Ceaselessly Into the Past

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin…And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

 —Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Proust’s description of the Madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, is famous not only because of the writing but because it describes an experience which is universal, the association of a memory with a certain smell or taste. It can happen suddenly, without warning; a smell or taste triggers a memory long lost in the past. A perfume, hinted at as you walk to work, reminds you of a not-quite-forgotten lover. The insinuation of lavender in the air speaks to you of a spring day in Sydney, carefree, at a time when you thought you’d never grow older. However it is food that really submerges us in the past. The combination of both smell and taste as well as the ritual of cooking makes it such that one meal can make us feel suddenly as if we were young again.

I felt that grasp recently, described by Proust, of the past coming back to claim me. I was sitting down to dinner with my partner, a nice glass of wine in hand, with a bowl full of her delicious bolognaise in front of me. As I bent down to smell the food, the heat vapour still rising up off of the rich red sauce, I suddenly felt myself to be eight years old again. I was once again sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen in Switzerland ready to eat my favourite meal. Now bolognaise is a common dish, and I’ve had it many times in the intervening years between that time and now, so I don’t know what it was that was so special about that night with my girlfriend. Perhaps the specific mix of herbs that she used, or the wine that went into the sauce, or even just the way that I felt in that instance, but I had never felt a pull quite like that.

It was nice to remember that time in my life, a time when I remember being truly happy. I remembered my Grandmother, a smiling figure, bustling around the kitchen, trying to corral her grandchildren. I remember my cousins, interesting to me because they were truly Swiss and knew nothing of the world beyond the Alps. Most vividly I could see my Grandfather, an imposing, older man, his slicked back hair and moustache fading to silver, standing stiffly just outside the hubbub.

I saw my grandfather again a few months ago. I was back in Europe for the first time in a few years to see my parents. I’d pulled up to his house, with its beautiful view of the Lac Leman and there he was, waiting. The sight of him surprised me, he didn’t look the way I remembered him to be. He wasn’t imposing. Instead he was hunched and looked much smaller than I would have imagined. I expected to see the strong powerful man of my childhood but instead I saw a frail 93-year old, suffering at the hands of old age and the disease eating away at his brain.

So I can say that it really was fine, to sit down and be drawn back to a time in my childhood when all was warm and safe. To a time when my grandparents knew everything and were themselves indestructible.  All brought on because of a pasta dish whose smell and preparation brought me right back into the past. And, not only did I get that one perfect memory, but once my girlfriend had roused me from my daydream, I enjoyed a pretty amazing meal as well.

All I can say now is, remember to eat well and savour every dish because you don’t know which will be the one to gift you with the memory of a perfect moment.

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