by Anna Zeide •

When Marcel Proust dipped his madeleine into a cup of tea, a work of literature emerged.

When my students dipped their own madeleines into cups of tea, what emerged was a powerful learning experience that highlighted how food and memory are linked.

In the class I’m teaching this semester, Eating and Memory, we’ve begun to think about how our identities are tied to the stories we tell—the stories of our lives, of our sensory experiences, of how we’ve come to be who we are. For Proust, eating madeleines, the classic shell-shaped French tea cakes, flooded him with memories of eating them as a child, and led him to a 3000-page retelling of his life in Remembrance of Things Past. For my students, reflections on food and memory have allowed them to explore family relationships, childhood identity, and the meaning of emotional truth.

Eating and Memory is one of several seminars taught through the GreenHouse environmental learning community. Students who live in this on-campus dorm take part in at least one such hands-on, small-group, learning experience each semester, having the chance to connect with a variety of instructors from across campus and the Madison community.

During one session last month, my class explored what lay beneath the legendary madeleine. In order to do this, we recreated the experience of dipping madeleines into cups of tea, expecting to have the “warm liquid mix with the [cake] crumbs,” as it had for Proust. To our surprise, however, the madeleine didn’t crumble at all; instead it held together as it soaked up the tea. Because the crumbs were a crucial part of Proust’s narrative, the absence of crumbs was suspicious.

It turns out, writer Edmund Levin had also recreated Proust’s experience and had similarly been puzzled by the lack of crumbs. In a Slate article, and a follow-up NPR interview, Levin concludes that the lack of crumbs means Proust’s experience could not have involved a madeleine. In fact, Levin suggests that what actually sparked Proust’s epiphany was a dry piece of toast.

Levin’s speculation raises very interesting questions about why the original tale might have been misreported, intentionally or not. Would Proust’s flood of memories be as evocative to readers if it had been prompted by something so prosaic as a dry piece of toast? Why might the lovely French tea cake better serve to anchor this reminiscence?

These musings led my students into a discussion about factual truth versus emotional truth, in which we explored storytellers’ prerogative to change details in order to convey a richer affective experience.  In the weeks to come, as the class members begin to craft their own stories, my hope is that they weave narratives that remain true to the lived experience of the moments they are trying to capture, even if that means substituting tea cakes for toast.

As a whole, this particular investigation, the Eating and Memory class, and the larger GreenHouse program of which the class is a part, allow students a chance to think critically about the multiple ways that we find meaning in the world around us. Memories are the building blocks from which our identities are constructed—whether those are the identities of a Proust fan, an environmentalist, a foodie, or a student. Paying attention to the content and creation of those memories allows us to more intentionally approach who we are, how we live, and how we interact with others. This attention and intention determines, in part, what we soak up, and what we dissolve.


Anna Zeide is a graduate student in the History of Science and the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she spends her days eating, blogging, writing a dissertation on the history of canned food in America, and working as the food intern for the GreenHouse environmental learning community.