|Like this but with a plate of food instead|
In what is one of the fabled conjunctions of literature and food, Marcel Proust wrote, “...worn out by the gloomy day and by the perspective of a sad tomorrow, I put into my mouth a spoonful of tea in which I had softened a piece of madeleine” and unleashed the flood of memory that became the seven volumes popularly known as REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST. That taste of tea and that buttery, scallop shaped cookie “made life’s vicissitudes indifferent to me [and] in the same way that love operates, fill[ed] me with a precious essence: or, rather this essence was not in me, it was me.”
Proust’s cure for melancholy, practically speaking, is as ancient as Hippocrates. That imbalance of black bile (gr. melan cholie), one of the four humors, provokes an excess of cold and dry in the body. The warmth of the tea and the softly yielding cookie restore a sense of well-being, of oneness with the self.
It was years before I understood why I sought out such odd little places of eat in the years immediately after my divorce. In Portland I would return over and over again to the now defunct Eve’s Kitchen in the older Fred Meyer Stores, Joe’s in the Basement or Tosis on Sandy Boulevard. Walking into them was (and is) like passing into a time warp. The decor never changed. Plastic flowers, faded and a bit dusty, were de riguer. Great hash browns at breakfast, hot roast beef sandwiches every day, meatballs the size of baseballs, old fashioned soups and dinner specials so abundant and inexpensive that the late Preston McMann used to say they deserved state subsidies. Yes, the carrots and the string beans were overcooked, both the turkey and the beef gravy were over thickened. But it was familiar, uncomplicated. That was key and you left with a smile and a take-away box.
Clearly humankind, like every other creature that roams the earth, is left with the undeniable imprint of the first foods they ate. We associate them with security and well-being. As we grow a little older, especially if we are privileged with strong regional or ethnic food traditions, the mere mention of a dish returns us. The dietitians are misguided when they condemn the idea of the happiness that food brings us in response to the excesses of some. The early morning reveries of a cop dunking his doughnut into his steaming mug of coffee momentarily escapes the hard uncertainties of his day. In that, he has a kinship across time and space with Proust.