Arts & Life

Proust's Literary Cookie Crumbles

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Alex Chadwick talks with Slate contributor Edmund Levin about his exploration of a famous moment involving fine literature and fine pastry. The madeleine — a delicate cookie — was featured in Marcel Proust's literary masterwork, Remembrance of Things Past.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Now with the results of a unique exercise in investigative reporting. Our partners at Slate magazine have published a piece that delves into one of the great literary mysteries of all time: how the cookie crumbles. And not just any cookie. This is the cookie known as a madeleine, a shell-shaped confection that inspired French author Marcel Proust's legendary flood of memories in his work "Remembrance of Things Past." Our literary sleuth is Slate contributor and food writer Edmund Levin.

Edmund, welcome to DAY TO DAY and remind us exactly what Proust did with this madeleine and why there is a question about this cookie.

EDMUND LEVIN (Slate): Well, in "Remembrance of Things Past" which is a 3,000-page novel, there is a scene in the book where the narrator, who is a fictionalized Marcel Proust, dips this madeleine in some tea, and the spoonful of tea mixed with crumbs is kind of the point where the novel reaches escape velocity and he has this flood of memories that spark the whole rest of the novel.

CHADWICK: Read us just that passage, will you?

LEVIN: OK. `I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. 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 invaded my senses.'

CHADWICK: And from this moment, all these memories flow out because this moment is so magical. So now I have in front of me a cup of tea and a spoon and a madeleine; this is one that we bought at Starbucks. And tell me what I should do to re-create Proust's epiphany.

LEVIN: OK. Well, first, you should get into an appropriately pensive mood...

CHADWICK: OK.

LEVIN: ...and then you should break off, I'd say, about a third of it...

CHADWICK: OK.

LEVIN: ...and just drop it in the tea.

CHADWICK: I note that this is a rather--well, it doesn't snap apart. It kind of folds apart.

LEVIN: That's fine.

CHADWICK: There it is in the tea.

LEVIN: And then to stir it a little bit and than what Proust describes is that the narrator then scoops out a spoonful of tea and there should be, according to the passage, crumbs in the spoon, and that's where the whole problem and mystery lies.

CHADWICK: I have to say there are no crumbs in this spoon.

LEVIN: Well, you have the makings of an investigative food writer because that's the whole problem. There are no crumbs in the spoon when you take your typical madeleine and soak a piece of it in the tea.

CHADWICK: What is wrong with this madeleine that it is crumb-deficient?

LEVIN: It is crumb-deficient because it is apparently not dry and crumbly enough. What Proust's passage suggests is that the madeleine should kind of disintegrate a little bit in the tea. Now the funny thing is when I started researching this, I thought, `Well, somebody must have tried to figure out what kind of madeleine would do this.' And to my surprise, I found that no one had taken the time and the effort to research this really utterly trivial question to find out exactly what the recipe would be to create a Proustian madeleine.

CHADWICK: And how did you do? How did you go about that?

LEVIN: Basic food science tells you that a madeleine that would behave like that would be drier, would have less butter, less eggs. You could try to overbake it a bit. That could even mean that it was stale.

CHADWICK: OK. So what is your conclusion about Proust's legendary madeleine? Where do you come to here? Was it just stale?

LEVIN: Well, I tried leaving it out--it was kind of a heartless act I felt, but I made some madeleines. I left them outside for three, four days, and I tried to dip them and I still got very few crumbs. So my shocking conclusion is that Proust's madeleine could not have existed. There is no madeleine with a reasonable recipe that behaves the way Proust says.

CHADWICK: Edmund, you're talking about a writer who his entire career rests upon his ability to evoke tides of memory from small little stimuli, and you're saying he's lying about the stimuli?

LEVIN: I'm afraid that he made it all up. As far as I can tell, it did not happen. Now I will exercise some humility. You know, this is science. There may be other people who will try experiments. Science has to be reproducible, but I am fairly confident of my results.

CHADWICK: Well, what do you think he was dipping in his tea? I mean, what was Proust's madeleine?

LEVIN: Well, there is some speculation about that, and actually scholars agree that "Remembrance of Things Past" was not, in fact, inspired by a madeleine. There is an early version of the scene where Proust--not Proust rather but the narrator of this early version--dips a piece of dry toast in tea. So the original madeleine, some say, was a piece of dry toast, and some scholars say that Proust actually had an epiphany with a piece of dry toast.

CHADWICK: You know, Edmund, in the end, toast or cookie or madeleine, Proust's memories could have been triggered by broccoli or anything. Why has this question obsessed you for so long?

LEVIN: I just wanted to know because it's become a cultural cliche. You know, you read, you know, someone's Proustian madeleine was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or in "The Sopranos," Tony's Proustian madeleine, his psychiatrist says, is a piece of cappicola ham. And so I wondered, `Well, what was the original madeleine? You know, did it exist?' You know, I get sort of interested in these little trivial questions.

CHADWICK: Edmund Levin is a food writer and contributor to Slate magazine. You'll find his article about the search for Proust's madeleine at slate.com.

Edmund, thank you.

LEVIN: Thank you.

CHADWICK: Bon appetit.

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