You were waiting for this, right? Authors and food equals Proust and madeleines. It’s arguably the most recognizable culinary pairing in literature, and definitely the one I’m asked about the most. (This site was almost named “Proust’s Madeleine,” or something equally pretentious, until the idea was greeted by faux barfing noises from my focus group/boyfriend.) So why hasn’t Marcel appeared here yet?
The thing is: There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that Proust really ate madeleines. Although his vivid memories of the delicate cookies from In Search of Lost Time have become iconic, early versions of the novel actually don’t include madeleines at all. Instead, we see Marcel biting into a humble biscotte – a piece of dry toast. And as Edmund Levin’s meticulous experiments in tea-dunking and crumb-making reveal, Proust’s description of the famous treats doesn’t seem to match up with any known recipe. It’s likely that the madeleines of our imagination were just that: a figment of Proust’s culinary mind.
So what was Proust really eating? He’d be so glad you asked. Before asthma reduced his appetite (and even for an unhealthily long time after), Proust was a notorious glutton, stuffing himself so full that he sometimes resorted to wearing a corset. He blissfully described one of his meals, which included “two tournedos steaks—I ate every scrap—a dish—of chips (about twenty times as much as Félicie used to make), some cream cheese, some gruyère, two croissants, a bottle of Pousset beer.” He summed it up more succinctly in a letter to his mother: “Lunch is my favorite moment.”
But as his illness worsened, his need to write began to subsume his desire to eat, and breakfast became Proust’s meal of choice. Instead of the madeleines and tea we know from his fiction, the real Marcel demanded croissants and cafe au lait, brought to him in bed while he read the paper and began his work. He would dunk his croissant in the coffee (just as his fictional self would mimic with a cup of tea) and ate little else for the rest of the day.
Céleste Albaret, Proust’s trusted servant, later marveled at the writer’s ability to live on so little, after years of hedonistic eating. “The most extraordinary thing was how he could survive and work, ill as he was, … by living on the shadows of foods he’d known and loved in the past.” In the absence of beef and beer, Proust’s writing (and those morning croissants) was all that remained, evoking those tantalizing sense memories of meals gone by—his own personal madeleine moments.