“She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, 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. … Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray … my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. … But 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, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, 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.

It is remarkable how certain sensations can transport you instantly back to a specific time in your life. The taste of Dr Pepper makes me feel like I’m 9 years old, sitting in a country club in Salina Kansas. I’m eating a grilled cheese sandwich and potato chips, trying to figure out what all the adults are talking about.

Music works that way as well – songs are associated with periods in your life to such an extent that you can’t listen to them without all of the pain or pleasure you felt at that time resurfacing in you. When I was a teenager, I used to hear Mozart’s clarinet quintet in my head whenever I felt anxious. I listened to it recently, and, rather than elevate me away from my anxiety, it somehow stirred all the anxiety I had tried to escape. It’s still ridiculously beautiful, though.

Is there some food or some song that works as a time-traveling device for you?

5 thoughts on “Memory/music/food

  1. Prawn Crackers, still warm and out of a paper bag from a Chinese takeaway, take me back very specifically to a bus stop in Thornton Heath, Croydon, South London in the mid-1980s. I’d be waiting for a late bus home with my brother and some of the guys he’d been at school with. It would have been on a Sunday night and we’d have been at the Lord Napier trad jazz pub, whose house band was Jumping Jack Gilbert’s group. Jumping Jack was a clarinettist who placed his reed in the corner of his mouth like James Dean smoking a cigarette, and he’d hop slightly on his right foot when soloing, hence the “Jumping”. He had with him a banjo player and a pianist; plus a double bassist called Ray Holland, who could hold down a bass line with one hand a roll a cigarette with the other; and a drummer called Tony whose party trick was to take one solo at the end of the night where he’d go “round the drums”, playing every part of the kit, as well as stools and beer glasses held up by members of the audience. I was 16-18 and I’d always drink nothing but Beamish Stout at the Lord Napier. Never drank anything else there, never drank it anywhere else, never have tasted it since.

  2. Beautiful story, May. Beautifully told! I’m so glad to see you here!

    Beamish Stout is such a good name for something! A dog? A band?

    • Yes, I think of it as a horrible nickname a fat kid called Beamish might acquire at an old-fashioned sadistic English boarding school, to differentiate him from his skinny brother, Beamish Slender.

      • For some reason I suddenly had a perfect vision of a graphic novel staring Beamish Slender and Beamish Stout at a horrible boarding school. Can’t you see it?!?!

  3. Weird but I totally rmmeeber this. I think it is the mention of the massive steak. I can see you sitting on the couch the Sethi’s gave us. You kept on going on about how good the beer was and the brilliance of the widget. Can’t believe that was six years ago.

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