The Sweet Smell of Madeleine

I usually don’t go to concerts but this time the piano player was the wife of a friend, so I decided to attend her concert at the Italian House in New York, a beautiful mansion on the West side of 12th street in Manhattan. This is an area where several famous writers and artists lived, and some of them live even now.

We were waiting for the concert to start when we were informed that there would be a delay because the master of ceremonies hadn’t yet arrived. I was sitting next to a middle-aged woman called Irina. She was in her middle sixties and was busy exchanging text messages with a friend. While we waited, we exchanged a few words. She told me that she was from Ukraine, and had been living in New York for several decades.

I told her that I recently had cooked a well-known stew from Ukraine called Zharkoe from a recipe given by a friend. The stew is made with meat and vegetables as the main ingredients. She asked me how I had prepared it and when I finished telling her she said laughing, “Perhaps I should marry you since you know how to cook.” I didn’t tell her that my wife, who had arrived earlier than me, was seated a few rows behind us and was watching our exchange with some curiosity.

She told me that her husband Oleg, who was also from Ukraine, had died recently, and that one of his favorite dishes was Zharkoe. They had met at a party and quickly found many interests in common, the main one being good food. Later on, Oleg invited her to sleep at his house.

Next morning she was awakened by a wonderful smell that she associated with Madeleines coming from the kitchen. She was overjoyed, because Madeleines brought her many happy memories, being her favorite Sunday breakfast food. Her mother, who was a Francophile, had lived many years in France as an au pair and was an expert in preparing these cakes, made with flour, eggs, butter, almonds, and sugar. Irina’s mother usually cooked them for her children as a special Sunday treat.

Irina recalled how, when remembering those times, she thought about the most famous remembrance of Madeleines, that of Marcel Proust. In his book, In Search of Lost Time, Proust wrote: “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. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … 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. And all from my cup of tea.”

Irina approached the kitchen with a great sense of anticipation, was hoping that the wonderful smell would meet her expectation. In a way it did. When she opened the door to the kitchen she saw Oleg taking a pan out of the oven. It was full of Madeleines. But she also saw Oleg, wonderful Oleg, carefully scrapping them because they were all burnt.

“I should have taken that as an omen,” she told me, “and never married him. But, you see, some women prefer to meet not a perfect, but an imperfect man, and I am one of the latter. Two weeks later we were married and had 27 marvelous years of life together. And I don’t regret any second of it.” As the concert was going to start, Irina whispered to me, “After we got married, every time my dear Oleg made Madeleines, they came out perfect.”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”