How much did Proust know about madeleines?

What to eat. What not to eat.
May 11 2005 10:27 AM

The Way the Cookie Crumbles

How much did Proust know about madeleines?

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My first batch of the Kamman madeleines came out of the oven smelling great but looking terrible. I picked up one of the misshapen blobs. Not much resemblance to Proust's "little scallop shell pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious fold." But was it a crumb-producer?

I broke off a piece, dropped it into a glass of tea, and waited a minute. I prodded the cookie with my spoon. Looking very closely I saw only two small bits at the bottom of the glass. I stirred again, and a couple more appeared. The crumb production was underwhelming.

Illustration by Lilia Levin.Click to expand.
Anatomy of a cookie
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A madeleine morsel, it turns out, is a hardy little customer. Protected by a lightly browned layer, it does not disintegrate. Close examination revealed that it doesn't truly "soften," but absorbs liquid like a sponge, retaining its structural integrity. The locus of crumb production is confined to the narrow, exposed lens-shaped surface at the break-off line (see fig. 2).           

Would another recipe yield more Proustian results? Patricia Wells' fared no better. (Except, perhaps, in terms of taste. Her madeleines, supposedly "dry, dusty" tea-soaker-uppers, were delicious on their own. Half the batch disappeared while the tea was brewing.) Wells' madeleines produced no more crumbs than Kamman's. Julia Child's, as I expected, were equally crumb-free.

Things were looking bad for M. Proust. The sickly author, who hardly left his cork-lined bedroom in Paris for a dozen years, from 1910 until his death in 1922, supposedly channeled an entire world in all its precise sensations, setting it down on paper for us to re-experience. But my mind was afflicted with a blasphemous thought: Could Proust's madeleine ever have existed? Could it be he … made it all up?

I had one theory in reserve. Maybe Proust's Madeleine was stale. Unthinkable? Not necessarily. Proust was not finicky about his sensory stimuli—the fictional Marcel is even propelled into a reverie at one point by the dank smell of a lavatory.

I left my remaining madeleines outside, uncovered, defying instructions to keep them "stored in a tightly closed tin." After three days I brewed a glass of tea. I broke off a piece of madeleine and plopped it in. The result: about the same as before. I stirred, took a spoonful. A few brown bits swam in the spoon. I tasted. And here came the shocker: I could not taste the crumbs. Madeleine crumbs, once detached from the mother morsel, are quite delicate. They almost dissolve. It turns out they are insensible to the tongue.

I called my wife into the kitchen (her initial comment: "Does Proust explain who cleaned up?") for an objective opinion. She has a fine palate, but couldn't taste the crumbs either.

Confounded, I decided to confer with leading Proust authorities. I discovered a major obstacle: the eminent professor William Carter, author of Marcel Proust: A Life, who had supervised a re-creation of the famous scene for a PBS documentary. The professor was skeptical. He was turned off by my notion that Marcel had "dissolved pieces of madeleine floating around in his teacup," calling it "not likely." And, to my surprise, he asserted that Marcel does dunk and bite the madeleine—which would mean there's no crumb production mystery to be explained. The professor insisted that the crumbs are simply created in the narrator's mouth after he bites off a morsel and shmooshes it around.

I objected that no biting, or shmooshing, is mentioned in the text. The professor insisted it is "implied." But, in my view, Proust was simply too obsessed with detail to let something as significant as biting, let alone shmooshing, go unnoted if that's what he had in mind.

Much to my relief, I found firm support from MacArthur "genius" grant-winner Lydia Davis, the translator of the widely praised new edition of Proust's Swann's Way, in which the famed passage appears. She finds no "implied" biting in the text, and calls mere dunking "out of the question." She concurs that the crumby madeleine material is already in the spoon as it approaches Marcel's mouth. The tie-breaker was Stanford professor Joshua Landy, a Proust scholar who declares himself firmly in my "crumbs in the spoon" camp.

I'd given Proust a more-than-fair shot. His failure to account for extraordinary crumb production was manifest. Case closed, then: Proust's madeleine did not, does not, and never could have existed. To put it bluntly: Proust didn't know from madeleines.

This may be less than surprising. As it turns out, Proust's original model may have been a piece of soggy toast. In an early version of the scene, the narrator is offered a piece of "dry toast" which he dips in his tea. The "bit of sopped toast" triggers the familiar surge of memory.

This fact is not advertised to tourists making the pilgrimage to Illiers-Combray, where madeleines are sold by the bushel, and one patisserie does good business claiming Proust's family as patrons.

But Proust must have understood the madeleine's power. Otherwise he would have just left us the soggy toast. A well-made madeleine (and, please, rest the batter) is that rare thing: perfection itself. The shape, so pleasing to the eye, the double surface texture (ridged on one side, smooth on the other)—and, yes, the buttery, lemony taste. Make a batch. Take a bite. An "exquisite pleasure" will invade your senses. And you will have your own madeleine memories.

Edmund Levin is a writer/producer at ABC's Good Morning America.