Nostalgia writ on hot, buttered toast

Comfort food comes in many different forms, but there’s nothing quite like hot, buttered toast, especially on a blustery November day.

In À la recherché du temps perdu, the French writer Marcel Proust lovingly described the reminiscences evoked by taste and smell. Famously – at least for the French – Proust wrote about the nostalgic properties of the madeleine, undoubtedly the petite madeleine de Commercy, a small sponge cake shaped like a shell. Here is the original from In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way, in the translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (1992):

“And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent…”

The following passage describes at length the miraculous effect of nibbling on the madeleine. But according to manuscripts published in France, the madeleine started out as a piece of toasted bread. The first draft of Proust’s seven-volume novel, which dates from 1907, has the author reminiscing about toasted bread and honey. A second draft substitutes a biscotto, the hard Italian biscuit, and only in the third draft does Proust come up with the madeleine. The writer shifts his ground from mere nostalgia for childhood (toast with honey) to the more socially upwardly mobile madeleine.

Proust might have stuck with toast. As Nigel Slater remarks in toast: the story of a boy’s hunger (2003) – his story of a childhood remembered through food: “It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you… Once the warm, salty butter has hit your tongue, you are smitten. Putty in their hands.”

Mark you, not any old toast. The bread must be fresh and cut by hand, preferably from a homemade loaf – which in England used to be called a “split tin”. A thick, wobbly slice placed precariously on a wire-pronged fork is toasted before a roaring fire (a coal fire being better than a wood fire, since the heat tends to be more intense). The moment the bread is toasted, it must be lavishly spread with salted butter, not the insipid other kind, and greedily consumed together with a cup of good tea. Memories pour forth, so repeat the process – which, in any case, has to be done, because one cannot have too much of a good thing.

In The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame writes about one of Toad’s adventures, where Toad finds himself in a “dank and noisome dungeon” run by a gaoler whose daughter “assisted her father in the lighter duties of his post.” She brings Toad a tray:

“…with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries. Toad sat up on end once more, dried his eyes, sipped his tea and munched his toast, and soon began talking freely about himself, and the house he lived in, and his doings there, and how important he was, and what a lot his friends thought of him.”

Nostalgia not writ on water, but on hot, buttered toast.

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