Memory, Cultural Indicators and the Table

Esin Sungur
7 minutes

How do you remember your childhood? With a toy you played with often, the smell of your mother or the taste of a favorite dish?

Memory is perhaps one of the most interesting boxes of the human mind. Flavor touches so many different areas, both in memory research and as a cultural indicator.

The sensuousness of food, which is in relation with so many different disciplines from psychology to neurology, literature to anthropology, is really striking when you start to think about it.

Of course, it’s not just about taste, but also about the table. They take you back to the past, to good memories. Memory literature, in other words autobiographical memoirs and historical novels, is perhaps one of the fields in which this subject is most frequently dealt with. Marcel Proust’s Madeleine cake is undoubtedly the first example that comes to mind. In the French author’s magnum opus “In Search of Lost Time”, the taste of the madeleines he dips in tea and eats on a cold winter evening starts the process of capturing all the lost time of his childhood… Madeleine cake revives all memories, takes you back to childhood and makes you relive the past. And so we have the opportunity to read one of the most magnificent texts of all time, with thousands of pages to come. Thank you, madeleine cake, you are an iconic metaphor for a reason!

What is this Madeleine cake?

If you ask what this Madeleine cake is, it’s a simple recipe with ancient roots; Madeleine cakes, a quartet of flour, eggs, butter and sugar, are said to have been first made by pastry makers in the city of Commercy in the Lorraine Region of France in the 1700s and were named after the King of France, King Charles XV. Louis is said to have named them after Madeleine Paulmier, who often made these cakes… (The actual name of the tiny cakes is “Madeleine”).

XV. Madeleines, eaten at the Palace of Varsailles during the reign of Louis XV with a shuttle-like texture, were so popular that they spread all over France. This classic French flavor, which Proust knew from his childhood, has gifted mankind a masterpiece like “In Search of Lost Time”.

After describing how his whole body shivered and he felt an insatiable pleasure with all his senses after putting the madeleine cake his mother offered him with tea to warm him up on a cold winter day, Proust tells how, even though he could not understand where it came from at first – because his involuntary memory was activated by this familiar taste and smell stimulus – he then tells how a memory from his childhood came back in the book “The Swanns’ Side” of the series.

This is the cake that his aunt gave him in his room, dipped in tea or linden, when he went to wish her good day on Sunday mornings during his childhood days in Combray… He continues with the following sentences, which can be considered one of the most beautiful texts in the history of literature:

“As soon as I recognized the taste of a piece of madeleine that my aunt had dipped in linden and given me (although I did not yet know why this memory made me so happy, and I would postpone discovering it until much later), the old gray house facing the street, where my aunt Léonie’s room was located, was added like a theatrical set to the little house built for my parents, facing the garden at the back (the only section I had seen so far); And along with the house, the city from morning to night, in all seasons, the square where they sent me for lunch, the streets where I shopped, and the roads we walked on when the weather was good. And just as in the Japanese game in which faint pieces of paper dropped into a porcelain bowl filled with water dissolve as soon as they enter the water, take shape, color and become distinct, and become flowers, houses and people, leaving no room for concrete doubt, all the flowers in our garden, and in M. Swann’s garden.Swann’s garden, the water lilies of the Vivonne, the good people of the village, their little houses, the church, the whole of Combray and its environs took shape and volume, the whole town with its gardens jumped out of my teacup.”

Eating is something we all undoubtedly have to do in order to live. Whether it is a little or a lot, it is an unavoidable vital activity, and as such, it is one of the backbones of both our individual memory and social and cultural memory with its tables. The table setting, the meaning of the table and its symbolic aspect are as important in the formation of culture as childhood tastes. There are so many beautiful examples of these scenes in literature.

Let’s remember the opening sentence of Halit Ziya’s “Mai and Siyah”: “There were seven people around the table”. In this work, which is a true representative of the modern Turkish novel, which Tanpınar calls “the first novel that tells about its own generation”, this table is the scene in the background of the experiences and disappointments of Ahmet Cemil, who encounters difficulties and destructions in his life journey, which he started with completely different dreams… Let’s remember that table at the beginning of the novel:

(…) Tonight, in the garden of Tepebaşı, that banquet was being given to the editorial board. The invited guests were the reporters of the “Mir’at-i Şuûn” newspaper. All these young people drank for four hours and ate for one hour. Except for Ali Şekib, who was now trying to remove the peel of an apple, which he was slowly rolling between his fingers with a lax manner characteristic of those who linger only to keep busy after they have had their fill, all of them had changed the position of their chairs; they had more or less withdrawn from the table. The last plates full of apples and orange peels, left forgotten until the arrival of the coffee, stood next to the wine glasses, the red dregs of which were visible at the bottom; The tobacco smoke billowing from the edge of the table wavered for a while, forming a swirling cloud around the lamp, then dissipated; the shadows of high plates of food, goblets, a fez left there, mingling with the wine stains on the white cloth, grew smaller and larger under the playful glow of the lamp… There’s an overturned salt shaker… Over there, an ehram that someone had tried to form out of three forks out of boredom… loincloths left on the plates or beside the bottles… a glass that had fallen and was too lazy to be picked up… a chaos that covered the table from top to bottom, as if a table laid out like a cluster of melancholy debris, exhausted from the attack of seven powerful jaws…”

Tired, weary, disorganized from the very beginning… Could there be a better symbol to represent Ahmet Cemil’s life full of disappointment? I would also like to mention and recommend a book that examines the table in Turkish novels under three main headings in the context of individual, social and cultural indicators; Nihan Abir’s “Table in the Turkish Novel from Siniden Masaya”.

We will continue to discuss the field of gastronomy with its different dimensions; flavors and tables, sometimes through their unique elements and sometimes through their relations with different disciplines, for now, let’s each of us take a journey to the flavors of our own childhood, let’s pay attention to what and how the tables we set tell us, what they take from today to tomorrow…

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