Ask the average person what, if anything, they know of Marcel Proust, and they will invariably mention madeleines, those now-legendary scalloped little French cakes that allow the Marcel to recall with vivid detail hitherto lost memories of his childhood and prompt him to begin the 4,211-page story that now dominates my idle moments before bed. Proust’s assertion that a bite of cake dipped in lime-blossom tea could allow for such a transformation might seem at first a bit far-fetched. But if you have ever craved a slice of chocolate hazelnut cake badly enough, or longed for the sweet or salty release of memories that a bite of salted caramel might bring, you will understand that food is far more than nourishment.
Certain periods in my life have been quite literally flavored by whatever type of food I happened to consume, seek out, or become obsessed with at that specific time. As a child, I craved cream-cheese fried crabmeat wontons from Ming’s, a specific chinese restaurant located in the suburbs of Baltimore. My desire for these crunchy golden triangles of spiced cream was in fact so strong that I would beg both of my parents to take me there, even if we were not ordering dinner but simply driving by. When I got to college, cider donuts and sharp cheddar cheese came to represent upstate New York for me, Junior year of college still has the bubbly tang of prosecco which Nick and I drank in my dorm room almost every weekend, and Paris will forever be captured in the round pastelle disks of a pistachio macaron. There are foods I eat when I am upset or nostalgic, foods I eat when I am happy, foods I eat with certain people or at certain times. Food carries the perfect combination of comfort, ritual, and pleasure. Marcel was all too right to attribute four thousand pages of writing to a bite of cake, recalling that, like writing, food has in its depths a hint of the immortal:
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsides, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone more fragil but more enduring, more persistant, 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 structures of recollection. (Swann’s Way 61)
Here on the Manhattan side of the page, Nick and I spent nearly a month collectively searching for our own slice of nostalgia—specifically a type of pie-crust, berry-filled dessert called mixed berry galette, which is a speciality of the Dessert Booth, the cafe in Clinton, New York, where Nick grew up and where we went to college. Apparently this rustic, simple combination (in order to make mixed berry gallette, you simply fill a pie crust with three types of stewed berries, sugar, and fold down the edges of the crust before
baking it) is simply heavenly, and when Nick continued to mention his longing for one, I decided I would take on the challenge of finding one. For the next few weeks, every time I would pass a bakery, I would peer in, assess their berry tart selection, and occasionally take a picture on my phone and send it to him. “Is this it??” I’d ask. “What about this??” Sometimes I would pick one up and bring it back (getting a gf option for myself and something non-berried for Sam), and we would eat dessert and assess the relative similarities of that particular iteration. I found raspberry tarts at Maison Kayser on 3rd avenue, cherry danish at a Jewish bakery on the Upper East Side that smelled like apple-turnover heaven. I found rustic berry gallette at Balthazar Bakery in Soho and cherry pie at Sarabeth’s in Chelsea Market. As strange as it may sound, I loved going back into bakeries again, loved looking at and smelling the pie crusts and tarts I can no longer eat, a pleasure I have denied myself for almost three-years since becoming gluten-free. There were more than occasional moments when I wanted to give in and eat the tarts in front of me. But I settled for crème brulée instead, and everyone was happy.
We did not, in a month of searching, ever find anything that even closely approximated mixed berry gallette in all of Manhattan, and for the first time in my life, this city failed to provide the perfect solution to exactly what I wanted. So Nick made pie crust and baked berries into it and we decided this would have to do. As insatiable and stubborn as I can be, however, I still walk into bakeries as an impulse, and survey their berry selections, just in case.
There is a reason I have decided to write this weeks post about food, other than to lament the lack of berry galettes in New York and demonstrate how far I will go to find something for Nick! I have wanted to write about food for almost as long as I have wanted to write, and yesterday learned that I will be a contributing writer to Honest Cooking, an online food magazine that just started last year, but is getting a very warm reception from readers and foodies alike. I will be posting several times a month, and, while this is not a huge step, it feels good, in a small way, to be writing for people who want to publish me, to be able to write about food even though I cannot eat half of the items on a restaurant menu. I may never be Ruth Reichl, nor do I intend to. But if I can combine food and writing, few prospects could seem more exciting. Stay tuned.
In totally unrelated news, today is Nora’s birthday!!! I am off to dinner with Nick and Sam, and then to see her later tonight. But for now, I wish her all of the most delicious cake, and the memories it will one day bring back.