Brow Beat

Proust’s Madeleine Was Originally Toast, Which Would Have Made for a Very Different Novel

Pastry of Lies.

Bernard Leprêtre

Aside from Eve’s apple and Persephone’s pomegranate, there are few edibles in literature more famous than the tea-drenched madeleine that awakens Proust’s memory of childhood in Remembrance of Things Past. Except, as the Guardian recently noted, a handwritten first draft of the book reveals that the original delicate finger-sized cake was not a delicate finger-sized cake at all. It was … toast.

Bread that pops out of a toaster. Please take a moment to revise your vision of the “little scallop shell pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious fold,” its sopped morsels scented with tisane and dispersing already into nothingness, like our tethers to the past. That pastry is a Pastry of Lies.

“The madeleine cakes that Marcel Proust made famous as the trigger for nostalgia in his book might have actually started out as toasted bread, according to draft manuscripts to be published in France this week,” reports the Guardian.

In a second manuscript, Proust allegedly changed the toast to a biscotto, ascending ever-so-slowly up the sophistication hierarchy of baked goods. By the third draft, he had reached the top of the ladder and could wax lyrical on his Madeleine of Mendacity.

But loyal Slate readers will note that Proust’s madeleine bona fides have long dwelt under a cloud of suspicion. In a 2005 investigation into the writer’s “cliché cookie,” Edmund Levin tried and failed to unearth a madeleine recipe that produced the type of dry, crumbly sweet the book described. A madeleine, Levin found, “is a hardy little customer,” likelier to absorb liquid when dunked in tea than to disintegrate. “Case closed,” he concluded, after several attempts to replicate the Cookie of Fallaciousness. “Proust’s madeleine did not, does not, and never could have existed. To put it bluntly: Proust didn’t know from madeleines.”

Amazingly, we at Slate have obtained exclusive rights to a secret fourth draft of Remembrance of Things Past. The relevant passage is excerpted below:

She (Marcel’s mother) sent for one of those flour-enriched, monoglyceride-distilled little biscuits called “dunkaroos,” which look as though they had been molded in the spritely shape of an Australian marsupial, or else a hot air balloon … I raised to my lips a detachable packet’s-worth of the vanilla frosting in which I had doused the head of the cookie. No sooner had the rainbow sprinkle icing mixed with the partially hydrogenated crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses …

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little portion-controlled individual pack of dunkaroos which on Sunday mornings at Combray … when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping each cookie first in her own detachable packet of vanilla or funfetti-flavored icing …. and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and garden alike, from my factory-sealed, FDA-regulated pack of honey graham dunkaroos.

Great literature! Who says it can’t nourish the soul?