The Madeline Moment
BY JULIA PLATT LEONARD
Even if you’ve never read a word of Proust, you probably know about the “madeleine moment.” The narrator of the classic Remembrance of Things Past dips a small, shell-shaped cake into a cup of tea. Such a simple action, but so powerful that he’s instantly flooded with memories of his childhood.
What is your madeleine moment? Feel free to substitute an Oreo and a glass of milk or a piece of Bit-O-Honey in the backseat of the car on a family holiday or a potato baked in the embers of an open fire on your first camping trip. What food takes you back to a place and time, and a memory that is as clear today as it was then? And why is food such a potent reminder of the past?
The phenomenon is not surprising, says chef and Native foods educator Freddie Bitsoie, author of New Native Kitchen and featured food writer at the Santa Fe Literary Festival. “Food is such a primordial need,” he says. “We don’t need to be taught that we have to eat. You hear a baby cry. Most likely the baby’s hungry. The baby doesn’t know it’s hungry, so it cries.” For our ancestors, remembering what they ate, where it grew and if it was nourishing or noxious would have been Survival 101. Memory wasn’t a luxury but a requirement.
In that sense, food can be a collective memory that is passed down from one generation to the next. For chef Bryant Terry, educator, food activist and winner of James Beard and NAACP Image Awards, memory is at the heart of his latest book, Black Food: Stories, Art and Recipes from across the African Diaspora. “The calling to create Black Food for me was about recognizing those kind of ugly parts of our past, but [also] having this book that would be inspiring, that would focus on our agency and our magic and our brilliance and our creativity and the things that have brought us joy — and helped us not only survive but thrive,” he says.
Terry, the featured food writer at the May 21 Around the Table lunch at the festival, calls recipes the “through line” of Black Food. As editor and curator, he worked with each contributor, and as he writes in the book, “I asked brilliant colleagues to offer dishes that embody their approach to cooking and draw on history and memory while looking forward.”
He let people know “that I wanted it to be about them connecting with their food histories in the most authentic way and mining their own personal stories that they felt were important to share with the world to inspire others.”
Perhaps one reason food memories are so powerful is that often it’s not only the food we remember but who cooked it. For Black Food contributor Erika Council, it was her great-grandmother, who baked biscuits over an open fire in North Carolina to feed laborers working in the tobacco fields, and her daughter — Erika’s grandmother— who sold them at “plate sales” to support civil rights workers in the 1950s and ’60s. Today Erika makes them herself and shares the recipe— and the memories— with readers. The recipe may have changed, but the memory forms a thread that connects generations of women.
That power of individual memories to inspire others is at the heart of Asma Khan’s latest cookbook, Ammu. Khan says ammu is probably a combination of the word amma, used in South Asia to mean “spiritual
used in South Asia to mean “spiritual mother,” and the Arabic word umm, also meaning “mother.” For Khan, chef and owner of Darjeeling Express in London and featured speaker at the SFLF Around the Table afternoon tea on Sunday, May 22, the woman at the heart of her book is her own mother. “I wanted to write a book in her lifetime talking about the bridge between us, which was food. . . . She didn’t communicate love in words, but she fed us in a way of saying that I mattered to her.”
Her mother ran her own catering bbusiness in Calcutta, something eeyebrow-raising in a deeply ppatriarchal society. “She stayed vvery much steeped in her tradition, hher culture, yet she did something rradical,” Khan says. “I never heard hher voice raised. She did this ssilently. She shook the world around hher. And I think now, when I was wwriting this book I realized, “Wow, aactually, this is why I am where I aam, because of her.’”
She adds, “It was not just the ffood and the spices and the cooking I was learning. I was learning how tto lead as a sole female leader.” For Khan,K the book is also a thank-you letter for the way her mom showed love through the food, such as her chicken biryani. While biryani is typically served at celebrations, for Khan’s family it was the opposite. Her mother made biryani when Khan did poorly at school or her brother’s team lost. “It was just for her to tell us that it’s all right. We knew that the biryani was on the table because my math grade was bad or my brother lost his cricket match.”
What started out as a meal in sadness turned into something else. “Instead of all that, we all had biryani and were very happy and then forgot the grief.”
While some of us remember teenage crushes on celebrities, the movies we watched or music we listened to, it’s food that dominates the memories of food writer Sarit Packer. She remembers cooking pasta with friends, mincing meat with her mom and bringing a cold beer to her dad in their backyard in Israel, and a tray of meat for him to grill.
“The one thing we always say, when you work with chefs, you understand that you are the type of people who remember what you ate when you were 4 or 5,” she says. “There’s a certain type of person who remembers their life through food.”
Both she and her husband, Itamar Srulovich, are that type of person. A shared love of food drew them together, and they now run the hugely
successful Honey & Co., Honey & Spice and Honey & Smoke restaurants and delis in London. They’re also the authors of four cookbooks, write a column for the Financial Times and are featured speakers at the Around the Table afternoon tea on Saturday, May 21.
For them, their cookbooks are much more than collections of recipes; they’re collections of food memories. “And we get to have this beautiful album to commemorate it and to remind us of these beautiful things and beautiful people and beautiful times,” says Srulovich.
For their latest book, Chasing Smoke, they traveled throughout the Middle East, cooking over fire, gaining inspiration for their own recipes and most importantly meeting people. “A place is only as memorable, only as beautiful as the people you met there,” they write in the book.
“The food in itself is not . . . interesting without the story behind it. And the story is the people around it. This is what’s interesting,” Srulovich says. “The food is the gateway, and it’s the door to it. But for us, everything we do — the restaurants and the books and these travels — they’re just a way for us to understand the world and connect to the world and relate to the world and bring some of ourselves to it.”
Memories are made by these chefs and food writers and then shared with us as we flick through the pages of their cookbooks, scribble shopping lists and dream up dinners — hungry to create memories of our own.
Freddie Bitsoie, Bryant Terry, Asma Khan, Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich are all appearing at Around the Table events at the inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival.
Santa Fe New Mexican