“And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the 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 had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature.”
–Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
The Proustian madeleine may be a cliché to the literati, but there is no doubt about it: food evokes feeling. One bite of tea cake is all it takes to make the back of one’s jaw tingle. Flavors passing over my tongue can shoot me into another time, another country. Keep your eyes closed the next time you eat something you like and you’ll see.
It’s Valentine’s Day, so I’m going to talk about something I love: Food. Who’s surprised?
Food brings me joy. Making it. Serving it. Eating it. Food brings me discomfort. Buying it. Eating it.
For the past eight years my relationship with food has been dysfunctional. Compulsive. For the past eight years I haven’t eaten a meal without some form of guilt or rationalization. It bothers the people around me. It makes some people nervous, even irritates some of them.
“I know you’re sad, but you can’t have yogurt for every meal.”
“How could you possibly have room for more French fries?”
“Just have a bagel. What’s the problem with that?”
“You looked really thin the last time I saw you, but you looked healthier in that picture posted of you last week.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t talk so much about what you going to eat, just eat it or don’t.”
“Just go to the gym if you care so much about this.”
Every one of this things was said to me probably out of the goodness in people’s hearts, or out of confusion. But each comment stings in a way only those who also have a complicated relationship with food could possibly understand.
There have only been a few times where people have vocalized their worry about my relationship with food. Typically, it goes unnoticed, because my body doesn’t physically change all that much. If I eat a lot of meals with someone they probably notice the weird portioning and the food journal app on my phone. Or they’ll notice that I’m on my third bowl of pasta and headed to the kitchen to “clean up,” only to see I’m fishing out strands of spaghetti with my fingers, quickly, quietly.
I talk about food a lot, to be fair. It consumes most of my brain space, and therefore is a topic that controls a lot of the conversations I have. And if I’m around someone regularly, they can see that it might not only be recipes I’m concerned with. But it’s hard to talk about with someone who doesn’t share this experience. Someone who has a more logical (or rational, or dare I say healthy– even though I hate that word) relationship with food might be confused about why, if I’m so concerned, I can’t just implement a regular workout routine. Or why I can’t just say fuck it and eat what I want to eat. In fact, I do both of these things sometimes. More often than it would seem. But that doesn’t change the way I let these habits control me.
I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to post this. And I think a day focused around love is a good day to do so. I love to eat. I love to cook. I love working with food and recipes– professionally and personally.
Yet I don’t love what my brain has done to my relationship with food; it makes things tricky. I think sharing a meal with someone is is one of the most intimate activities. But there are complexities beyond my control at play here. It’s hard. I go through good spells and not-so-good ones.
But nothing ever makes me feel more than food. That “exquisite pleasure,” which causes nothing else to matter. I won’t ever let go of that.
Orange Rosewater Madelines (makes about 24 cookies)
1 or 2 madeline tins
3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon AP flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch sea salt (or orange salt)
2 teaspoons orange zest
3 eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup cane sugar
1 tablespoon rose water
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick)+ 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
Melt the butter in a small saucepan, pouring 2 tablespoons into a separate bowl. Stir orange zest into larger amount of butter, and cool to room temperature. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
In an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until thick and light in color, about 4 minutes. Quickly beat in rose water and vanilla extract. Sift half of the flour mixture into the egg mixture and fold until barely combined. Repeat with the other half of the flour mixture. Gently fold in the orange butter until combined. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375º F. Brush a madeleine tin with remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter and dust lightly with flour.
When madeleines have chilled, quickly spoon batter into tins. Bake until cookies are golden brown and spring back to the touch, about 8-12 minutes. Let cookies cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then let cool completely on wire wracks.