Cultural “Madeleines”


Image from "Foodies," a blog by L. John Harris on Zester Daily

Image from “Foodies,” a blog by L. John Harris on Zester Daily

Another terrific guest blog post by CD Russia co-author Carrie Cameron, combining two of your favorites: food and literature. Smells and tastes evoke our deepest memories, and for Blended Culture people they can easily lead to a round-the-world reverie…

Perhaps you’re familiar with the famous madeleine of Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time, depending on the translation). The author takes a bite of a madeleine, a simple cookie, and the taste-memory drifts him off on a long reverie of his childhood, connecting him to the people and moments of long ago:

“…when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring…remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen, is not a cookbook, but a literary madeleine, evoking through food memories her childhood in Soviet Russia. It’s not about her favorite foods or emblematic Russian dishes. It’s about how a taste connects us with a moment in time and space.

Vobla, dried and salted Caspian roach fish, “brings out that particular Russian masochism: we love it because it’s such a torment to eat…I’d happily trade all Hemingway’s snails and Proust’s cakes for a strip of [this] petrified fish flesh.” A half-piece of black-market Juicy Fruit gum takes her back to the girls’ bathroom in elementary school, where she would auction it off to the other girls, having obtained it through some elite family connections. She describes salat Olivier as a “metaphor for a Soviet émigré’s memory… loosely cemented with mayo.” In her mother’s American kitchen in the 90’s, making the salat, she notes how “a taste of Lebanese pickle that uncannily resembles a Russian gherkin leads to a snippet from a Rodina song, which in turn rouses a political morality tale, or reawakens a recollection of a long-ago dream, of a fleeting pang of yearning.” Starting from these tastes and smells, the author skillfully depicts the cultural intimacies of a point in time and place which no longer exists, yet is very real and alive in her memory.

What tastes and smells evoke your cultural insights? What clues do they provide to other ways of life, and why?? Post your answers in the comments, and let’s compare!

One thought on “Cultural “Madeleines”

  1. Pingback: Cultural “Madeleines” | Mindful Lea...

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