite the opposite. I asked them to think for a few days about their most prominent childhood memories of food. I did not seek to envelop them in a fog of memory that I, the author, would dissipate, but to enlist their help in painting a picture of themselves, their places, and their times. Food was their paint, but they were the artists.
posted by mumimor (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
S'funny, the pull quote hits two of the more vivid food associated childhood memories I have as well, cold glasses of Nestle's Quik Chocolate milk and Iced Tea with sugar and a sprig of spearmint from pulled from alongside the house, both drank while sitting outside on different summer afternoons of like circumstance.

There are others too of course, memories of tastes tied to place and time that sometimes come from a smell or word, but many of those share a wider range of association for my continuing to consume the foods over many years so they aren't as specific in their associations.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:25 PM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I particularly love the pullquote from Arthur, as my mother is a terrible cook who believes herself a wonderful cook. My childhood food memories are...interesting.

(dry, baked chicken with a single sprig of thyme gently laid across it is maybe not the madeleine I'd prefer.)
posted by kalimac at 6:19 PM on November 9, 2019

when I had dinner at the communal table at herbfarm near seattle several years ago the hostess had us describe our 1st food memory as an icebreaker. mine was reaching up to take the afikomen out of a windowpane at my grandfather's on passover. i think i was almost 3.
posted by brujita at 8:52 PM on November 9, 2019

This reminds me - I'm going to put the madeleine pan in the bag of things going to Goodwill, since I don't see myself ever using it again.

It's a safe bet that little Marcel never had a chocolate chip cookie.
posted by she's not there at 11:31 PM on November 9, 2019

Coincidentally, I've been missing my madeleine trays, given away a few moves ago. If we were in the same country I'd gladly buy yours.

I do remember my first madeleine, and my quest in my 20s to bake them perfectly. I never achieved perfection, but I got to eat a lot of madeleines.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:58 AM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ratatouille (2007) - Anton Ego Tastes Ratatouille - Flashback Scene [HD].

Synopsis: embittered, disillusioned food critic unexpectedly gets a taste of Mom’s cooking again, artfully ratfully prepared. Bon appétit, mon chéri.
posted by cenoxo at 9:02 AM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you for posting, this is very much my sort of thing. The author is a more neutral recorder (less lyrical/personal) version of my beloved MFK Fisher in tying food and eating and life and hunger and desire into memoirs. I'm going to enjoy this and it inspires me.
posted by twentyfeetof tacos at 9:09 AM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

My aunt was a fair-to-mediocre cook, and as she got older, she got lazier, and her meals got worse. She'd already started teaching me how to cook within a year of my coming to her home. My first home-cooked food memory is eating the fried potatoes and hamburgers I made when I was 5 (I was supervised and assisted with the heavy cast iron skillets, of course, but I was responsible for peeling and cutting potatoes, how much oil to put in the skillet, seasonings, etc., etc.). It was summer, so this would've been 1974, I reckon. I'd put a little too much Lawry's seasoned salt in the burgers!

I was a better cook than my aunt was by the time I was 12, and from that point onward, I ate as few of her meals as possible (which was easy, because she cooked less often).

I didn't have a madeleine until I moved to New York City as a young woman, and I haven't developed much of a taste for them.
posted by droplet at 1:39 PM on November 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Pallas Athena, once I had madeleines with a little bit of anisseed in them. I've been looking for them, or a recipe for them, ever since.

I don't think I have had a proustian Madeleine moment yet, who knows, it may still happen. But from my very first memories food has been a huge factor in my life. It structured family life on my mothers' side of the family, it determined which friends I made and my relationships. It's the place I go to relax and have fun. It's where love lives.

My earliest memory is of our whole family walking through the snow in a silent city. We came into a warm restaurant, and there were no other people there. My brother were cousin are asleep in their lifts. We ate, and the adults went on and on. I could have whatever I wanted, but still there was a lot of sitting, and then the waiters began to play with me, and show me the kitchen. I don't remember going home, so I probably fell asleep as well.
I cherished this memory so much I never told anyone about it till I was about 30. Then I told the story to my grandparents and they both exclaimed: you can't remember that! But I could. It turned out I was 2 1/2 and it was my aunt's 21st birthday. My grandparents said it had been a truly magical evening, because there had been a snowstorm, which was why the whole city was so quiet and the restaurant empty. The storm had stopped but still no cars could drive, and they had decided to walk, the staff at the place had been so happy to have any custom that night, they just treated us to everything they had. Today when I think of it, I also think of how young they all were: both our grandparents and our parents were young parents, so I think my granddad as the oldest hadn't even turned 50. The restaurant was new and fashionable, but they had already eaten there a couple of times. Imagine a party of merry young people feasting at a lovely little restaurant, all red-cheeked and energized after walking through the snow. My granddad was a generous man, so I think the wine would have been flowing and the staff would have known the tip would be more than fair. Those were the days, even for a little girl.

I don't remember the food. But I remember from many family birthdays that they were usually what we would call French bistro food, and the three of us children could always have all the desserts we could eat, mostly mousse au chocolate or ice cream. But there were two exceptions I remember. The thing was, my gran and I (and my step-gran) had the same birthday, so I was also invited to the fancier birthdays . And one time, my granddad had ordered a horse, sculpted in ice cream and parfait for dessert. Another time we were at an incredibly fancy place, it was a private club he could dine at because of work stuff, and we had baked Alaska that was flambéed at the table. Whoa!
My granddad loved ice cream. He had a rule that from his birthday in April till my birthday in September, every child had the right to an ice cream cone every day. Mostly I preferred an ice-lolly, but obviously, I loved the principle.

I was the first born, at a time where my granddad was very successful. Later, things normalized -- to put it mildly. But the family dinners never stopped being lovely. Both my gran and my aunt could cook a feast on wilted veg from the fridge, both tasty and beautiful. I remember my gran making something out of cold rice and a can of sardines that looked like it was from a celebrity cookbook.
posted by mumimor at 2:19 PM on November 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

mumimor, those are lovely stories, beautifully told. Thank you for sharing them.
posted by kristi at 2:01 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I kind of scoffed at the idea that people had these strong taste memories from childhood. Then I read gusottertrout's mention of "cold Nestles Quik" and remembered how much I loved strawberry Quik as a child. I haven't even remembered that it existed for at least fifty years... I guess I must withdraw my scoff.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:52 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older Cops Turned Her Into A Facebook Meme.   |   “The problem is, it’s fun and it’s really well... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments